A Modern Studio Pottery
It was fantastic to meet Catherine and Matt West, the duo behind Pottery West recently in their shiny new studio in central Sheffield. Over tea and biscuits (a proper northern welcome), we found out a little about what they do.
OoU: What did you both do before establishing the Pottery West studio in 2015?
We both have an art and design education - Catherine studying Fine art and Matt design. Matt meandered from working as a freelance designer into the food industry, working as a baker for a number of years. Catherine, whose artwork often formed narratives and stories, has since worked as a communications manager at an Architecture practice.
OoU: Is your location in Sheffield important to your work?
We don’t consciously design pieces which are influenced by our direct surroundings, but some influence is inevitable. For example, Sheffield is full of industrial concrete ‘Brutalist’ architecture (indeed our workshop is housed in a concrete building), and for our recent tableware range ‘Brut’ we were partly inspired by the materiality and texture of raw concrete. Sheffield, as opposed to London where we studied, gives us a bit of freedom simply because it is a more affordable place to live and rent a workshop. But it is also a city of makers, designers, artist and musicians and the network between people is strong.
OoU: There seems to be a bit of a makers’ revival happening in your region at the moment - do you think this is true?
Sheffield has a lot of studio and workshop spaces (many that are old industrial buildings waiting to be developed) that enable people to afford space in the city. There are also organisations such as the Yorkshire Artspace (where we are based) that are able to support makers. In Sheffield there has always been a strong culture of creativity and manufacturing - from the little mesters to the steelworks. Nowadays the city has not only a large proportion of practicing artists and designers, but is also leading in advanced manufacturing with the new AMRC park. I think the culture has always been there but now it is perhaps more visible because it is being promoted via some excellent festivals and events.
OoU: Where do you place yourselves and your work within the tradition of pottery making?
Ceramics has such an established tradition that we sometimes find it rather daunting. We’re not traditionally trained and are instead self-taught. For the first few years of our practice we’ve been working hard to build up our skills and techniques, following all the rules, but now we feel more confident about doing things our own way. This year we’re thinking of placing a bit more focus on the design side of things, rather than production, which is what we’re most comfortable with. We’re thinking of new ways to produce, whether that be employing a production potter or collaborating with other makers / producers. We’re really excited to try new things.
OoU: How do you find working in such a small husband-and-wife team?
We love it. Sometimes it can be tricky to switch off from work, but generally it means we can both put so much energy and focus into the business and share everything - the highs and the lows. We’re really different people in many ways and I think this creates a sort of harmony.
OoU: What type of clay do you use for your range and why?
We use a stoneware clay with a high amount of surface texture and speckle. We have found that this body gives our glazes much more depth than a smoother clay type. We also only glaze part of the outside of our pots leaving the raw clay exposed giving both a change of visual and physical texture.
OoU: Could you tell us a bit about your design process? Where do you find your inspiration?
We spend a lot of time drawing and throwing forms on the wheel. The things we create, whilst often stemming from a single idea or concept, often have to go through a few manifestations before we go back to the drawing board and analyse the results. It takes a little while and we’ve realised that working on commissions for other people is so exciting but so difficult because we are process-led and our process is slow. Inspiration varies. For the Brut range we were really inspired by the concept of creating ‘typologies’ - a mug which looked like a mug and so on. But then we also just love playing with texture and subtle colours and find inspiration in the materials that we use and experimenting with their possibilities and limitations.
OoU: Your glaze recipes must be a closely-guarded secret, but roughly what are they made from and how?
Making glazes isn’t particularly glamorous - lots of weighing and sifting and measuring. The powdered materials are weighed out to the recipe and then soaked overnight in water. This mixture is then sieved two or three times through smaller mesh sizes to make sure the glaze is thoroughly combined and smooth. This mixture can be kept for sometime and re-mixed for each use. In terms of designing the glaze recipes, it generally takes many months or even a year to get something we’re happy with - there is just so much trial and error testing as the variables are infinite. The glazes for this range are a mixture of clay, frits and oxides (we often use rutile and red iron oxide) For the white I like to use tin oxide which is quite an expensive option but I love the colour it creates.
OoU: Could you talk us through the making of a piece of your tableware?
We both take control of separate parts of the production process, Matt makes the forms and Catherine the glazes. The clay is first kneaded and weighed specifically for each form before being thrown on the wheel to a measuring gauge. Each form is thrown in small batches - this (as well as the use of measuring gauge and weighing the clay) helps bring consistency. Once a batch has been thrown it is left to dry to a ‘leather-hard’ state, which depending on the size of pot and climate in the studio can take between 1 and 4 days. At this point the pot is brought back to the wheel where the underside is turned away to make the profile we want. If the pot needs a handle or spout then these would have been made separately and attached at this point. Once the form is finished the pot is left for a few days until ‘bone-dry’ and then fired to just over 1000 degrees C, this ‘bisque’ firing cycle takes just over 24 hours. This first firing has turned the pot from clay to ceramic, now it can be glazed. We develop our own glaze recipes from already established formulas (much like a chef developing a new recipe). Each glaze is made from a combination of powdered minerals and metals that are mixed into and suspended in water. The bisque fired pots are coated in this mixture by dipping and pouring. Once the water has evaporated the pot is left with a coating of the glaze powders. These pots are then fired for a second time to a higher temperature of 1250 degrees C, which is hot enough for the glaze to fuse and form the glass surface.
OoU: How do you see your pieces being used within the home?
We hope that our pots are used rather than displayed. Occasionally we meet someone who uses our pots at home, sometimes they have one cup that they use only for their morning coffee or sometimes they have a set of plates used only for dinner parties. It is always interesting, and slightly surreal, to hear how our work is being used.
OoU: Why did you choose to make functional pottery as opposed to art objects designed to be admired rather than used?
It’s probably because the ceramics we would buy for ourselves and most admire is functional rather than decorative. That’s not to say we don’t want to make beautiful objects as well. We have bought pots for our home that we use regularly, and each time the pot is used it is also admired - it brings small moments of pleasure.
OoU: Do you see a difference between ‘art’ and ‘craft’?
As the ‘art’ and ‘craft’ worlds are so broad there are many similarities and differences between the two. I think that we work we makes is rooted in craftsmanship, each piece we make has been formed, refined and finished with our hands so this links what we do to craft and the more traditional forms of art. However we also see ourselves as designers who make.
OoU: What are your future plans for Pottery West?
We’ve just moved into a new studio which is great and we’re looking to change things up a bit this year. Perhaps a few projects which are more multi-disciplinary and conceptual in nature to help us generate new ideas and processes.