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What’s the Secret Technique for Hand Painted Italian Ceramics?

Italian ceramic artist
The intricate designs of hand painted Italian ceramics take hours of work that can be ruined with a single misplaced brush stroke. Whenever I visit ceramic artists in Italy, I always take some time to just watch the master painters at work; it’s simply mesmerizing. So how do they do it?

Painting is the fourth step in majolica’s five-step process (after shaping, the first firing, and dip glazing the piece in a white, fast-drying mineral oxide glaze). No matter how intricate the design, all this hand-painting is done freehand. That’s right: No pattern, no tracing. There is usually a pattern or example for the artist to follow, particularly for traditional patterns. But some artists have been painting the patterns all their lives and don’t even need an example to follow.

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One major challenge of hand painted Italian ceramics is the medium itself. The glazes are all soft, white-ish pastels that change into deep vibrant colors after firing. Shades can be difficult to distinguish, so an artist needs to keep track of what color goes where. Look at the incredible number of colors highly-detailed Italian ceramics require; this is definitely a task that requires lots of practice and a systematic approach.

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Often an artist will do a number of pieces with the same design at once, allowing them to get into a groove of lemons or roosters or flowers (see photo above of Gabrielle the head painter at Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia). But since glaze color and depth vary where brush strokes overlap, no two pieces will ever be exactly alike. (Thank goodness!)

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The istoriato style, made popular in the Renaissance, is an extreme example of how detailed hand painted Italian ceramics can be. These ceramics look like paintings and literally tell a story (like on the Harlequin Plate above). The level of detail continues in the Deruta region, where Italian hand painted ceramics are characterized by intricate, jewel-like designs (like the stacked Raffaellesco plates below). I can only imagine how long it takes an artist to get all those colors and details exactly right!

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So I guess the secret of hand painted Italian ceramics isn’t really a secret after all. Instead it takes dedication, practice, and plenty of repetition to bring these beautiful, functional works of art to life. And looking at the results, I’m certainly glad there are still artists who continue this tradition so that we can enjoy these Italian ceramics today and well into the future.

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French Ceramics from Kiln to Table

Provence countryside France

Farm to table dining showcases the best tastes of the season, whether vine-ripe tomatoes or hearty greens. But in Provence, farm to table doesn’t just apply to food – just look at French ceramics! Rustic plates and dishware perfectly match local flavors, combining effortless French chic with a homegrown vibe.

Take Richard Esteban‘s tableware sets. His plates and bowls are a playful mix of motifs and patterns. Stripes, polka dots, animals, even race cars! I fell in love with these plates and bowls when dining with Richard and his family in France. Their outdoor table is typical; al fresco dining is de rigueur for the area when the weather is warm enough. I particularly loved the roaring outdoor fire and the sprawling tree that kept the table shady and cool on even the hottest days.

Outdoor dining at Aigues-Vives Provence

Richard Esteban plates and bowls

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Like his farmer neighbors, Richard works with the land – though in his case, he harvests clay, not vegetables. This rich red clay body only shows on the bottom of his plates and bowls, though it’s the shining star of his new wine bottle holder. The vibrant mineral glazes also embody Richard and his team’s “kiln to table” philosophy, resulting in natural tones that are the perfect compliment to Provence’s rich, green countryside. The butter yellow base color for most of his plates makes these French ceramics easy to mix and match. Stack stripes with polka dots or mottos like vive le bon vin (long live good wine); the results are just as relaxed as Richard’s home and studio.

Richard Esteban pottery

Arnaud makes French ceramics

The rustic elegance of Richard Esteban’s French ceramics holds a certain je ne sais quoi that I think is uniquely French. Mix and match some decorative dinner plates, pour a bottle of wine in to a pitcher, slice up a baguette – see, you’re almost there yourself! Now enjoy a delicious meal, lingering to chat long after the food is finished for your very own Provence-inspired moment. Bon appétit!

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Loving Sylvie Duriez!

I recently sent out a newsletter (what?! you don’t get our newsletter? Sign up here) entitled: “Unique is French for Awesome.” It was all about our most popular French artist Sylvie Duriez and her one-of-a-kind, totally original and totally awesome ceramic artwork. It’s difficult to describe Sylvie’s work… and nearly impossible to truly impart its beauty through online photos. You just have to see it to believe it.

Sylvie Duriez Collection
(While the new Sylvie Collection just arrived, I picked all these pieces out while visiting Sylvie back in June. If you want to learn more about Sylvie, here’s her bio: Sylvie Duriez — Or you can read the post from my last visit to her studio in Pertuis, France.)

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Sylvie throws each piece by hand, sticking to pretty basic shapes: tall cylindrical pitchers, little pitchers, bowls of various size and shape, and plates. The magic really happens after she’s fired these pieces and begins to decorate them. Sylvie dips each piece in a cream colored base glaze and then uses a fine needle to draw the outline of her subjects (birds, flowers, dogs, cats, bunnies, girls, and occasionally mice). This creates a cool effect by exposing the terracotta below the base glaze. She then uses subtle, yet beautiful glazes to paint within those lines (and often outside the lines as well) to bring her subjects to life.

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Her paintings are much like watercolors, they consist of only a few brushstrokes, delicately applied and sometimes smeared, but they come together to convey huge emotion and personality. Regardless of their color or size, her dogs, cats, birds, and people spring to life. Even the flowers jump off their ceramic canvas and become animated… so real you can almost touch and smell them.
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And that’s truly what I love best about Sylvie’s work — the plates don’t require a perfectly arranged meal… the pitchers don’t require the perfect bouquet of flowers… and the bowls certainly don’t require a beautifully-tossed salad. Each piece makes it’s own statement, all on its own. Regardless of whether it is displayed on a shelf or set on a table, used for food, full of flowers, or left empty, the piece itself is the art and it imparts beauty all day long, everyday. I guess I could say the same about each piece in the Emilia Ceramics collection. After all, I choose each one individually because it inspires me and I believe it will bring joy and beauty to the home where it ends up. They are all handmade lovingly to be used and enjoyed… but mostly enjoyed. Sylvie Duriez, however, really ups the anty. Her pieces are true works of art. Each one an individual. Each one conveying its own unique story with its own unique personality and beauty. And that’s why ‘unique is French for awesome!’

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French Ceramics: Patrice Voelkel vs Richard Esteban Pottery

The ceramics of Provence are just as varied as the people who make them. Take Patrice Voelkel and Richard Esteban. Both make incredible French pottery with rustic charm, yet they have very different aesthetics which results in extremely different ceramics. For all the fans of French pottery out there, here’s a quick overview of how these two talented artists measure up and what sets them apart from the rest.

richard esteban potteryPatrice Voelkel

Clay types: Patrice Voelkel uses local black clay for the majority of his pieces, resulting in ceramics that have a bit more heft. The dark clay body also makes for colors that are more deep and rich than bright. Richard Esteban pottery uses the rich red clay of Provence, which causes his glazes to pop, particularly the yellows.

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Color palette: Speaking of color, these French artists both rely on a consistent set of colors. Richard favors a wider range, with ceramics in rich reds, yellows, greens, and blues. He loves polka dots and textured patterns. Patrice, on the other hand, loves indigo and all its many variations. Every time I visit his studio Patrice is wearing blue, leading me to think that he just loves the color. His chalk white dishes and deep cranberry pieces are notable exceptions. All of his glazes have a remarkable liquid quality to them.

pitchers by Richard EstebanProduction volume: Perhaps the biggest difference between Patrice and Richard’s pottery is the number of pieces they produce. Most of Patrice’s ceramics are one of a kind, making them unique works of art. Every time I visit I’m always surprised by something new, though he does make multiples of some favorites like his indigo pitcher and mix and pour bowl. The majority of Richard’s ceramics are replicated, which means that I have plenty of polka dot bowls and platters for all his fans. He also has some one of a kind pieces, notably his green fish canister and most of his lamps.

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Studio size and creative team: Both work in gorgeous surroundings; I don’t think it gets much more picturesque than the French countryside. Patrice works with his wife Sylviane at Poterie Herbes Folles, accompanied by their faithful dog named Tina Turner. Richard opened Poterie d’Aigues-Vives after working with a few different traditional studios. His studio is also part of his home, though he has the talented Arnaud and Katia as part of his team. I’m constantly amazed at how many gorgeous ceramics both these studios produce, particularly since every step is done by hand.

Patrice and Sylviana Voelkel potteryWhat do you love about French ceramics? Are there pieces you’d like to see more of? Do you have a preference for Patrice Voelkel or Richard Esteban pottery? Let us know with a comment below.

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Capelo Pottery, a Unique Take on Mexican Ceramics

Capelo's studio and countryside

Capelo’s dedication to Mexico ceramics makes him stand out from other traditional artists. Not only is Capelo himself a talented, multi-faceted artist (he also is an architect, oil painter, and mixed-media sculptor), his dedication to keeping things natural makes his ceramics practically luminescent. His studio is one of the smaller ones in the Emilia Ceramics collection but the ceramics definitely make a big statement. Capelo potterySo just how does Capelo and his small team of artists create the unique Mexico ceramics that have made them famous?

One major factor I think is the land itself. Capelo’s home is high on a hill outside Guanajuato, Mexico, which gives him an incredible panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. His almost daily horseback rides and constant contact with such beauty comes through in his work with the colors and shadings of his ceramics. True artists, Capelo and his team take their environment and make it portable through their pottery.

Capelo’s ingenuity is also reflected in the unique shapes he creates. Pitchers with unexpected cutaway tops, fluted bowls, delicately pulled handles, and a willingness to play with scale truly set these Mexico ceramics apart. I couldn’t resist Capelo’s massive serving dishes on my last buying trip—I fell in love with the rounded square serving dish and all its possible uses. The same goes for the fluted serving bowls and smaller plates with kaleidoscope-like designs.

Capelo pitcher

square serving dishCapelo plates

Although Capelo pottery experiments with shapes, there are two things that never change: the use of local clay and natural glazes. Capelo says that his glazes are different because they don’t contain additives like many modern glazes do, using only natural ingredients. Of course, this doesn’t limit his use of color. His Mexico ceramics are rich with deep blue, dreamy green, burnt orange-red, and soft yellow. The resulting majolica is a softer, more subtle Mexican ceramics, almost glowing from within. Add to all this the fact that all of Capelo’s ceramics are one of a kind pieces and you have a recipe for an artist who definitely stands out from the rest.

Capelo fluted footed bowl

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Majolica Madness in Deruta!!

drive_to_derutaAfter a few days in Florence, I was excited to get back to the country. It has been 5 years since I was in Italy last and I had forgotten just how beautiful Tuscany truly is! Especially this time of year — rolling green hills, red poppies everywhere, and little hill towns around every bend in the road. I spent 2 nights in beautiful Montepulciano and then headed even farther south, to the equally beautiful region of Umbria. orvieto_2The most visible difference between Umbria and Tuscany seems to be slightly steeper hills in Umbria… and a different name for the delicious local wine served at restaurants. I was staying in Orvieto, a town known best for its cathedral, its ceramics, and its Classico wine. I was of course there for the ceramics, but I also enjoyed time spent gazing at the cathedral and drinking the Classico.

But back to the real reason I was in Umbria: a visit to Deruta, a small town with a big ceramics industry. There are actually two parts of Deruta: the small old town up on the hill, which is quaint and full of ceramic stores, and the larger “new” area down below, which is a little faster-paced, but also full of ceramic stores (as well as workshops and showrooms). I started my day in the old section, enjoyed a cappuccino on the main square and then strolled around, doing a little window shopping to whet my appetite. Then I ventured down into the more modern town, where I went looking for old acquaintances and new ceramics for the Emilia Ceramics collection.majoliche

My first stop was visiting my uncle’s good friends Silvana and Marcello who have a small ceramics business at the outskirts of town. I interrupted Silvana in the midst of her work and explained in my best Italian: il zio mio e Gifford (my uncle is Gifford), which was all the introduction I needed. We had a fun catch-up session (which was repeated when Marcello arrived a few minutes later) in which I spoke my few words of Italian mixed with much more Spanish and they spoke Italian quickly with lots of hand gesturing to try to make me understand. In the end, Silvana suggested that I go visit a ceramics shop in town that I hadn’t heard of before. She offered to take me and introduce me to the nice people who worked there.

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And that’s how I ended up at Ceramiche Gialletti Giulio, a beautiful shop packed with vases, lamps, plates, clocks, and lots of fun smaller pieces like salt & pepper grinders and oil & vinegar dispensers. I got the royal treatment from Michele—including a tour and explanation of the process (all in amazing English)—and found some great pieces. I am most excited about the colorful, yet sophisticated table settings I am hoping to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection!

My next stop was right nearby — I was meeting with Gerardo Ribigini whose shop Geribi (which I just realized is a combination of his first and last name : ) I visited 5 years ago. I spent quite a while walking around, looking at his beautifully painted pieces and asking about different patterns, styles, shapes, and designs. I’m definitely looking forward to adding some of his skilled work to the collection as well.

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womenThe final place I went in Deruta was another special visit suggested by my uncle Gifford. Over the years that he’s been visiting Deruta, he has befriended Carmen Monotti, an exceptional artist who creates various types of ceramic artwork. My favorites are her recreations of Klimt paintings (on vases, wall-hangings and necklace pendants — photo on the right)… And the tiles she paints, upon request, for the nearby church, La Chiesa Madonna dei Bagni (photo below). When “miracles” happen in peoples’ lives miracles_1(anything from surviving a car crash to having a healthy baby), those touched by the event commission Carmen to make a tile (in Italian called an ex voto) depicting the scene. The ex voto is hung in the church. I LOVE these tiles — there’s something about their soft colors and simplicity that is so charming.

I had a great time hanging out with Carmen, joking about my uncle, discussing my business, and looking at her artwork. On the way out of town I stopped at La Chiesa Madonna dei Bagni. It is a small church, with simple white walls that make the perfect backdrop for the tiles covering every wall. I would have taken more pictures, but my camera had run out of batteries after the long day filled with so many photogenic subjects! Below you’ll see one of Carmen’s most recent tiles that is hung in the church, followed by an older one done by another artist.

I’m off to the Amalfi Coast now for the final leg of my Italian adventure. I’m going to visit Vietri Sul Mare, another ceramic-centric town, where the well-known Ceramica Solimene is located. I’ll keep you posted!

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La Dolce Vita

florence1After a long day of train rides, I made it from Nice (where I dropped off my rental car) to Florence. It was actually a longer journey than I had envisioned (in the past, I’ve always stopped along the way) and I arrived starving. About halfway to Florence, I had decided I was going to wait to eat until I could eat real Italian food… so I checked into my hotel, splashed some water on my face, and headed to the nearest trattoria. It was worth it! The fresh tagliatelle al funghi was delicious and the “house red” tasted as good as any wine I’ve had in a long time.

The next day I woke up early and headed back to the train station for the 20 minute ride to Montelupo Fiorentino. Montelupo is famous for its majolica because of the town’s location on the old Roman road that brought Moorish traders (and their ceramic wares) from Spain to Florence. During the Renaissance, artisans in Montelupo began elaborating on the ceramic designs, adding realistic imagery and brighter colors, transforming them into the high art form we know today.

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While there are many ceramic artists in Montelupo, I am pretty confident Emilia Ceramics buys from the two best! My first visit was to Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia. Co-owner (and grandson of Tuscia’s founder) David met me at the small train station and we drove to Tuscia. new_piecesWe found Gabriele (the head-painter and other co-owner) working and telling jokes to three other painters. They greeted me — most remembering my first visit 5 years ago — and were very nice when I wanted to take lots of photos while they worked.

As I’ve described before, Tuscia is located in a 2 story brick building, filled with ceramic artwork. Each shelf in each room is stacked with plates, bowls, canisters, and pitchers that look like they belong in a museum.

I selected a number of new pieces to add to the order I had already placed with Tuscia and had an espresso with David — who was expecting a new baby girl at any moment! Then David drove me to Ceramiche Bartoloni, which is in a more industrial part of town. We were greeted by Patrizio and Lucia Bartoloni. Lucia is Patrizio’s wife and helps run the business along with Patrizio’s brother Stefano and his wife. The four of them do almost everything themselves, only hiring extra painters when needed. Lucia speaks some English, so she talked with me about the recent order I had placed and showed me all the new designs and patterns.

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blogOf course, the limoni and rooster patterns are my Bartoloni faves… but there were a few new patterns that jumped out at me. So I added some new styles as well as some more sizes of bowls to my order (expect some great new salad and pasta bowls from Ceramiche Bartoloni). Patrizio was very busy and had to leave soon to pick his son up at school, but he gave me a double-cheek kiss and posed for a picture before he ran out the door. Then Lucia drove me back to the train station and I spent the 20 minute ride back to Florence trying to digest all the beautiful artwork I had just seen.

The next day, after another awesome pasta dinner and a few gelatos, I went to visit Daniela’s ceramic shop in downtown Florence: La Botteghina del Ceramista. Daniella is a good friend of my uncle Gifford (who is also responsible for introducing me to the ceramics from Tuscia and Bartoloni). I visited Daniella’s shop on my first trip to Florence, before I even knew I was going to start a ceramics-importing business. I fell in love with her collection though, which includes ceramics from the Bartoloni brothers, among other great Italian artists. On my first visit I bought the Square Blu Limoni Platter from Daniella and gave it to my brother as a wedding gift.

I’ve been back a few times since and been able to share with Daniella the progress of my growing business. As always, she was very helpful in pointing out new pieces and best sellers, telling me where they were from, and giving me contact names and numbers. It was great to visit with Daniella and watch her in her element, surrounded by the beautiful Italian majolica, sharing it with tourists and local Italians alike. It reminded me what a great job I have!

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French Finale: Colorful Ceramics at Poterie Ravel

outsideFrom Sylvie’s workshop in Pertuis it is about a 45 minute drive south to Aubagne, where Poterie Ravel is located. Once again I was helped in my navigation by friendly little Poterie Ravel signs located at almost every turn throughout the city.

As you may remember from my previous visits, Poterie Ravel is most well-known for its large terracotta pots, which it sells to premier hotels and shopping centers around France. When you arrive at Poterie Ravel, you are greeted by lots of these sophisticated pots, displayed perfectly amidst colorful patio furniture. The old stone building covered with ivy is where this family run business has been making ceramics since 1837.

Of course they also make smaller items – like the pitchers, platters, bowls, and vases we sell at Emilia Ceramics. It is inside the old stone building that you encounter room after room of inviting and perfectly displayed ceramics in bright, festive, stylish colors. There is a warm hum from the kilns (running almost all the time) and lots of friendly workers greeting you and wanting to help. Similarly to Richard Esteban’s showroom, this is a place I could call home! On this particular visit, I spent about an hour wandering from room to room, enjoying the displays and taking lots of pictures. Finally, I picked out a number of my favorite pitchers and planting pots in bright yellow and teal green (apparently, the colors of the season).

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I was helped by this super friendly young man (above) – I can’t remember his name, sadly. He spoke some English and seemed impressed that I was from California and that I knew to come to Poterie Ravel. He said he had only been working there for a few weeks (during his school break) and that I was the first American he had met. He said it like I was a movie star, which of course made my day!

With Poterie Ravel checked off my list, I’ve completed my French shopping list… so it’s time to head to Italy! Next stop Montelupo Fiorentino, where I’ll visit Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia and Ceramiche Bartoloni. I’m really looking forward to both… not to mention all the pasta, cappuccinos, and gelato I’ll be enjoying!

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Update on Sylvie Duriez

IMG_2233I spoke with Sylvie about a week ago, before I left home. She had never responded to my email letting her know when I’d be in France, so I was a little concerned she’d be out of town. However, she assured me over the phone that she would be there and would be expecting me. In her quiet, tentative English she added, “but I do not have much.”

This made me a little nervous. You see, among Emilia Ceramics customers there are a lot of Sylvie Duriez fans. People email and call me asking when I’m getting more of Sylvie’s ceramics. Plus, I’m a Sylvie Duriez fan and I suddenly realized I haven’t kept any of her work for myself! All of a sudden I was really worried… What if there’s nothing to buy? None of the favorite subjects we’ve all come to cherish: Whimsical women sitting under trees or staring thoughtfully out windows; Plump pink birds frolicking in fruit trees; Cats and dogs lazily laying on sofas; Bright bouquets of iris and red poppies. What will I do then?!street_corner

Well, you can all relax… After all, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if I didn’t have good news to share about Sylvie and her beautiful ceramics!

After my stay in St. Rémy-de-Provence (and my visit with Richard Esteban), I moved on to Aix-en-Provence. Aix is a bustling university town, which actually reminds me a lot of Sevilla, Spain (where I lived a while back). Both cities seem to be in constant party-mode. The shopping streets in Aix are always teaming with beautiful, well-dressed people, and the cafés and bars are full morning, noon, and night with friends catching up over espresso, rosé or campari. Fresh fruit, vegetable, and flower markets also seem to be everywhere… everyday of the week. Needless to say, Aix is always a fun place to “have” to go : ).

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As much as I’ve come to love it, one of my favorite things about Aix is leaving it to drive the 20 minutes to Pertuis, the little town where Sylvie lives and works. It’s always a bit stressful getting out of Aix (small, one-way streets and lots of roundabouts), but then you’re suddenly out in the country, passing through grassy fields with rolling hills in the distance. This time, it was even more green and beautiful than I remembered. I’ve been to visit Sylvie at her home 3 times now, so it was easy to find. I love her house/studio… so picturesque: 48 Rue du Moulin à Huile!

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Sylvie was the same as I remember her from my previous visits — quiet and soft-spoken, yet very warm. She is much more comfortable speaking English in person than on the phone (which is totally understandable) and quickly opened up about her new plans to move her studio away from her home and experiment with new techniques. She is especially excited about the idea of working with porcelain, which will require a new kiln and different supplies.

To my relief, Sylvie had a lot of beautiful work for me to choose from. Her hesitation on the phone was mostly because she’s not sure if she’s going to continue to make the type of decorative bowls, plates, and pitchers we all know and love. As I’ve explained before, Sylvie Duriez is a true artist, striving to create original artwork. She isn’t concerned with what will sell — she wants to follow her passion. As sad as it makes me that she may not always produce the pieces I have grown so fond of, I do understand. She is so talented and it wouldn’t be the same if she was producing on command.

IMG_2228I assured Sylvie of my support for her artistic decisions and told her I’d be excited to see whatever projects she comes up with next.  Then I went to work picking out all my favorites from her current collection. As usual she acted amazed by the number of pitchers, bowls, and plates I was selecting —  but this time she didn’t complain that she’d “have so much work to do when I left” as she has said in the past. I think she was genuinely relieved to make space in her life (and on her shelves) for what’s to come. And I was more than happy to help!

I’m thrilled with the assortment of Sylvie Duriez pieces I selected to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection — as always each is completely one-of-a-kind and packed full of personality. I feel confident that none of the Sylvie fans out there will be disappointed!

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Poterie Aigues-Vives: Another Great Visit with Richard Esteban

Well, I made it to Provence! It was a long trip, but well worth it… I checked into my new favorite hotel in St. Rémy-de-Provence and took an immediate dip in the refreshing (by which I mean freezing) swimming pool. I had the rest of the day for some much needed r and r, which helped prepare me for the long day to come, full of driving (and getting lost), shopping (mostly for ceramics), and continuously failing to be understood in French! (It doesn’t matter how much I study the “pronounced as” portion of my French translation book, I seem incapable of saying words correctly! I do have merci and parfait down pretty well though, which goes a long way in relaxed Provence.)

poterieThe plan for the day was to head to Aigues-Vives, a little town in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France where I have now visited Richard Esteban four times! After all those visits, I now know that as long as I can get near the town, I can find Richard. That’s because there are “poterie” signs helpfully displayed throughout town directing you to his home/workshop (like in the photo here). You see, Aigues-Vives is mostly on the map because of Richard Esteban’s ceramic work. It is a lovely little town, but I’m not sure anyone would visit unless they had heard of the polka-dot, stripe, and songbird designs painted there… or the charismatic artist himself.IMG_2146

When I arrived yesterday it was quieter than in the past, with just Richard and his right-hand-woman Katia manning the shop. They greeted me enthusiastically, asked about my business and my friend Jessica, who came with me last time I visited. I recently placed a big order with Richard, complete with all the polka-dot mugs, pitchers, and plates that have recently sold out at Emilia Ceramics. I knew immediately though that I’d be adding to that order while visiting the shop in person. That’ll give Richard some more euros to put in his custom-made piggy bank, as he is demonstrating in the funny photo on the right (with Katia)!

I’ve described before how Richard’s shop is like my personal heaven on earth. So many beautiful works of art — from giant statues of birds and soldiers, to small plates proclaiming Vive l’Amour. Each piece is original, whether in the shade of its rustic glaze or in its hand-molded design and shape. There is so much to see and be amazed by. Add to that the ambiance created by open doors and windows to let the warm breeze through, songbirds chirping in their cages, and pet dogs lazily strolling around or sleeping in the shade.

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Richard was the same outgoing character as in the past — At the end of the afternoon he mustered up his best English and asked “You want drink wine?” Of course I did… but I passed as I was already feeling my jet-lag kick in and needed to drive another couple of hours. It’s a good thing I said no, as the signs leading away from his “poterie” are not quite as clear as those getting there. My early success had given me too much confidence in my directional skills and I proceeded to get very lost on my way back to St. Rémy.  Luckily, that’s what I’ve come to expect on these trips. What’s an adventure in Provence without a little time spent circling roundabouts until you feel dizzy?! I had a great first day in France and I can’t wait for all that’s to come. Tomorrow I go see Sylvie and Poterie Ravel. And next week, andiamo a Italia! I can’t wait — I have high hopes that my Italian pronunciations will be much better! Honestly, they couldn’t get any worse : ).

 

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Off to France and Italy! What French and Italian Ceramics Will I Find?

TuscanyAs some of you already know, I’ve just gotten to France for the first leg of my June buying trip. Visiting Richard’s studio was stunning, as always, and I’ll write about all that I did there soon. But though I’m excited to be reconnecting with my French artists, I’m particularly looking forward to Italy since it’s been a few years since I’ve visited in person. I’ve done some research on things like Deruta patterns, Vietri dinnerware, and other types of Italian majolica pottery, but there’s really no substitute for actually being “on the ground” where these Italian ceramics are made.

There are three centers of Italian ceramics: Faenza, Deruta, and Montelupo Fiorentino. All three of these areas have access to the raw materials necessary for Italian majolica pottery as well as to major trade routes necessary for success in the Renaissance, making them ceramic centers for hundreds of years. Both Ceramiche Bartoloni and Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia are in the Montelupo Fiorentino region, and I cannot get enough of their intricately hand painted dinner plates, servingware, mugs, and other Italian ceramics. Both studios are home to incredibly talented Italian ceramic artists and it’s always exciting to see the new ways they combine traditional and modern elements to create unique, personal ceramics.Italian ceramic platterhand painted Italian platter

But what about Italian earthenware or Italian pots? Vietri ceramics or Tuscan style dinnerware?Italian pots These Italian ceramics, along with the famous Deruta, are what I’m hoping to find. I have some leads on some studios that practice traditional methods with everything made by hand and hope to unearth some new gems to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection. I love the geometric shapes that make up Deruta patterns, resulting in breath-taking plates, bowls, and platters. And with all the possibilities for rustic Tuscan style dinnerware, I’m sure to find pieces that fit in with my existing collection. New artists are always a thrill and I can’t wait to start exploring.

Have any suggestions for Italian ceramics I should go after? Know of any artists that would be a good fit for the Emilia Ceramics collection? Leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do!

 

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Behind the Scenes: Capelo’s One of a Kind Mexican Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.Capelo

Whenever I visit Capelo’s studio and home on a hillside above Guanajuato, Mexico, I’m always struck by the beauty of the landscape. The rolling mountains with their winding roads are stunning. Capelo himself definitely appreciates the beautiful setting — he goes for almost daily horseback rides through the mountains to relax and enjoy!

hillsides around Guanajuato, Mexico

Capelo Capelo’s one of a kind ceramics are similarly stunning. They possess an unexpected, organic, and completely touchable quality that really sets them apart from other handmade ceramics. Capelo’s studio is one of the smaller ones that I work with at Emilia Ceramics, with only a handful of artists working alongside Capelo himself to create and paint these beautiful Mexican ceramics. Capelo is also a highly regarded architect and teaches classes at the University of Guanajuato, manages the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and executes special commissions. On my visit last June he showed me the gold “key to Guanajuato” he made to present to the Pope. Capelo excels at oil painting and mixed-media sculpture; he is a true artist — always creating something new and exciting.

One of the most striking parts of Capelo’s ceramics is their unusual shape. He makes something as simple as a bowl or vase seem completely new with curves which are accentuated by the gorgeous hand-painting on each piece.

Capelo insists on using only natural glazes, which give his Mexican ceramics a truly special touchable quality. Like Sylvie Durez, all his ceramics are one of a kind, painted in a recognizable range of signature colors. I always have a hard time choosing pieces from all the gorgeous possibilities available and am sad to see them go (but, of course, glad when they find happy homes). The last buying trip yielded striking statement vases, a collection of serving bowls and planters, massive pitchers, and a set of plates that remind me of an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Just like the landscape around the studio, Capelo’s ceramics is a small slice of Mexico that is hard to forget. I can’t wait for my next trip since I’m sure to find a whole new range of Mexican ceramics to fall in love with and share with all of you.

Capelo statement vase

footed serving bowllittle blue plateCapelo Mexican ceramics

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The Staying Power of Fine Italian Ceramics, Past and Present

Fine Italian ceramics are nothing new. Dating back to the Middle Ages and beginning to flourish in the 1400s, the ceramic centers of Italy have been producing incredibly detailed ceramics for literally hundreds of years. I recently came across a little book discussing Italian and other European ceramics throughout history – Maiolica, Delft and Faïence by Giuseppe Scavizzi – and wanted to share some of its beautiful images with you. Just look at the inside of this “loving cup” from circa 1500 Faenza, used to celebrate engagements or as a gift for a beloved:

fine Italian ceramic loving cup

The detailed likeness is strikingly similar to work by Tuscia d’Arte, such as this Italian canister.

Italian canister

Another timeless piece is this plate of a solider from circa 1630:

Italian soldier plate

He looks so jaunty, reminding me of this contemporary Italian ceramic plate with a drummer at its center.

Italian ceramic plate

Italian ceramicsOne of the amazing things about hand painted Italian pottery is that patterns and techniques have been passed down through generations. Artists today hand paint using the same process as those centuries ago, following traditional patterns as well as adding some contemporary touches. Historically important areas for Italian ceramics have stayed pretty constant throughout the years, many of them in the center of Italy. One is Montelupo Fiorentino, outside of Florence in Tuscany. It’s where I get the fine Italian ceramics for the Emilia Ceramics collection. In a few months I plan to travel to Italy to visit both Tuscia d’Arte and Ceramiche Bartoloni as well as some potential new artists; I can’t wait!

Other famous centers are Deruta, Siena, and Vietri, examples of which are easy to find at Biordi Art Imports, also here in San Francisco. Biordi has a huge selection of typical Italian patterns that go back to the Renaissance; their walls are stuffed with dinnerware, decorative pieces, and exquisite tiles. If you find yourself in North Beach and want to see some Italian ceramics in San Francisco, check Biordi out.

No matter where hand painted Italian pottery comes from, I love how it connects to the artists that create it. Fine Italian ceramics are usually hand signed, a fitting recognition of all the time it takes to paint as well as form these pieces of art. Italian canisters, Italian utensil holders, or dinnerware pieces, these are all ceramics rich in history and tradition that make it easy to bring Italy to your home.Italian hand paintingWhat are your favorite fine Italian ceramics? Any recommendations for places in Italy I should visit this coming summer? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Behind the Scenes: Patrice Voelkel’s French Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

Patrice Voelkel

I learned about Patrice Voelkel from a book on French ceramic artists that Sylvie Duriez loaned me many years ago. Since Patrice lived near where I was staying in St. Remy, I decided to check out his studio one rainy spring day. Thankfully it was clearly marked and easy to find – the French ceramics that covered the shelves are truly unique and unlike anything else in the Emilia Ceramics collection.

rustic blue pitcher

Patrice works with his wife Sylviane to create French ceramics with a modern sensibility that are deeply grounded in tradition. They use local black clay and create everything from design to finished product between just the two of them. Their dog Tina Turner keeps them company in their studio, known as Poterie Herbes Folles, which I think is named after the area’s wild and crazy grass. Patrice has worked with ceramics for over 33 years; he started making French ceramics near Lyon and then moved to the countryside and started Herbes Folles.

French ceramics drying in the sun

Poterie Herbes FollesThe Voelkels glaze their pieces with a variety of liquid-like colors, but I especially love their marbled blue and celadon pieces, as well as those in a contemporary chalk white. (Patrice himself seems to love blue – every time I visit the workshop he’s wearing some kind of blue shirt!) Patrice and Sylviane’s French ceramics are often large, heavy, and make a serious statement. The rustic grittiness truly reflects the little farmhouse and workshop where they are made. On my last visit, I saw pieces drying in the afternoon sun while Patrice worked on the wheel and Sylviane prepared ceramics for their final firing.

Patrice at work on French ceramics

I now have some new French ceramics by Patrice and Sylviane on the website. The one of a kind serving platter, rustic pitchers, and olive oil pitcher all in a rich indigo are ideal for bringing a bit of Provence to your home.

rustic blue platter

From spoon rests to prep bowls to serving platters, these French ceramics are stunning additions for any collection, reflecting so much of the people who made them with care and love. After working with Patrice for so long, I’m very happy I decided to take a detour in the rain all those springs ago.

white serving platter

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Behind the Scenes: French Ceramics at Poterie Ravel

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

The most recent addition to the Emilia Ceramics collection, Poterie Ravel has been around since 1837. A fifth-generation family-run business, this French ceramics studio was founded in Aubugne, France, and made tiles and other terracotta products for the home. When Gilbert Ravel took over the studio from his father in 1935, he changed the direction of the company to make planters that had more modern designs. The focus moved to high-end interior and landscape designers; the result is a world-class workshop full of ceramic artists that handle 8 tons of product a day, most of it creating their famous large-scale pots. The next time you see a giant terracotta planter at a major hotel, airport, or other public place, look and see if you can find the Poterie Ravel logo – chances are you’ll find one.

Today two sisters, Marion and Julie Ravel, run Poterie Ravel. Their ceramics are definitely art, a process that begins with the clay itself, which is extracted from their own quarries. Small pots are thrown entirely by hand (including all the French ceramics in my collection), while the massive planters are molded by a ceramic artist using a plaster mold and a piece of wood. All the pieces big and small are finished by hand for a smooth surface and the terracotta pieces left unglazed. Other pieces, like the unique pitcher vases, platters, and serving bowls, are hand painted in vibrant natural glazes before being fired in one of their four gas ovens.

About 20 ceramic artists work at Poterie Ravel, including Etienne (pictured below) and Gil, who I met on my last buying trip to France.

One of my favorite parts about Ravel’s French ceramics is that every piece is stamped with the Ravel logo, date, and initials of the artist. After I had made my selections of these French ceramics, I found out that Etienne had made some of the platters, Gil some of the pitchers. I love how each piece tells a story; this kind of personal connection is definitely one of my favorite parts of working with local ceramic artists.

Poterie Ravel is one of the oldest ceramic studios in France, and the attention to detail is truly incredible. Anyone looking for centerpiece ideas needs look no further than one of their unique bowls or statement-making pitchers and vases. It took me four years to be able to offer their French ceramics as part of the Emilia Ceramics collection and I think it was certainly worth the wait!

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Ceramics Expert to Speak at The Shop!

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I started taking ceramics classes when I was in 3rd grade… learning to stack coils of clay together and then smooth the surface to build a vase. Soon after I was taught how to use a wheel and slowly form (usually lopsided) bowls. On my first solo trip to visit my uncle in Los Angeles (who is an artist and art professor at UC Irvine) I sculpted a miniature dog… I was pretty proud of myself! IMG_1238My mom, who’s now a fantastic oil painter (I sell her beautiful landscape oils in the Palo Alto Shop), always loved ceramics — she threw a clay tea set for my dolls when I turned 10. Later, I took ceramics in college, as a mental release from the reading and writing that often overwhelmed me. And when I moved to Spain after college, I took ceramics to make friends. I loved throwing bowls, plates, and cups as I listened to Spanish housewives gossip, gripe about their husbands, and worry about their children. Point is, long before I began importing ceramics, I loved creating it myself.

That, however, in no way means that I am an expert. When people ask me about firing temperatures, specifics on the clay composites, or why the glaze used by Gorky Gonzalez comes out looking different from that used by Richard Esteban, I really don’t know the answer. But, lucky for me, my uncle Gifford does! And this Saturday (as in TOMORROW), Gifford is going to be at the shop in Palo Alto to talk about the complex process of crafting and painting ceramics. He’s also going to talk about his experiences working with artists in Italy. Gifford introduced me to Ceramiche Bartoloni and Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia. He’s worked with both for the last 20 years. He’s especially close to the Bartoloni brothers (who he nicknamed the Blues Brothers).Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 6.12.24 PM

Since starting Emilia Ceramics, it’s been really fun for Gifford and I to share our similar experiences meeting, befriending and working with such fun, creative artists around the world. And I am so grateful to have Gifford as a resource to go to with my nitty-gritty ceramics questions. I really look forward to him seeing this year’s pop-up shop — which I think is our best yet — and getting to share his comedic stories and knowledge with my customers.

Hope you can make it!

11:30 Saturday, December 15th
At Emilia Ceramics — Town & Country Village, Suite 10. For more information, visit us online or call us at 650-257-0292.

Here’s a little more about my uncle:

Gifford Myers is an artist who works with ceramic as well as many different materials and techniques; fiberglass, aluminum, bronze, steel, wood and found objects. The research of Gifford Myers is a continuous development of ideas and new experiences, without convention, utilizing wide vision that goes beyond the rigidity of conventional rules and restrictions.

Myers transforms the reality that surrounds him through wit, a free spirit and a strong capacity for observation. He is continuing his research, a synthesis of new dimensions that express results that are never the same, never repetitive. His work is always something new, something explorative, surprising for its variety, freedom and imagination; from large works to small objects, a form of self-portrait from the imagination of a unique artist that both surprises and draws the viewer in through the strength of expressive ideas.

http://giffordmyers-artist.com/index2.htm

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Behind the Scenes: Gorky Gonzalez’s Mexican Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful handpainted ceramics come to life.

A visit to Gorky Gonzalez’s workshop in Guanajuato, Mexico is truly a feast for the senses. There’s color and creative genius everywhere you look, piled in ceramics both finished and in process. Considering the number of awards and international acclaim Gorky’s pottery has received, it’s no surprise that his development as a ceramic artist has international flavor as well.

An antique piece of Majolica pottery that Gorky found in the early 1960s inspired him to rescue this basically forgotten craft. After studying in Japan (where he met his wife Toshiko), he returned with a variety of techniques that have truly revitalized Mexican ceramics. The results blend past and present, creating Mexican ceramics that are unique and timeless.

Today Gorky Gonzalez and Toshiko’s son Gorky Jr. (known as Gogo) handles the daily responsibilities of the business, continuing the family tradition. On my most recent visit to Mexico this past June I was delighted to find all three members of the Gonzalez family hard at work with their dedicated team of artists. I visited with about six artists who were working on the wheel or painting these vibrant Mexican ceramics by hand. Whether dinner plates or mugs, each piece is treated with care through the multistep process that Majolica requires including multiple firings in the kiln.

With a workshop as large and bustling as this one it can seem like it might get old painting the same Mexican ceramics every day. However, there are always plenty of new pieces and designs being created as well as the continuation of old favorites. I talked with one artist who’s been painting Gorky pottery for nine years and still loves it. Each piece has a design guide that the artists follow, but they are encouraged to put their own individual stamp on it so in the end, no two pieces are ever exactly alike.

On this trip I was lucky enough to find some truly unique pieces to add to my Gorky pottery collection: dinner plates with the Catrina design (perfect for Dia de los Muertos), new creamers with owls and roosters, and even some fun new dip bowls. As Gorky pottery designs expand to include more traditional patterns as well as the modern Gogo collection, I’m always excited to share these amazing Mexican ceramics with you.

 

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Behind the Scenes: Richard Esteban’s French Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful handpainted ceramics come to life.

Unlike the traditional French ceramic atelier in Vallauris where Richard Esteban apprenticed at the age of 16, he now has no need for a cane when inspecting his employees work. The two old women owners at Foucard-Jourdan used their canes to crush ceramic pieces on the potters’ wheel that showed any sign of imperfection. Perhaps that’s where Richard learned his attention to detail and developed his appreciation for the slightly imperfect. I love the friendliness of his Aigues-Vives studio, with a tight team consisting of his two employees Arnaud and Katia, his wife Sylvie, and himself. The Esteban family also has three young children with whom I’ve shared several meals over the years, communicating in a mix of broken French and English.

I last visited Richard in September 2011 with my friend Jess acting as a translator. As has become a tradition, we didn’t just get to pick out beautiful French ceramics, but also enjoyed Richard’s incredible hospitality, staying in his guesthouse for the night. When we arrived, Arnaud (pictured above working at his wheel) asked us with a smile, “Vous voulez du cafe?” (Do you want some coffee?)

“Oui, merci, si ce n’est pas un problem” (Yes, please, if it’s not a problem.)

“Vous avez traverser la monde pour nous voire, je peux faire du cafe.” (You traversed the world to see us, we can at least make you coffee.)

This is definitely a place where humor is appreciated (and the coffee delicious, though we had it in espresso cups instead of the fun polka dot mugs they make).

Not only is Richard a wonderful artist, he’s also a great cook, and our evening spent in the backyard with all the Estebans and Katia was a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Friendly and playful qualities surround Richard, invoked by himself, his employees, and expressed through his work. His stunning ceramic serving platters, lively polka dot mugs and bowls, and unique vases are just a few examples of his creative take on the French ceramic tradition.

Richard’s methods stay true to the old ways of Provencial pottery. He uses the rich red local clay, every piece is hand-thrown, and he even uses an antique kiln for firing. His love of tradition can also be seen in the museum he opened in 2000 to display his massive collection of glazed French pottery from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. This is definitely an artist devoted to his craft.

Whether it’s a large ceramic serving platter or one of a kind pitcher, Richard’s pieces are an ideal example of French ceramics with timeless appeal. I can’t wait to see what amazing examples of French ceramics he’s created the next time I visit — and then get to share them all with you.

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Just Opened: New Exhibition on French Ceramics in LA

Love French ceramics from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries? Then you need to check out the exhibition that opened last Saturday, October 6, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Entitled “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection,” it features over 130 examples of faïance, soft-paste porcelain, and hard-paste porcelain used in French daily life.

I found out about this exhibition months ago and wrote about it when comparing French ceramics past and present. For example, the curves of French country pottery pitchers mirror those of antique ewers which traditionally held water for washing in the morning. Other French ceramics in the exhibition include tablewares, tea accouterments, toiletry items, and even pieces used in times of sickness. The sugar bowl and spoon featured on LACMA’s blog is charming, with soft pink accents and a curiously slotted spoon.

Covered Sugar Bowl, 1780, Lunéville, France; and Sugar Spoon, 1775, Lunéville Petit Feu Faïence Manufactory, Lunéville, France; gifts of MaryLou Boone, photos © Susan Einstein

“This exhibition reveals and celebrates both the artistry that exists in the service of the utilitarian and the ability of this discriminating collector to bring together remarkable examples of that artistry,” said Elizabeth Williams, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at LACMA, in a recent press release.

Wine Bottle Cooler (Seau à demi-bouteille). Chantilly Porcelain Manufactory, Chantilly, France, c. 1730-1735. Soft-paste porcelain with glaze and enamel, The MaryLou Boone Collection. photos © Susan Einstein

I couldn’t agree more, especially looking at examples of handmade French pottery today, from French platters to the elegant curves of a French ceramic serving bowl. I was amused to see a French ceramic wine bottle holder circa 1730-1735 as a featured piece on the LACMA website. The Asian influence is obvious, as is the practicality of having something to keep wine cool. Unlike the porcelain jars for pomade, a wine bottle holder is a practical ceramic piece people still use today.

Many of these pieces look like they came from Asia because they were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford. Today’s French ceramics embrace colors, shapes, and textures of a timeless (yet contemporary) French aesthetic. French country pottery is a pleasure not only to see, but also to use, though the delicate artistic touches on Sylvie Durez‘s birds or the edging of Poterie Ravel’s French platters invoke the early examples of this tradition the LACMA exhibition highlights.

“Daily Pleasures” runs until March 31, 2013, so if I make it down to L.A. before it’s over, I’ll definitely check it out. Have you seen this exhibition or know of others that focus on French ceramics in your area? Leave a comment below and let us know!

“Daily Pleasures” images courtesy of LACMA.

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A Look at French Ceramics, Past and Present

Think you know French ceramics? Many people picture porcelain when they think about French ceramics, such as the famous Sèvres porcelain. Louis XV became the owner of this producer in 1759 and it was a major maker of French porcelain throughout the eighteenth century (according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Most of these early porcelains were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford, though there was plenty of French innovation once the new processes got traction. Because of a lack of essential materials to make a clay body that was the same as the Asian pieces, all of the French ceramics made before 1770 were soft paste porcelain, not hard paste. (For those that are wondering, soft paste porcelain requires a higher fire temperature and is much harder to form than the more plastic and malleable hard paste porcelain, which contains minerals like kaolin and quartz.)

Technical talk aside, these old French ceramics are certainly beautiful to see. If you’re in the LA area, an upcoming exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature examples of porcelain from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France that have a whole range of style and function. What’s particularly interesting about this collection is that it also features faience, which is simply another name for tin-oxide glazed pottery… also known as majolica.

Flash forward to today where faience/majolica is still going strong in French ceramics. Sturdy, rustic, yet also refined, this ceramic tradition continues to grow with modern sensibilities while staying true to its roots.

Just look at the curves of the pitchers by Richard Esteban and Poterie Ravel. Simple and elegant, their rich glazes are enticing for hands and eyes alike. Compare a faience ewer circa 1700 (like the photo above) to Richard’s barn red milk pitcher – they have the same clean lines and visual appeal with tall, stately spouts.

Poterie Ravel’s fancy pitcher, stunning in mustard yellow or creamy ivory, also reflects shapes and function from the past that fits in with today’s aesthetics for French ceramics.

Then there are French ceramics like those by Patrice Voelkel and Sylvie Durez. Patrice does so much with colors like white or blue, creating pieces that are deceptively simple. His large serving dish has a delicate rim that exposes the black local clay of Provence, while the white irregular glaze gives it real character. Sylvie goes a completely different direction, treating her bowls, serving platters, and pitchers as canvases for playful animals, dreamy women, or pastel landscapes with a surreal feel.

No matter your style, the variety of French ceramics being made today are sure to be just as sought after in hundreds of years as those that were made in the 1700s. So which French ceramics suit you best?

French faience ewer image courtesy of Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art.

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Finding New Ceramic Wall Plates and Pottery Dishes in Mexico

I’ve been in Mexico visiting artists like Gorky Gonzalez and can’t get enough of the sun, the food, the… roosters. From ceramic dishes to the blue and white rooster that stand alone, I’ve seen roosters (and other fowl) everywhere.

But it doesn’t end with blue and white rooster plates; that’s just the beginning. New triple dishes feature hummingbirds and roosters to join the cactus, palm tree, and fish motifs already in my Gorky collection. I love these ceramic dishes because they’re so versatile: good for dips, condiments, olives, or nuts, they also function as a place to keep jewelry, keys, or the contents of your pockets (no more lost wallets and phones for you!). With both double and triple ceramic dishes, use a variety to add spice to your next fiesta.

With the new black rooster plates from Italy, I’ve been struck at the global nature of animal motifs in ceramic wall art. Chickens, frogs, fish, and flamingos join butterflies (like the pottery dishes by Angélica Escarcega), flowers, and people for quirky and lively decorative plates and bowls. Visiting the artists let’s me not only stock up on popular pieces (like those fun salt and pepper shakers) but also see new ideas from ceramic wall plates to tibors (ginger jars). One of my favorite things is seeing the painted but unfired pottery dishes – the kiln totally transforms them from pale, flat ceramics into the glossy, touchable pieces we all love.

Watching the artists paint every piece is also incredible. Whether it’s geometric patterns or those blue and white roosters, plates, bowls, trays, and other dishes come alive with every brush stroke.

Whether you prefer monochrome or full color decorative plates, look for new arrivals from Gorky, Angélica, Capelo, and Talavera Vazquez in the next few months. There’ll be some old favorites and some new surprises with ceramic dishes that are truly works of art.

Want to see more of my Mexico adventures? “Like” Emilia Ceramics on Facebook for photos and updates.

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My Obsession with Majolica Dinnerware, Fine Italian Ceramics, Spanish Pottery, and More!

My love of Spanish pottery and fine Italian ceramics is long-standing and one of the reasons I began Emilia Ceramics. While living in Southern Spain, I saw gorgeous pieces of pottery (plates, cups, and bowls were only the beginning) being used everyday that were just as unique as the people using them. I realized that I couldn’t use all the pieces I thought were beautiful, but knew that there were others who would love them too. And thus Emilia Ceramics came into being.

Now my collection includes fine Italian ceramics, Tuscan pottery, as well as ceramics from France and Mexico. I’m excited because it looks like I’ll be adding Spanish pottery (by Ceramica Valenciana) to the Emilia Collection by the end of the summer (crossing my fingers about how shipping times work out). All these pieces emerge from the same roots and display similar techniques — resulting in majolica dinnerware and accessories that have distinctively “fat glazes,” vibrant colors, and unique designs that vary not only from region to region, but also from artist to artist.

But while I love these new pieces being produced today, what about vintage pottery? Collectors of Quimper, Fiestaware, majolica from Deruta and Faenza, as well as other fine Italian ceramics know what I’m talking about. A friend sent me a link to some Portuguese pottery she’d found made by SECLA (this espresso cup was my favorite piece) and it got me thinking about how designs and glazes have both changed and stayed the same for all these years. Just look at these Portuguese pottery tiles, ashtrays, and vases designed by Ferreira da Silva. Most of them are from the 1950s, yet their modern lines and fun designs could come out of an artist’s studio today.

That’s one of the reasons I love all kinds of pottery – they hold timeless appeal. Fine Italian ceramics become heirlooms, whether it’s a plate or a lamp. Majolica dinnerware graces the table for decades since its sturdy construction holds up quite nicely to the rigors of daily use. Not only does Tuscan, French, Mexican, and Spanish pottery look great, it’s functional and stylish. No wonder I keep finding artists whose pieces I love to add to the Emilia Collection!

Portuguese pottery image courtesy of R.Ferrao.

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Have you heard of Poterie Ravel?

Because apparently they’re quite famous the world over. I wish I could share their beautiful catalog with you. It is a powerful piece of marketing that transports you instantly to refined restaurant patios, well-manicured historic gardens, and chic 5-star lobbies — yes, it’s true, those are the places that Poterie Ravel is! Well, those places… and www.EmiliaCeramics.com. Let me explain…

On my first buying trip to France in 2007, I stumbled upon Poterie Ravel. They are renowned for their terracotta planters and ship to luxury hotels and restaurants throughout France and around the world: “Ravel. A name and now a brand. A promise of true French style. Ravel epitomises all the elegance and the simplicity of a unique and timeless art of living. Ravel creates new forms and new products that blend into a classic decor or embrace pure, contemporary lines.” Such an accurate description (quoted from their catalog) — the clean lines and modern class of Poterie Ravel’s work is unchallenged. But what’s even more exciting, is that they also make smaller, one-of-a-kind pieces for the home, such as pitchers, vases, plates, platters, bowls, etc. I quickly fell in love with their luscious, touchable glazes and soft, subtle shapes. It took me 4 years, but I have finally added these beautifully-crafted pieces to the Emilia Ceramics collection. And unlike Poterie Ravel’s famous pots, I seem to be the only person to whom they’re shipping home-ware. Check it all out here: Poterie Ravel on Emilia Ceramics.

While pure aesthetics and beauty may first attract you to Poterie Ravel, the history behind this company is sure to keep you interested/wanting more. It is a 5th-generation family-run business that dates back to 1837, when the earthenware and pottery studio was first founded in Aubugne, France. In 1935, when Gilbert Ravel took over the pottery studio from his father, he changed things up a bit… focusing more on modern, exciting designs aimed at high-end interior and landscape designers. Two sisters, Marion and Julie Ravel, took over in 1994. I met Marion when I was last visiting in September (see photo below) and can attest to her passion and genuine love for growing the business. I leave you with another quote from the Poterie Ravel catalog: “The rare and authentic expertise of one of the oldest terracotta studios in France has been forged by five uninterrupted generations of family history. The style, shape, and body of Ravel pots make them perfect for setting the scene in gardens and terraces, on squares and indoors. The way they are finished and fired afford them unrivaled quality and color, and make them unique to the touch.” I could not agree more. Enjoy!

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What Makes French Ceramics So Special?

I still have some French ceramics that haven’t quite made it onto the website yet, and it might just be because I love them so much and am not sure I can part with them! French country pottery has a whimsy that’s unlike other pieces I’ve seen. That plus fabulous, rich colors, unexpected play with textures, and versatile functionality set handmade French pottery apart.

The recent shipment from France included great pitchers, fun platters, and some truly wonderful pieces of art that just happen to be bowls as well. French bowls are always popular, from Richard Esteban’s playful polka dots to sturdy prep bowls by Patrice Voelkel. Add to these pieces by Sylvie Durez with languid scenes that are painted directly onto the base glaze to create one of a kind artwork. There’s no lack of variety when it comes to the personality found in French ceramics – all these artists have a unique style that makes their pieces easy to identify.

While Sylvie’s work is full of whimsy with intimate and personal scenes, I think most French ceramics have a certain playfulness about them. Fanciful shapes, animal motifs, and directives like “Vive le bon vin” (which roughly translates to “Long live good wine”) are all hallmarks of French country pottery. These are pieces that definitely get people talking at a party or a dinner.

Thick glazes and rich colors are also trademarks of handmade French pottery. Think warm butter yellow, jewel-toned spring green, and vibrant blues. Then there are the reds, from a barn red to dark cranberry. The contrast between smooth glaze and the roughness of exposed clay add textural appeal to pieces like this pitcher by Richard. It’s a delight to multiple senses, whether filled with flowers, wine, or water.

Like this pitcher, French ceramics beg to be seen and used daily. Whether it’s a platter that hangs on the wall or a vase that decorates a shelf when empty, these are pieces that people love to have around in their homes. Add to all this the truly personal handmade touches, and it’s no wonder that people just like me consistently fall in love with French ceramics.

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Is the Price Right for Italian Ceramics?

Have you ever watched “The Price is Right,” the game show where people guess how much things cost and then win them if they’re correct? After spending a few months in our pop-up shop explaining pricing to customers, I feel like I could be a big winner on that show, especially when it comes to Italian ceramics. People often ask – why are they so expensive, particularly when compared to pieces at big box stores like Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma?

There are many factors that go into the price of Italian ceramics, but the major ones are materials, the manufacturing method, and quantity of production, particularly for majolica style ceramics. Supplies for Italian ceramics include clay, glazes, and temper, as well as all the tools and equipment from kilns to potter’s wheels. Rising costs and inflation in recent times have affected ceramic artists just like they have everyone else (especially in Italy). When materials cost more, the product itself becomes more expensive. In fact, many of the larger Italian ceramic manufacturers have sadly gone out of business in the last 5 years.

Artists then face the tough choice between cutting costs and compromising on quality or raising prices and keeping to a high standard. It’s a phenomenon that’s not limited to Italian ceramics – designer clothes, handbags, even peanut butter have all seen rising material costs over the past few years.

Manufacturing method also makes a major difference in pricing. Handmade ceramics require skilled craftsmanship to create, whereas mass-produced pieces require workers to operate machines. I’ve talked about the difference in these Italian ceramic types before, particularly the trend of pieces being made somewhere else and only finished in Italy with a “Made in Italian” signature. There are lots of “Italian ceramics” on the market currently with dubious origins, often actually made in China or Portugal.

The last aspect of Italian ceramic pricing is quantity. At Emilia Ceramics, we work exclusively with small manufacturers, some of which are made up of a single artist. At Ceramiche Bartoloni, for instance, it is just the Bartoloni brothers (Patrizio and Stefano) who do all the ceramic artwork. And because our orders are selective, requesting one of a kind pieces with their own unique character and style, they are relatively small. Importing these small productions of handmade Italian ceramics means higher shipping costs than larger manufacturers sending over boat-loads of a manufactured product.

With all these factors in mind, I think it’s more important than ever to support artists that are continuing a craft that’s generations in the making. And I feel good about cutting out all the middlemen and paying my money directly to the hardworking and talented artists in Italy. While there might be ceramics “inspired by” Italian methods, nothing quite matches up with the real thing. And to me, that’s worth every penny.

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A Few of My Favorite (French) Things…

Back in September, I took an amazing buying trip to Provence. I revisited my favorite artists: Sylvie Duriez, Patrice Voelkel, Richard Esteban, and the 5th-generation family-run Poterie Ravel. It’s difficult not to overbuy on a trip like that. I was overwhelmed by the creativity of each artist and just kept falling in love with one piece after another. By the end of the trip, I was pretty convinced that I had bought way too much. But as it turns out, that’s nearly impossible. You just can’t buy too much of the beautiful ceramics these French artists are creating. I am constantly blown away by the color and creativity surrounding me in my pop-up shop in Palo Alto and my customers have absolutely loved my French finds. Speaking of the shop, it is closing next Wednesday, March 14th. So if you’re in the Palo Alto area, now’s your last chance to stop by. As for the rest of you, here are a few of my favorite new French ceramics… most of which are now available online.

Pitchers with Personality.

I fell in love with the Three Hearts Pitcher (above left) in Sylvie’s workshop and had to convince her to sell it to me. It is packed with personality (like all of Sylvie’s pieces) and defines one-of-a-kind. It combines fun with authentic and raw emotion all at once. And don’t even get me started on Patrice Voelkel’s large pitcher in (what I’m calling) dark cranberry (above right). The soft glaze on this pitcher is irresistible and the shape is both functional and absolutely breathtaking. These two pitchers are everything a pitcher should be: useful, beautiful, artistic, and individual. In addition to these attributes, they convey a rustic and earthy quality that communicates pure Provencal personality.

Functional and Fun Platters.

 

Continuing the theme of soft and inviting glazes, Richard Esteban’s platters are beautiful pieces to look at, but even better to use. The large petal platter (above right) is just begging for a selection of charcuterie or a main dish like roast chicken. The cheese plate (photo on the left) boasts a fresh, spring-inspired glaze with rustic flecks of brown around the edges. If appetizers of cheese and fruit are your kind of thing, then this serving platter is perfect. I love the way the green makes a relaxing backdrop for the more elaborate Limoni plates and mugs by Ceramiche Bartoloni.

Everyday Pieces You’ll Want to Use… Everyday.

  Whether for cereal, ice cream, snacks, or dipping sauces, the polka-dot bowls in 3 different sizes will bring a smile to your face all day long. Our new arrivals from France also include polka-dot mugs, creamers, plates, and pitchers. Mix and match the polka-dots with plates depicting birds, houses and dogs for a dinner table that is as interesting as the people gathered at it.

Artwork You Can Eat Off, But May Not Want To.

While hand-thrown with the intention that they get used as serving dishes, bowls, pitchers, and creamers, nobody can deny that Sylvie’s pieces are first and foremost works of art. The bowls pictured here are perfect examples – whether depicting birds chatting happily on a flowering branch or expressive (and oh-so-French) women lounging on a lazy afternoon, her soft, watercolor-like glaze transports us much like a painting on a canvas would do.

One reason I have always loved Sylvie’s pitchers is simply that they can be looked at and used simultaneously. Both the mini pitchers and small pitchers are great as creamers or to hold a small bouquet of flowers. The whimsical paintings are pure delight.

I always suggest Sylvie’s one-of-a-kind artwork to customers looking for the perfect birthday or Mother’s Day gift. They are unique, expressive, and unfortunately, almost completely sold-out after my extended season in the pop-up shop! Click here to see what’s left.

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Historical Roots of Blue and White Mexican Pottery

Archeologists recently discovered a kiln more than 1,300 years old in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Used by the Zapotecs to make ceramics, it’s one of the best-preserved kilns found to date, says Mexico Today. Not surprisingly, a strong pottery tradition still exists right down the road from the discovery, and in fact, throughout this region of Mexico. From the all black pottery associated with Oaxacan artisans, to the multicolored and blue and white Talavera-style made in Puebla and Dolores-Hidalgo, Mexican pottery is definitely thriving. Modern day artists have put their own stamp on the craft, while adhering to some techniques the Zapotecs would have used over a thousand years ago.

This link between past and present in Mexico creates truly unique pieces, from serving dishes to pottery platters. Reading about this kiln made me think of Gorky Gonzalez pottery, which combines traditional Mexican techniques with Japanese, Spanish, and Italian influences. The resulting fusion is something unique, yet still invokes an ancient pottery past.

Of course, being tied to the past doesn’t need you mean to be stuck there. Nothing exemplifies this concept more than the Gogo line, created by and named for Gorky Gonzalez’s son. When it comes to blue and white Mexican pottery, Gogo serving pieces might not be what you expect. Sleek and modern, these contemporary pieces speak to a design aesthetic of today while staying true to techniques honed for hundreds of years.

But serving ware needs to have more than an interesting past. For me when it comes time to choose pottery platters or serving bowls, I’m concerned about how the piece will look and function with food on it. Blue and white consistently looks clean and sharp, making Mexican pottery in these colors great for showing off your favorite dishes.

Shape also matters when it comes to unique serving dishes. Round pottery platters are versatile; use them for main dishes, finger foods, or even as a charger to give your table a pop of color.

The length of this white platter is striking filled with fruits or snacks at a party. And an oval serving dish handles a roast or an array of cupcakes with equal ease. Having a variety of shapes is a simple solution that certainly packs a design punch.

By mixing blue and white Mexican pottery together, you’ll create a distinctive table or party spread perfect for so many occasions. Historic, stylish, and modern – now those are some unique serving dishes!

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What Sets Fine Italian Ceramics Apart?

There are many diehard lovers of Italian ceramics out there, and for good reason. Whether it’s Tuscan pottery or a piece from Sicily, there is just something about Italian ceramics that sets it apart from the other other forms of maiolica-type wares being made elsewhere.

The majolica technique itself still flourishes throughout the world, seen most often in Portuguese, French, Mexican, and Spanish pottery. While the majolica process varies little between countries and hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, there’s definitely a wide variety of results.

Both Spanish and Portuguese pottery have long been recognized for their gorgeous tiles, in addition to their tableware. Called azulejos, these glazed tiles decorate large swathes of Portuguese buildings from churches to houses to train stations and their use dates back to the 15th century. The geometric patterns and later figurative motifs create stunning mural-like decoration in the most unexpected places. Truly beautiful and useful, the tiles also help with temperature control.Igreja da Misericórdia de Tavira - Azulejos

The tradition behind both Portuguese and Spanish pottery (as well as most of the Mediterranean region) started when Arabs introduced the technique in 711. An important coastal town for centuries, Valencia remains a major center of Spanish pottery and I’m still hoping to start carrying pieces by some artists from there in the near future (stay tuned).

So how is Italian Majolica different? I believe it is a combination of excellent artists (many of whom have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting the craft) and the traditional designs which generations of Italians have enhanced, individualized, and improved upon. Tuscan pottery is what many people picture when it comes to fine Italian ceramics. From the noble tradition behind the wares made in Montelupo Fiorentino to more commonly found pieces from Deruta, the bright colors, practical shapes, and ineffable charm truly put Italian ceramics in a class of its own. Who can resist the cheerful lemons, proud roosters, and rustic flowers that decorate plates and other majolica dinnerware from Tuscia d’Arte and Ceramiche Bartoloni?

Italians are masters at blending art and function to create masterpieces that are beautiful and unique. But just as Italian ceramics stay near and dear to our hearts, there’s no reason to overlook the gorgeous producers of ceramics in Portugal, Spain, France and Mexico. Among all these individual traditions there’s sure to be a majolica-inspired pottery that’s just right for your home.

Azulejos image courtesy of Concierge.2C.

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Guest Blogger: Jessica!!!

When Emily asked me to join her for her 2011 France buying trip, I quickly said “Oui! Oui! I’ll figure out how to get the time off, I’ll find a cheap ticket, I’ll move a couple mountains, but YES, I’m coming.” (I sadly had to miss her trip last year, and spent the week painfully longing for France while reading her blog and seeing her lovely photos, and  just couldn’t miss out again.


So, I knew we’d see lots of beautiful pottery, and I’d get the chance to make my French useful talking to the ceramic artists for her. I also knew there’d probably be lots of croissants in the mornings and lots of wine in the afternoons. These were all accurate assumptions. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I would adore the artists.

Patrice, who has a little pottery workshop and store right next to his home in the little town* of Gordes, was like a character from a French film. (Which admittedly sounds cliche, especially since this is how I’d describe everyone we met—expecially the old man having a smoke and beer at 10am at a cafe with a little dog on his lap.)
*Note: This little town, like many in the region (including our hotel) has no street address. The business card just shows it as a dot off tiny little highway between two towns. This made for interesting arguments with our GPS.


With a dog named “Tina Turner” who liked to lay, back down and frozen, begging to be pet on her belly, Patrice invited me into his workshop to take photos (“If you want photos, you take”) while Emily chose pieces from his shop. He explained to me how for his square shapes, he turns each plate, partially dries it, and then trims the sides to make it square rather than round (if I understood him correctly). He was patient with me as I asked questions about his work. He’s been a potter for 33 years. First near Lyon, and now here in the country. His business’s name is Herbes Follies, which means “crazy grass”, which Emily and I guessed was because his place was in a very unmanicured area. Though really, even the most unlandscaped scenes in France seem to be picture perfect. We loved smelling the lavendar in the front yard.

Next, we drove to Aigues-Vives to see Richard Esteban. Em had told me we’d be staying in his guest room, which it turns out is a guest house in a dreamy backyard just a few meters from the pottery and store. Quite the compound.


Richard, another character from a French film, or more aptly from the book A Year in Provence, was so pleased to see us. With his big grin, little round glasses, and three kisses on the cheek, I knew we’d be happy there for the next day.

Even happier to see us was Arnaud, the other potter at Richard’s shop, a young cutie with a warm welcome:

“Vous voulez du cafe?” (Do you want coffee?)

“Oui, merci. Si ce n’est pas un problem” (Yes, please. If it’s not a problem”)

“Vous avez traverser la monde pour nous voire, je peux faire du cafe.” (You traversed the world to see us, we can at least make you coffee.”


Arnaud showed us how he makes the scalloped bowl edges with his fingers. It was incredible to see him whip together several bowls on his wheel while talking to us. (Em got a video of this she’ll share later.) We also met Katia, who also works with Richard to manage the pottery shop and helps with some of the more decorative pieces. So so nice. And beautiful.


The shop was impressive. SO much beautiful pottery, so well displayed, with birds chirping in sweet cages here and there. I wandered the shop for hours helping Emily ask Richard questions and serving as a sounding board when she was deciding between colors and styles.

That evening we enjoyed an incredible meal with Richard’s family (wife and three kiddos) and Katia. The kids practiced their English. I practiced my French. It was lovely. And we ate right off the plates made just meters away. C’etait parfait.

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Second Stop: New Artist for Emilia Ceramics

Wow, what a day! By the time we made it to our destination, the pottery shop was closed for lunch. So we took the hint and went to find our own lunch spot. We drove into Cassis, a picturesque little town nestled into a harbor on the Mediterranean, often described as the poor man’s St. Tropez. It was a beautiful day and we were able to soak up some sun while enjoying our crepes.

Then it was back to work and today I was planning to really put Jessica (my friend, who’s acting as French translator) to the test. We went to Poterie Ravel, a 5th generation family-run business that employs 20 artists in the small commercial town of Aubagne. Most of their work consists of large planters that they sell to high end hotels and stores (most recently Louis Vuitton!). However, when I visited 4 years ago I was struck by room after room of simply glazed pitchers, bowls, platters, and vases, which they only sell to visiting customers. I took a ton of pictures during that first visit and have looked forward to the time when I could return with a plan of how to get this beautiful French pottery back home.

Jessica quickly befriended a saleswoman named Patricia. She explained my business and my hope of buying their pottery to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection. Patricia approved! She told us that her boss was in a meeting with the town Mayor but that as soon as she was done, she’d come meet us. Well at this point there was nothing to do but start shopping!! We cleared a table and I went to work, quickly filling it with pitchers and bowls that had been carefully crafted and dipped in soft, touchable glazes ranging from subtle aqua and white, to bright yellow and orange.

Just about finished, Jessica and I were adopted by Gil who took us on a tour of the atelier. He showed us the molds used for the large planters, the wheels where smaller pieces were thrown, the glazes used to create such brilliant colors, and a kiln that was packed to capacity and ready for firing. We were introduced to Ettiene (pictured below) as well as a few other artists, who explained how after making a piece, the artist is responsible for stamping it… first with the Poterie Ravel stamp, then with the year’s stamp, and finally with their own initials. Gil’s GS was stamped on the yellow pitcher I’d picked out, Ettiene’s EP was on the white platter, and so on. Such a nice and personable touch!

As we finished our tour, we were met by Marion who runs Poterie Ravel along with her younger sister. She is outgoing, personable, and speaks great English! Marion approved of my selections and assured me that she’d help facilitate the pick-up and pack-up of my pottery. Everything had turned out great: Jessica’s French saved the day and the pottery was just as lovely as I had remembered. I drove away ecstatic to be able to add Poterie Ravel to the new Emilia Ceramics French Collection!

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First Stop: New Work from Sylvie Duriez

It has been 4 years since I happened upon Sylvie Duriez and her artwork at a pottery market in Marseille, France. I remember her as being quiet, tentative to use her little English to communicate with me, and completely modest about the beautifully-painted plates, bowls, and pitchers that I was gushing over.  Since then I have emailed and called her a few times a year and visited her twice. While there now exists a nice familiarity between us, Sylvie remains the same shy Frenchwoman and humble artist I met in Marseille.

My good friend Jessica came with me to France this year to act as my French translator. We arranged to visit Sylvie in her atelier in Pertuis, a small town about 15 minutes outside of Aix-en-Provence. It took Sylvie a few minutes to get to the door as she was busy unloading the kiln in the backyard. As Jessica and I began looking around, Sylvie brought in brand new bowls that were still hot to the touch. “Fresh out of the oven” I said and Sylvie laughed shyly, repeating the words in English as she acknowledged that she understood their meaning.

Sylvie had cleared off the same table for me that I had so easily filled with pieces last year when I visited. I spent a few minutes just soaking up the subtle beauty of her work, then decided I needed to dive in and start choosing what to buy. I was smiling ear to ear as I began picking pieces — reminded immediately that this is the best part of my job!

 

As those of you Sylvie-aficionados know, each one of her pieces is a complete original. She personally hand-throws each bowl, plate, and pitcher, allows it to dry and then fires it. After dipping the piece in a base glaze, she uses a needle-like tool to sketch out an original drawing with women, flowers, birds, cats, rabbits and/or dogs. Sylvie then fills in the sketch with color and fires the piece a final time. Her characters are simply drawn, but full of personality, expressing sentiments of thoughtfulness, loneliness, relaxation and playfulness. As a friend once described them, “Sylvie’s subjects are not historic or monumental, but speak to the everyday and often fleeting moments to which we can all relate.”

I can happily report that Sylvie fans will not be disappointed with the new collection! Sylvie has added to her work a whiter base glaze (the old one has a more rustic, yellow hue to it) that really makes her watercolor-like paintings stand out. I was especially drawn to her new pieces depicting floral bouquets (my favorites are those with iris), fields of wildflowers, and birds happily playing in the branches of flowering fruit trees. In fact, I would describe the new collection as having a more nature-based theme. Don’t get me wrong, I am always a sucker for the languid French women reclining against a tree or in a cozy armchair. But Sylvie’s new pieces have a more earthy quality to them which I love. I feel pretty confident that you’ll love them too!

Check back tomorrow… Jessica and I are headed to the Riviera to visit the famous French workshop Poterie Ravel. I fell in love with their soft glazes and beautifully-crafted pitchers and platters on my first visit to Southern France 4 years ago. I am hoping to add some of these oh-so-French pieces to the Emilia Ceramics Collection.

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A Closer Look at Mexican Ceramic Art

There’s such a rich history of Mexican ceramic art: Like how Talavera Vázquez started a revolution that continues today, how Mata Ortiz pottery was first developed by Juan Quezada, and how Gorky Gonzalez revitalized the Mexican tradition of majolica. There’s always something more to learn about and while Mexican ceramic art has been around for thousands of years, you can see striking similarities between what archeologists have found and the ceramics being produced in Mexico today. Let’s take a closer look at some additional examples…

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Oaxaca

Located in the south of Mexico, Oaxaca ceramics are distinct because of the black clay found in the region. The “barro negro” (black clay) pieces have a beautiful black finish that started out matte but have been polished to an almost metallic sheen, a technique created by potter Doña Rosa in the 1950s. The other striking ceramics of this region are the green-glazed pieces from Santa María Atzompa, another tradition that started after the Spanish conquest.

Jalisco

This tradition of Mexican ceramic art also goes back thousands of years, but modern production uses high temperature firing techniques to create both ceramic and stoneware pieces. The Jalisco “bruñido” style is characterized by a piece that is burnished (rather than glazed) to make it shine. These are often jugs or jars with slender necks. Traditional designs are quite detailed and multicolored, though the antique pieces are faded because of not being fired after painting. Modern stoneware ceramics are brightly colored with a variety of global influences, making Jalisco another rich contributor to Mexican ceramic art.

Majolica

While not a region in Mexico like the others, this technique is widespread in the artistic cities of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. A versatile form decorated with rich glazes, and continually incorporating modern influences, I think this is the most timeless of all Mexican ceramic art. The thick glaze looks and feels super inviting, whether it’s a vase or a coffee mug!

No matter the origin, Mexican ceramic art is traditionally made by hand, often in family-run workshops. The wide range of cultures and mix of traditions present in Mexico truly sets its ceramics apart. I believe it is an art form that is always worth further exploration.

Oaxaca image and Jalisco image both courtesy of AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

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The Allure of the Majolica Plate

Originality is an important quality when it comes to all ceramics. But with the wide variety of majolica plates out there, I’m always looking for something that’s fresh and new. Not to say that I discount tradition – just look at examples of Italian ceramics from Umbria or Faenza Italian ceramics. (Faenza, by the way, is where we get the term faience for majolica ceramics.) These rich ceramic centers in Italy are hugely important historically as well as stylistically.

Underlining the importance of Faezna in the larger world of Italian ceramics is the city’s International Museum of Ceramics. I visited a few years ago and got a firsthand look at the majolica plates in their collection, which date from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Exquisite details are on these pieces that have been found through excavations and other acquisitions, dating to the 1400s. Obviously the allure of the majolica plate is nothing new.

But beyond its rich history, what draws people to majolica plates? Of course there’s the obvious explanation of function: plates are great for eating and serving meals. But majolica raises the bar on other functional plates. Let’s look at a few different examples to see how:

  • Design. The large flat surface of a plate is like a canvas. Majolica plates range from being a solid, simple landscape to detailed, complex works of art. Repeating motifs are common but plates became more complicated with scenes in the istoriato tradition. Introduced in the 16th century, this style literally means “with a story in it” and marked the transition of majolica plates from purely functional to decorative pieces. The harlequin plates are a great example of this tradition – the lifelike figures are uniquely Tuscan and so playful! I love the scene of the serenade with its story in progress (above right).
  • Shape. Majolica plates are often round because it’s an easy shape to make on a potter’s wheel. This serves to make other shapes all the more striking, like squares or rectangles. I love serving food on these obscure shapes, but they work equally well as colorful wall hangings. A personal favorite is the square plate with lemons; the lemons are so inviting, their blue background so rustic, and the pattern around the edge adds a light and whimsical feeling. Curious to know which Italian town is most famous for lemons and ceramics? So am I since it seems so many make the claim.
  • Unexpected Details. Going hand in hand with these other qualities of majolica plates is adding a little extra, like a foot. Footed platters literally elevate their contents, making them perfect for fruit or dessert, whether as a centerpiece or a gorgeous accent on your kitchen counter. As I mentioned in a recent post, Ceramiche Bartoloni’s Foglia e Frutta Footed Platter with Angel is a great example of this, as is Tuscia d’Arte’s Footed Platter with Tuscan Fruits. There’s always fruit in this bowl-like plate, even when it’s empty, creating a great mix of form and function.

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Handmade Italian Ceramics: How to Shop Smart

I talk a lot about my love of handmade Italian ceramics, but let’s take a look at the alternatives. There are many stores and sites that sell “Italian ceramics” – but are they really what they claim to be? What should you be aware of when looking for stores that sell Italian ceramics? And what are really the differences between hand painted Italian ceramics and manufactured ones?

The alternative to handmade Italian ceramics (or handmade ceramics of any kind) is ubiquitous, impersonal mass produced home decor. I came across “Deruta-Style” dishware like this the other day at Sur la Table. Sure, the plates don’t claim to be handmade Italian ceramics, simply “inspired by” the region. It makes me think of the arguments made against buying counterfeited designer goods. Companies (and in the case of ceramics, small family-run businesses) work hard to build up their reputation and create unique products of the highest quality. When those ideas are stolen, sold at a fraction of the price, and with a fraction of the quality, not only do the businesses suffer, but consumers do as well, explains a recent opinion piece in the Times & Transcript.

In a way Sur la Table is selling knockoffs of a style that artists have made famous through a tradition of craftsmanship for generations. And they’re not alone when it comes to stores that sell Italian ceramics – many will make claims that pieces are made in Italy for the cachet when they clearly came from elsewhere.

But when you’re investing in the beauty of true Italian handcrafted ceramics, how can you spot a fake? Just like leather handbags or designer shoes, there are lots of them out there! Here are some tips for shopping at stores that sell Italian ceramics to make sure you get what you really want.

  • Flip it over. All authentic ceramics should have some mark of origin on the bottom. There are guides to these marks for antiques, but anything that’s genuine handmade Italian ceramic will have something there. And beyond just stating the country, hand-painted ceramics is usually signed by the artist.
    Clearly made in Japan, not Italy.
  • Touch test. Along with a mark, the bottom or foot of the piece should be unglazed if its authentic Italian handcrafted ceramic. This will look like a ring of rough, unglazed clay with a brown-orange color to it. You should feel the glaze as well for the natural variations that occur.
  • Brushstrokes.
    From 16th century Italy; can you see the brushstrokes?

    This along with crazing is another true test of hand painted Italian ceramics. If a pattern looks a little too perfect, it probably was manufactured on a machine. There’ll be some variations in color and pattern too.

    Modern piece by Tuscia d'Arte; look at the brushstrokes here as well.
  • Know your source. If pieces are legitimately hand painted Italian ceramics, the seller should know something about the people that make them. I am always shocked when a shop owner knows nothing about the artists behind the work. It’s a pretty good bet that if a shop stocks generic “Italian ceramics” it’s probably coming from a large factory on Italian soil or, as I mentioned earlier, is merely “Italian inspired.” This is one of the reasons I frequently visit my artists in person; I see the entire process in motion and love to share photos and stories about the artists with my customers. Aside from traveling to Italy and buying directly from the artists (which I definitely recommend), it is the best way to buy with confidence that they are 100% handmade Italian ceramics.

Ceramic mark image courtesy of Grannies Kitchen.

16th century jar image courtesy of F B.

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French Ceramics: Spotlight on Quimper

One thing I love about ceramics is its rich history and variety worldwide. French ceramics is a great example: From Provence to Brittany (Bretagne), French ceramics are as varied as the people and traditions that make them. Recently I came across my parents’ collection of hand painted plates from Quimper (pronounced kemper) and got inspired to find out more about this famous center of French ceramics for myself.

Artists in Quimper have been making pottery since the Roman times. Near four rivers there’s both an abundance of clay and an easy way to ship the finished product. But Quimper faience (remember, faience shares the same glazing methods as majolica) began around the start of the 18th century. Its history reads a bit like a soap opera: Jean Baptiste Bousquet moved to Locmaria (or Loc-Maria) in the 1690s, setting up production for useful items like pipes and tablewares. His son Pierre Bousquet came to help out later on. Pierre’s daughter married Pierre Clément Caussy, an artist trained in the multicolored glazing approach like that in Rouen. Before pieces had been blue and white, but now red, purple, green, and yellow began to be used as well.

The nobility clamored for faience for their tables (a trend that started when Louis XIV confiscated dinnerware made from precious metals as a fund-raising move, says Antiques Journal) since it was easier to get than porcelain from China. These antique hand painted French dinner plates are popular with some collectors today. Even with the link to nobility, Quimper ceramics survived the French Revolution by changing production to brown and reddish earthenware. In the early 1800s glazes using multiple colors reemerged and around 1880 the “petit Breton” motif appeared.

There are still many “Faïenceries” in Quimper, including Faïenceries H.B. Henriot started by the Bousquet family. They continue the tradition of handpainting without transfers, which is an impressive feat in itself. There’s also a Quimper Faience Museum you can visit and learn more about the methods of these famous French ceramics. If you start delving into more about Quimper ceramics on your own, be prepared: the best information is in French.

 

 

Image of Henriot faïencerie courtesy of Thesupermat.

Image of “petit Breton” courtesy of Patrick.charpiat.

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Majolica: More than Just Italian Ceramics!

Even though majolica (or maiolica) has been around for over 500 years, the process remains the same in today’s manufacturing of Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics in this style. There are five basic steps to create majolica:spanish_artist at potter's wheel

  • Formation – The potter forms the piece by hand and/or with a potter’s wheel and lets it dry in the open air. Dried pieces usually are a light grey color.
  • First Firing – The dried pieces are loaded into a kiln and fired at 1890° Fahrenheit to reach the bisque stage, turning a terracotta red color. Care must be taken that temperatures don’t change too rapidly as they heat up or cool down as this causes the pieces to crack.
  • Glazing – Traditionally the bisque piece is dipped into a white powdery glaze that quickly dries. This provides an ideal surface for hand painting.
  • Painting – Here is where artistry is key. Artists paint the piece with mineral-based glazes that leave no margin for error. Once this glaze is applied it cannot be removed or covered over. An artist might paint freehand or follow a pattern, depending on the piece. Often the glaze colors look totally different than they will on the finished piece.

painting Majolica

  • Second Firing – Here again the kiln is loaded, though the temperature for this second step is only 1690° Fahrenheit. This firing can take up to 24 hours to give pieces 12 hours of constant heat. After cooling, you have gorgeous, vibrant majolica ceramics.

With a process so labor intensive, how has majolica remained popular for so many years? Long before it was transformed by the Renaissance and became synonymous for Italian ceramics, the majolica process was used in 9th century Baghdad and Mesopotamia. The technique made its way through trade routes and the port of Majorca to Spain and Italy, where it inspired local potters.

In the late 15th century and early 16th century fine Italian ceramics meant one thing only: majolica. The form was perfect for practical items like tableware and apothecary jars, mixing function and art with ease. Even more incredible was majolica’s role in social change: instead of people eating off common large wooden platters they now used individual dishes, often decorated with a family’s coat of arms. As you would imagine, dining customs and hygiene changed greatly as a result.

But majolica doesn’t stop there. Victorian majolica, manufactured in the 19th century in Britain and the United States, follows the same process, though the glaze is different. Wedgwood and Mintons were major manufacturers, creating whimsical, creative forms for both decorative and daily use — everything from tableware to umbrella stands and candlesticks. The International Majolica Society is devoted to collectors of this exuberant period of majolica ceramics.

And today? Majolica continues its popularity in Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics, combining tradition and modernity, as well as functionality and beauty. In fact, modern majolica shares many common motifs with Italian antique ceramics and Victorian majolica. Rooted in the natural world, both traditional and modern designs often depict flower patterns or raised shapes of fruits and animals, regardless of where or when they are made. It seems clear that the timeless beauty and durability of majolica continues to make this painstaking process well worth the effort.

Victorian majolica fish image courtesy of Leon Brocard.

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Can You Identify Handpainted Ceramics?

While the beauty and function of a ceramic piece is important, its origin has equal value in my mind. That is why I get to know artists personally, visiting their workshops in small towns, watching them work and discussing the techniques, glazes, and firing styles they employ. For me, there is no substitute for the knowledge that a bowl or plate I’m using was lovingly crafted and painted by human hands.

But what is the real difference between handpainted ceramics and their mass-produced counterparts? When Italian authorities began investigations to fight against fake handmade and handpainted ceramics several years ago, they obviously thought it a difference worth noting. In 2010 they ended up seizing over 2000 pieces bearing the “Handpainted in Deruta” signature that was in fact a decal transfer, not handpainted at all, says That’s Arte. These ceramics were being sold to tourists as well as exported as authentic Italian handpainted ceramics. Clearly there is money to be made here.

Art fraud or really any replication of a luxury good is becoming even more popular. From paintings to watches to handbags, it’s important to know the signs of the genuine article before making a purchase. Here’s what to look for when it comes to ceramic hand painting:

  • Brushstrokes. Ceramic hand painting will always show its true colors with brushstrokes, even if they are small. Often these come in a series in areas of solid color, but look carefully for the slightly darker areas that show overlap. (Can you see them in the image below?) Sometimes fakes will have a hand-painted rim on a plate or cup, so inspect multiple areas. Manufactured printed pieces often have a pixelated look instead of the even brushstrokes created by a human hand.
  • Crazing. With majolica pottery, this is a sure sign of authenticity. Crazing is the effect by which little hairlines appear over time (like in this photo blow); it’s a natural part of the aging process, which means it is only apparent in older ceramics. Pieces with bright white backgrounds and no texture should be suspect; authentic majolica made with ceramic hand painting will have more of a creamy white color instead.
  • Texture. The complex firing process of majolica produces slightly raised lines where the ceramic hand painting occurs. This “fat glaze” gives it such a wonderful hand feel; something mass-produced will have a flat surface. Another test is to scratch the piece with a coin; the glaze shouldn’t be affected at all.

Of course, the surest way to confirm a piece’s authenticity is to get to know the artist. This guarantees that you are buying handpainted ceramics. I visit my artists’ studios as often as possible, seeing the entire process in motion. That way, I know that my collection represents high quality and one-hundred percent handcrafted work.

Crazing image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass.

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Handmade Ceramics Become a “Hands On” Activity

As you all know, I’m slightly obsessed with handmade ceramics. The texture and feel are completely different than a manufactured piece as well as the knowledge that what you’re holding is truly one of a kind.

Reading about the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City a few weeks ago I was struck by the prominent role of the Pottery Place. Collin Rosebrook, the owner of Paseo Pottery studio, offers people the chance to do the final steps of Raku pottery themselves, reports BAM’s Blog. He, along with students and apprentices, throw and fire thousands of pots in different sizes for months in preparation for the weekend’s festivities. Festival attendees young and old can buy these handmade ceramics, glaze them, and have them fired using the traditional Japanese Raku process.

Raku is similar to Majolica in that it uses mineral glazes and a multi-step firing process. In this case, the Pottery Place offered cobalt blue, dark green, and copper glazes, all of which change with the firing process. Something else that sets Raku apart is the removal of pieces when they’re red hot from the kiln to a reduction chamber (where oxygen reduction gives the glaze its sheen) and then plunged into water for the final cooling step.

With all handmade ceramics, there’s uncertainty and the fear that something might go wrong. But there’s also the joy when it all goes right. Kids especially love the artistic opportunity: “it’s fun seeing their faces. They’re in awe that they created something. I heard one kid say today, ‘I did that!’” said Tom Taylor, who was the area’s volunteer co-chairman.

Families make visiting the booth a yearly tradition. I love that it allows everyone from a toddler to a grandparent to make something so unique and beautiful. I’m sure there are now many new pots on display in these homes and artists (both kids and adults) who are proud of their new handmade ceramics. What a great way to start your own handmade ceramics collection – why not give it a shot?

Photo of raku firing courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

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The Story Behind Gorky Gonzalez Pottery

The story of Gorky Gonzalez has all the necessary ingredients to inspire an epic movie. Young man is inspired by antique artwork, takes a journey across the seas to learn from revered masters, meets his wife, returns to his homeland to rescue a forgotten craft, and passes his prosperous business on to his son. Gorky Gonzalez pottery is world-renowned and it’s easy to see why! Let’s take a deeper look at the story.

In the early 1960s, Gorky Gonzalez discovered an antique piece of pottery in the Majolica style.  The discovery set him on a course that would ultimately lead to the rescue of this forgotten craft, which had been abandoned because of its association with Spain and colonialism after Mexican independence in the 1820’s. In 1965, Gorky won a scholarship to study pottery in Japan under the artists Tsuji Seimei and Kei Fijiwara, considered two of Japan’s living treasures. There he learned the bizen and shigaraki techniques, expanding his ceramic repertoire.

Gorky returned from Japan with his wife Toshiko, who became an integral part of his new pottery business. Now, along with their son (known as Gogo), they have a bustling workshop that has preserved the original, traditional designs from the colonial period. Many say that their studio Alfareria Tradicional is the most important Majolica workshop in Mexico. In 1992, the President of Mexico awarded Gorky the National Award of Sciences and Arts in the field of Popular Art and Traditions for “his exceptional contribution to Mexican popular art.”

What makes Gorky Gonzalez pottery so unique? It melds fun characters with sophisticated techniques and brings together defining elements of Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Indigenous-Mexican roots. Pieces have appeared in publications and exhibitions worldwide, including a recent appearance at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Gogo has also created his own line of Gorky pottery in a more contemporary style.

Gorky pottery is handpainted and handmade, so no two pieces are ever exactly identical. They use clay from the nearby Sierra de Santa Rosa (as ceramists have been doing for centuries, even before the Spanish arrival in the 1500’s). I love how Gorky ceramics seamlessly blend traditional and contemporary techniques and styles to make something truly distinctive.

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The Ceramic Technique

Artist at Talavera Vázquez The majolica technique is anything but easy – it is a multi-phased process that takes time, patience, and exceptional skill. The earthenware clay is first bisque fired at around 1900° F. It is then painted or dipped in a creamy, oatmeal-colored glaze, made from silica, tin, calcium, and clay.

Once dry, artists paint designs over this base glaze with natural pigments (each color is made from a mineral – greens are chrome and copper, blue is cobalt, etc.). The pigments are absorbed into the base glaze, which is a porous surface similar to watercolor paper. Just like with watercolor, once applied, the pigments cannot be covered over or blended together, meaning there is no margin for error.

When the piece is fired again at a higher temperature, the glaze melts and fuses with the pigments. Gabriele, the head painter at Tuscia d'ArteBecause the end result is a product of chemical reactions between metal oxide colors, the glaze, and a precise firing temperature, it often takes the artist many trials before a new design is perfected.

While extremely time consuming and difficult, this process is what gives completed Majolica a distinctively warm look and feel. That’s because instead of the color lying under a clear surface, the color is actually in the glaze and of the glaze. Sometimes referred to as “fat glaze,” the result is more luscious and vivid. It’s what draws us to Majolica, both visually and physically – making it difficult not to reach out and touch the surface of a beautifully glazed pitcher or serving platter.

Oval Serving Platter - Oranges