From the Editor: March 2015

At some point during the last two weeks of our production process for this issue, the editorial staff started to talk about the pieces that we had in our personal collections by artists included in this issue. We brought them in, admired the pieces in person, fought over them a little, and looked at them with a new perspective, having learned about the people behind the work, and the ways they were designed and made.

At one end of the spectrum, design is a process that is part of what we all do in the studio when planning to make new work. We think up ideas, define the concepts that are important, sketch pieces (in our heads, out of clay on paper, on a computer) that fit our chosen criteria, then refine the forms. During this process, in addition to considering form, we consider use, context, and audience, as well as the right tools (whether familiar or new) for the job. Glen R. Brown’s discussion of Julia Galloway’s newest body of work and Linda Arbuckle’s article on how various artists are using die cutters in the studio to create decals and stencils illustrate this type of design process.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have industrial-scale design where the ideas, concepts, and final forms are created by one person or department and implemented by others. We take a look at the way a company established by artist and designer Edith Heath in 1948 to create Mid-Century Modern tableware is still thriving today, guided by new owners who come from the field of industrial design, but remain dedicated both to Heath’s vision, and to fostering creativity and openness within the company and community.

Somewhere in the middle of this design spectrum is the hybrid studio/design approach, where an artist makes individual studio work but also designs pieces for larger companies. Andrew Ludick, who trained as an illustrator and later gravitated to ceramics, works in this way. His training has helped him to meet the demands of both his studio practice and collaborations with housewares companies.

As we were putting this issue together in the office, I started to think about a recent lecture given by ceramic artist Michael Strand. As he talked about various projects he had implemented with the help of others, I was intrigued by his discussion of one of the central ideas in his work: interrupting systems in order to humanize them. He discussed this in the context of a project he designed in Fargo, North Dakota, where he lives. Volunteers decorated sandbags used to create the barriers that protect the city during annual floods. This project provided a way for people who could not participate in filling or placing sandbags to be involved, and even become critical members of the team by helping to lift the morale of the people piling the sandbags into place. The result was a new (albeit temporary) kind of public art in the city that all residents could take ownership of and enjoy. (If you’d like to see images, click on the “Fargo Sand Bag Project” link on Strand’s website, www.michaeljstrand.com.)

I started to see this idea—humanizing systems through benevolent interruptions—as central to the design concepts of some of the artists and institutions included in this issue. 

The fact that Edith Heath’s vision of creating minimal yet inviting work for every day use is still thriving despite the closing of many small-scale ceramics factories in the US points to the personal connections people have with both Heath’s original designs and those introduced by Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, the new stewards of her legacy. The new owners’ commitment to including community artists in their showroom also subtly subverts traditional expectations by highlighting and supporting various makers in addition to Heath’s own products.

In the wider community, Baltimore Clayworks’ Clay and Recovery programs specifically help participants in residential addiction programs incorporate creativity, skill building, and self expression into their recovery process. As a further change to humanize this system, the Cups for Recovery program includes cup prototypes created by the staff, that are made by the program participants. The finished pieces are sold online to generate revenue to continue funding the program.

Perhaps more subtly relating to benevolent systems changes, Andrew Ludick’s fish plate designs for Crate & Barrel, hand painted onto industrially produced tableware by artists in Portugal, retain the personality and quirks of his studio work.

Where do you fall on the design spectrum? How can you adapt new tools to achieve the results you envision? In what ways could you design a product or project to humanize a system? We’d like to hear your ideas.

—Jessica Knapp, editor.

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