Brewing Up With Keith Brymer Jones
You might just recognise the inimitable Keith Brymer Jones from his stint on BBC's The Great Pottery Throw Down and The Victorian House of Arts and Crafts (more on that later!), a potter with many years of experience under his belt, when he's not gracing our TV screen, Keith mans the wheel over at ceramics & homeware company, MAKE International, as Head of Design. Who better to partner with to create our very first line of Tatty Devine ceramics? So, fancy finding out more about the production process? Stick the kettle on, grab a Vintage Lady Mug and settle in as we talk creativity, communicating through ceramics and... Muhammad Ali! Yep, it's a good'un!
WHERE DOES THE DESIGN PROCESS BEGIN?
Basically, because I wanted to get the initial shape and size right, ever since I started doing ceramics I always used my sketchbook as the wheel or my wheel as my sketchbook, I should say. Y’know, you grab a lump of clay and obviously I’ve been doing it for ages now… so I know what kind of weight I’m looking for which kind of shape I'm going to make, and you go from there. When one makes a ceramic piece or product, it’s not just the look but it’s also the feel, you’ve got to make sure the thickness of the walls are correct and that there’s no problems in mold making or issues that you’ll eventually encounter when your prototype goes to a mass production setting. Because I’ve suffered from dyslexia all my life, it's interesting to hear that 85% of architects are dyslexic, Norman Foster was severely dyslexic... maybe it makes us able to problem solve and work around issues a little easier?
WHY ARE MUGS SO IMPORTANT TO A COLLECTION?
Well, the ‘flagship shape’ mug is a perfect example to determine the characteristics of the style you want to go for and what you’ll eventually base your line on. It’s essential you get your mug shape and style right first! So, with the mugs we designed for our collaboration, I was thinking of a very Brit and quintessentially kitsch look, a characteristically ‘tea and cake British’ kind of thing with a contemporary body and vintage style handle but it didn’t work practically. When I was talking to Rosie and Harriet, I had kind of an epiphany, it sounds strange but I realised that the closer the relationship you have with your client, the better understanding you have for creating the look and fit for their products. I worked solely alone for years, creating thousands of pieces for huge brands like Habitat, Barneys NYC, Conran, etc, and only recently found that working with smaller creative brands is just so easy, there’s not corporate hustle and endless hoops to jump through to get things signed off! I’m an old school guy, I prefer to pick up the phone and love being able to speak directly with the people who own the business and who can make things happen almost immediately, who are open to change and tweaking designs. For example, you can look at a colour on a prototype and if it’s not quite right, you can mix it up and rework ideas, plans, initial ideas and get a simple and straight answer! You don’t have to send ideas through an email chain in the hope that X, then Y, then Z will sign it off… it stifles creativity, we need to work with smaller brands to cut the faff. I love what Rosie and Harriet do with Tatty Devine, their brand image and values are something that I can really identify with.
WHICH PIECE WAS THE TRICKIEST TO DEVELOP?
Hmm, the Dental Bling and Gin Vases come to mind. When you’re working in a studio, it’s relatively easy to relay the production process in person and work through new techniques, i.e. wax resistant detailing in Gin Vase, you have to apply this and attempt to not go over boundaries for the glazing process, but in mass production, it can be tricky to persuade your team to try something new. If you’re like me and consistently want to push boundaries so you can emulate the look of something made in a small studio in Whitstable, doing this on a grander scale with something that is mass produced can be a real learning curve. At our factory in China, where we produce and quality control in-house, it took a day and a half to stipulate what we wanted from each Dental Bling Vase. This was essentially just trying to nail down the details around which glue to use, where to apply those crystal accents and how to apply decals to recesses in clay, what was and wasn’t acceptable from the end product: we got there in the end! I’m always trying to get them to push the envelope with what we can do there, the Chinese have a fantastic ‘can do’ culture and we’ve had our factory there for 8/9 years now, I go over and work on the factory floor alongside our ceramicists, sticking on handles all day… I think they think I’m rather odd but it’s the only way you can get the product that you want and realise that. When I’m at home, I like to sit at my wheel and I can visualise exactly where their tools are, how they would create something and just call up my wonderful floor manager to see how they are able to produce a new piece with their set up. It’s amazing how many emails you don’t have to write as a result of knowing your business inside out! I often get people coming up to me and saying, “I was really surprised and/or disappointed to find that this was made in China,” but the clue’s in the name! Ceramic/porcelain deposits in China are second to none, they’re world famous… there’s such an irony in the perception that Chinese made ceramics are inferior when in actual fact, they’re the original ceramicists. I still don’t speak much Chinese and my team also don’t speak much English but we communicate through clay; the way one of my team will pick up a prototype and the way he handles it speaks volumes about the thousands of years of experience they have with this product.
IF YOU COULD BREW UP WITH ANYONE, WHO WOULD IT BE?
Ooh, that’s tricky! Hang on, I’m getting emotional now… I suppose it would be an incredible woman called Lucie Rie, an icon in the world of ceramics. She was a refugee from Vienna who came to the UK i1930s1930’s and is considered a leading light in contemporary ceramics. Wow… on the other end of the scale, I’d absolutely love a cuppa with Muhammad Ali, I saw him on that old TV show Parkinson, do you remember that? I love to look at the other side of things and step out of my ego and watching him talk so forcefully about being a successful black person, almost ranting about what that’s like… I found it so incredibly fascinating. The way he spoke to try and make people understand what it’s like to be him… it was like nothing you’d seen on television, ever. My old band’s guitarist got a load of racist abuse when we played outside of London and I remember him saying to me, “you have no idea what it’s like.” It’s so important to do away with preconceived ideas about people and not ‘judge books by their cover’, especially these days with Brexit and all that. I love to be surprised and inspired by people who have a totally different life experience to me.
WHERE CAN WE NEXT FIND YOU?
Keep an eye on the telly for ‘The Victorian House Of Arts And Crafts’ on BBC Two, it’s part of a wider conversation about bringing arts and crafts back into the curriculum. It’s not just a shop window for creativity, arts and crafts should be a staple in mainstream education and I know Rosie and Harriet are also of this belief. Tune in!