I just read this article from Janet DeBoos about here experiences in working with industry and dealing with the production of her work on an industrial scale. There are some good tidbits for us makers to chew over in here on what handmade and functionality as we see it from a ceramic [potters] perspective actually means. I did enjoy the questioning of the ritual of an object and what do those older rituals mean in this day and age. I know that many of us, myself not excluded, are frequently writing and re-writing our statements and I had to chuckle to myself a little as I made my way though the section on the way we as potters and makers perceive the aspects of touch and making in out work before quickly feeling shameful for taking such a narrow perspective on making. Anyhow, you read it…..

(the original article can be found in Australian Ceramics from Volume 44#1 2005)


Handmade? Designed? What does it mean?

Janet DeBoos

Photography: Rob Little, Janet DeBoos,Patsy Heley

Industry, design and studio ceramics from Volume 44#1 2005
The importance of the role of the hand is generally assumed when one reads articles and artist statements about domestic ceramics. Most often this takes the form of references to touch, the accumulated histories of use that reside in functional objects, and the mark of the hand in making. In a practice that has spanned thirty years of throwing pots this has seemed central to my working life. But the ready assumption of this importance has always troubled me – especially as one sees more and more of those ‘motherhood’ statements about handmade pottery and the ‘touch’ of the maker. The same goes for statements about the ‘rituals’ of use, with no apparent consideration of just what those rituals are today, and whether indeed we have any.

Coming from a science training probably increases any doubts that niggle away in my mind. What does all this ‘handmade’ stuff mean? Can the validity of those beliefs be tested in any way (keeping in mind that beliefs are what we have in the absence of evidence…)? Could ‘handmade’ be just a look? And ‘rituals’ just a marketing idea?

In a different way, the question of ‘design’ keeps rearing its head and causing problems of definition and practice. Think of design, and you think of CAD programs, RAM pressing, industrial slipcasting and you are compelled to think of a certain sameness of outcomes in those functional ceramics that have been produced so far using these technologies. They never look handmade. Now this sameness may be as a result of following of fashions of new modernism, or it may be that the level of sophistication of the programs and their use is such that getting the qualities of the ‘handmade’ into the work is too difficult.
Over the past three years I have had the opportunity to be engaged in projects that tested these assumptions, working on a null hypothesis that proposes that there is NO difference between studio produced handmade objects and factory produced objects that just ‘look’ handmade.

Left: Factory entrance- blackboards are for writing Party encouragements to work hard and maintain a ‘Red Heart’. The factory is spotless, and all workers are responsible for keeping their own work spaces clean; Above. He Yan with failed Swiss design;

The first opportunity came about when my agent Karen O’Cleary (Narek Galleries, Tanja) took my work to SOFA art fair in Chicago. Aldo Cibic (original member of MEMPHIS design, Italy, but now with his own design company) saw my work during a break from his duties as keynote speaker at a furniture conference on at the same time. He asked if his company’s ceramics offshoot, Paola C ceramics, could produce my ‘concepts’ (Cibic’s words) for their showroom in Milan. “Yes” was my reply after an indecently short time to consider the implications, but with a sense that this was a good start to testing my hypothesis.
Paola C bought samples of my work, and initially produced them in a larger production factory, but when the results were unsatisfactory, took them to a small scale, high-end porcelain factory near Milan. Although I had suggested to Aldo Cibic that we should look at PR of China to produce the work because of their long history
Xiao Han, Xiao Fang, Liao Fang Janet DeBoos teapot No 2 model;
and understanding of porcelain, he wanted to keep production in Italy. I had no input into the making process at all as the company had bought the ‘models’ and the rights to produce them for five years.

The resulting works are now on their website, have been taken to design and ‘objects for the home’ fairs in Paris and Milan, but are selling slowly because they are very expensive compared to the prices of most Italian ceramic production. The quality is excellent, and I find it hard to tell that they are slipcast. Colleagues who have seen and handled the ware think it is part of my production until told the awful (wonderful?) truth. What does this mean?
The second opportunity came about when I was invited to work in a bone china factory (Huaguang Bone China Design Group) in Zibo in Shandong province, China, after some of my work was acquired by the Ceramic Museum there. For this exercise, they wanted drawings even though they had seen the real objects. I have had no training in technical drawing, and cannot use CAD programs. I did fairly rough sketches (to scale) of the pieces that I wanted to see produced, and a team of expert model and mould makers made the prototypes out of plaster. Because I was inexperienced in translating a 3-D object into a 2-D drawing, some details of scale and proportion were wrong, and seeing the plaster models enabled these to be corrected. The model makers were quick and accurate, and took only a day or so to make the scaled upmodels. By the time I left Zibo, 9 days later, the first pieces had been cast, fired and finished. There were some small changes to be made, due both to instructions to the factory workers not being made clear, and also to allow for the extreme pyroplasticity of bone china during firing.

The following year I received an ANU Arts Faculty Research Grant to enable the Zibo project to go ahead, and also for graduate students to have the opportunity to see their work turned into designs for mass production (something that is almost absent in Australia). Both Lia Tacjnar (MPhil candidate) and Patsy Hely (colleague and PhD candidate) have now also had their designs developed for bone china production. Both need decals made, and these will be completed early this year.

By the time of my return visit in 2004, the design adjustments had been made to my work and production had been started in quantity. Discussions about packaging for a teaset began, but in the absence of agreement (my designs were ‘too Chinese’) packaging for the Chinese

Janet DeBoos Janet DeBoos
Above:Janet DeBoos with her prizewinning work in the design studio showroom. Left: Bisqued pourers awaiting glazing;

domestic market has been designed by Huaguang (and looks very Chinese to me despite its green Southern Cross and Harbour Bridge!). Market-canny, the company is not interested in any export of bone china (‘too competitive’) and is only looking at the Chinese domestic market and the huge emerging middle class who now aspire to own bone china, as porcelain is regarded as ‘very common’. Now there’s a nice irony! Given the urgency with which Europe historically tried to replicate porcelain from China, and the development of English bone china as one such attempt, now the Chinese want quality bone china…it’s exotic, if not Oriental…This teaset won the silver medal in the 2004 Chinese National Tableware Competition.

So where does this leave my hypothesis? What was my reaction in seeing work of mine made by the thousand in a factory in my absence? A number of thoughts have emerged:

1. The work made by Huaguang is more different from my studio work because of the material than it is because of the absence of my ‘handling’

2. By working with the model makers so closely, I feel ‘attached’ to the work in a way that I don’t yet feel attached to the Italian equivalents (although this may change when I go to the Italian factory this year)

3. The Huaguang factory still has a lot of ‘hands on’ in the making. As I have always felt that domestic pottery gets ‘remade’ every time it is used, and an idea gets remade every time another cup or teapot or pourer is thrown, this factory ‘act’ doesn’t seem to be too far removed from that in my studio. And of course when it is used there is no difference…?

4. The workers who are slipcasting have apparently said that my work is more difficult than other work in their production, but I am still endeavouring to have them produce some that is less ‘finished’ in some aspects so that the freshness of making remains. This extra work gets reflected in what seemed to me a quite high price for a 5 piece teaset in China. (You get what you pay for principle…)

5. Even in mass production, there is room for the ‘remaking’ The spouts on my pourers had been attached upside down at the factory. I usually have something of a ‘signature’ drooping spout, rather than this slightly rampant style (which reminded me of several spouts on Zisha (Yixing) teapots that I had seen)

6. Going into the factory this last time and seeing hundreds of my cups, teapots and pourers lined up on ware boards seemed just like my studio when I was running a production pottery. Everything pointing the same way, everything carefully finished and ‘signed’ with a stamp. And yet…every piece in the factory is identical…

7. I now know that I am thrilled by repetition…and how repetition somehow ‘grows’ ideas. After leaving China, I had eyes only for repeating patterns. This seemed very close to what I had been talking about in an exhibition Process & Obsession curated by Gillian McCracken in 1995 at the Performance Space in Sydney, and recently (2003) reworked as a smaller work at the ANU School of Art Gallery.

8. Makers seem to make different ceramic designs from those produced by ‘Designers’. There is an understanding of the way materials behave during firing, how a cup will feel in the hand, how liquid leaves a spout which seems to produce more seamlessly functional objects. This is a speculation drawn from a very limited observation of the kinds of designs that had been submitted to Huaguang by European designers that evidenced no understanding of the materials in which they were to be made. This may not be the case in newer materials that do not have to undergo the firing process. Where do we go from here?The next stage of research will be to design (with the help of a CAD-literate colleague) a model and have it made by the Rapid Prototype Unit at the ANU School of Art. This will get the model makers at the factory out of the loop, although they will use the model for making the moulds. I also envisage that more of our graduate students in Ceramics will be involved in the project, and comparisons can be made about the relative success of designs drawn from slipcasting and handbuilding practices as well as wheel-made works. A design stream in the honours year of undergraduate studies could also see students’ designs being developed for production utilising both rapid prototyping and conventional modelmaking.And the conclusions?I don’t know what it all means yet, but I do know that nothing is fixed. Everything changes all the time. We try to stop the present becoming the future at our peril. We try to preserve the past and merely create simulacra. I grew up with the understanding that ‘…if you bring the enemy into your own camp, you will learn about each other and become friends…’. If design and industry are the enemies of studio ceramics, then it is about time that we made friends. Who knows, we might just end up making art.

www.narekgalleries.com, www.paolac.com, www.anu.edu.au
Enquiries about graduate and honours programs in Ceramics: janet.deboos@anu.edu.au

No.1 teapot and pourer prototypes