Visual Arts

"Ceramic Design" at ASU Art Museum Demonstrates Pottery Innovation Through Innovative Coffee Mugs

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote, "Man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments." In that chapter Steinbeck pits the technology that has driven farmers from their land against what farming really is — a human relationship with land. Of course, he paints his all-too-human farmer underdogs as superior to machines.

Steinbeck, however, never lets readers forget that humans also created tractors. In fact, he talks about bombs in that chapter, too. In a good way, as in we need the bombs or, at the very least, the creative spirit behind them. We need design. Ceramic Design: Manufactured Brilliance and Beauty in Daily Life at the ASU Art Museum asks that we consider these very ideas, perhaps while sipping a hot beverage from a handle-less bone china mug subtly designed to protect our fingers from the heat of its content (British designer Stephen Reed's Radiator Mug).

Guest curator Bobby Silverman, director of the 92nd Street Y's Ceramic Center in New York City, spent much of his career chronicling the studio pottery movement. Which is just what it sounds like: artists in their own studios throwing one bowl or vase at a time using limited technology. Historically, this has been the paradigm in which we look at the ceramic arts. This exhibit chronicles that paradigm to an extent, says Silverman, but also looks at the manufacturing end. Some of the pieces in this exhibit, which Silverman gathered in a short five months, belongs to him personally.

A schism, according to Silverman, who spoke at ASU last month, appeared between the cultural zeitgeist and what ceramicists were making, especially in the past 10 to 15 years. He points out the progressive work, dating back to the early '70s, that's been and is being done at the European Ceramic Work Centre in the Netherlands. The ECWC exists to promote the development of ceramic art, design, and architecture. Technology encroaches, but the Europeans and Scandinavians don't seem threatened. There's a realization, says Silverman, that design and production can reveal an "expression of the intimate — interest, beauty, compelling ideas" and make that expression available to a larger audience than, say, studio pottery can.

Silverman is careful not to take sides in the art versus design debate. Take the cutting-edge research being done at Bowling Green State University, where John Balistreri, an art professor, along with a digital art graduate student and the engineering department are working together to create and patent Ceramic Rapid Prototyping, a machine that prints scanned or programmed objects in a ceramic material that can be fired in kilns. The machine actually prints 3D objects. Balistreri wonders at the possibilities, the degree of detail and intricacy that can never be achieved by a human hand. The human mind is another story.

Anyone who's admired a Michael Graves dish drainer at Target knows design matters. This exhibit, in a way, feels more like shopping and less like looking at "art." Graves is an architect, as are some of the designers in this show, among them designers (of consumer products, furniture, jewelry, fashion, and stage), a photographer, a sculptor, a conceptual artist, a chef.

There are some big names in this exhibit, but not in the way you might expect to see them. Photographer Cindy Sherman, true to her work, appears in her limited edition Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson) 1724-1764, a 30-piece dinner service and soup tureen with platter commissioned by New York's Artes Magnus. Sherman fashioned her design after the original commissioned in 1756 by Louis XV's mistress at Versailles. Through a 16-screen printing process, Sherman, as a bustier Madame de Pompadour, has transferred her sexy, playful, and literal self-image to dinner plates and teacups. A closer look at the painting on the pieces reveals that the tiny silver leaves are actually fish, poisson.

Minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin, known for his work with fluorescent light, also designed for Artes Magnus. His For Andre Raynaud 30-piece dinner service beckons from across the gallery. Flavin worked with light and color, and his tableware is no exception. The pieces are white, but undersides saturated with color reflect light, making them appear pink (he designed five other colors, too). The artist's distinctive signature is the sole ornamentation. Manufacturer Raynaud, in Limoges, France, made the limited edition of 150.

Like Artes Magnus, German porcelain giant Rosenthal commissions designers. Gianni Versace's Medusa Blue dinnerware is ornately, unmistakably Versace. Walter Gropius, the German founder of Bauhaus, broke ground with his TAC1 teapot in 1969 because of its unique "lid arrester," which made one-handed pouring possible. You'll recognize David Queensberry and Martin Hunt's lines: Loft, in all its unadorned whiteness, and Thomas, with its erect nipple-esque teapot and sugar bowl handles. Leading Italian chef Massimiliano Alajmo's glazed, white porcelain In.gredienti tableware is hat-like, in that its use of flat space is juxtaposed with the offset "container" portion of his pieces.

What ceramics exhibit would be complete without its vases and candlesticks? Israeli-born Dror Benshetrit's three black-matte vases, Phases Porcelain Phases of Vases, present an unmistakably feminist and thoughtful narrative (see a fascinating video of the designer's process on, even — or perhaps especially — as they conjure cracked hard-boiled eggs. American jewelry designer Ted Muehling's nature-inspired designs are mostly delicate representations of breakable yet strong organic materials, like shell and wood. His small Moonsnail bowl and pink and celadon pair of salt and pepper Snail shells for Nymphemburg Porcelain are magical beachcombing treasure. And his plain yet detailed Rococo candlesticks, one glazed, one bisque, are branch, bone, and coral at once. Muehling's work, especially, is lovely here, both muted and haunting.

Designers Masahiro Mori, Cédric Ragot, Bjørn Wiinblad, Joseph Kosuth, Barbara Schmidt with her Khala Five Senses Touch!, and Peter Schmidt Group/Arzberg also represent in this exhibit. The Schmidt/Arzberg line, Form 2006 Collection Orange Décor, offers tension and harmony with its Bento-box flavor, plastic lids, and metal accents. The Teapot and Teapot Warmer would be in the cart if the museum were Target. But the ubiquitous "Please Do Not Touch" signs remind us that it's not. Peter Schmidt writes about art as it's reduced to its true meaning, where it becomes relevant and simple. Functional. And in this way, these artists do grow beyond their work. From a $25 porcelain cup to a $25,000 soup tureen, nearly everything in the exhibit is available retail, somewhere beyond.

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Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker