Designing For Both Wall and Table

Yellow Green Flower, to 11 in. (28 cm) in length, slip-cast porcelain, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2014. Photo: Peter Lee. Courtesy of Northern Clay Center.

My approach to the development of my work, how I incorporate decorative shapes and forms, and the way these forms become elements within the larger installation is seeded in the design and construction of each individual form. When starting a new tableware form, my intention is for it to become an element within a wall installation. The form’s final design is determined by, and determines, the larger installation’s composition.

Generating Ideas

Inspiration usually comes to me when researching through my library of Art Nouveau, Asian, and Indian art books, along with my new favorite book Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel. I look for something I have not used before, maybe have overlooked because I previously thought it would be too complicated. While looking through these books, I pause to imagine a three-dimensional design of individual forms, think of a possible use for the pieces as tableware, consider how they may play into a larger installation, and try to visualize an entire wall installation.

The chosen design (or geometric shape) is quickly sketched up to 10 times, with each variation at 5 inches in diameter. Other forms are sketched inside of, next to, and around the shape. This process initiates decisions for the shape of the interior serving space and the exterior rim of the piece. It also allows my subconscious to start working on background patterns and complimentary pieces.

I may draw from a diverse historical base of motifs, but I consciously combine only two or three within one installation. If I choose a wave or cloud form, then the entire installation will have that motif. The one shape that is consistently combined with other geometric shapes throughout all the work is the ogival arch (Gothic pointed arch).

2 Clover, 6 ft. 3 in. (1.9 m) in width installed, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2014. 3 Isis, 22.5 in. (57 cm) in width, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2014. Photos: Petronella Ytsma.

Planning the Forms

I allow a few days to sketch, creating multiple two-dimensional paper maquettes of all the pieces that I initially think will work well together. But sometimes, a form just does not play well with others. In the past, I have tried to force a specific motif from a source to work with other motifs and the composition usually seemed stiff and contrived, so now I let myself sketch without worrying too much about the origins of a form. I have built up enough confidence in myself to trust what I sketch. Of course there are times when I make the molds, complete several test pieces, then find that I need to make adjustments, re-carve the Styrofoam, and make another mold.

Next, a full-size drawing of the footprint showing the top edges of the serving piece is drawn on frosted, matte Dura-Lar using a mechanical pencil. These footprints consist of lines that delineate convex and concave meeting points on the top surface of the piece. The Dura-Lar is waterproof, erases well and by flipping the sheet over and back again, a curve that is drawn on one side can be refined on the other, erased on the first side, and refined again, until I have a continuous flow of line for the rim and interior spaces of a piece.

4 Lotus, 4 ft. 5 in. (1.3 m) in diameter installed, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2012. 5 Nautilus, 5 ft. 9 in. (1.8 m) in width, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2012. Photos: Petronella Ytsma.

Constructing the Model and Mold

The Dura-Lar template then becomes a punch pattern. I perforate it by punching very small holes along the lines with a T-pin. This allows me to transfer the lines to a 2-inch high piece of Styrofoam. The Styrofoam template is cut out using a Hot Wire Foam Factory hot wire.

Fine woodworking Riffler files, one that is a triangle and one that is round, are used to rough out and refine the shape in the Styrofoam. Drywall sandpaper is used to further refine and sand the surfaces to get the Styrofoam smooth enough to mold.

For creating the background designs, the ceramic pieces are arranged over large Dura-Lar sheets. The background pattern is sketched, refined, and cut out. The background templates are taped to the gallery walls, blue tape is placed under their outline and the pattern is transferred to the blue tape. The outline is then cut out from the tape using a mat knife. To prevent the paint from bleeding under the tape, the edge is sealed with acrylic matte medium and the background design is painted. The same template also has the locations marked for the drywall screws on which to hang the pieces.

The successful utilitarianism of each piece is rooted in my knowledge and skill of throwing and trimming functional forms on a potter’s wheel. The sides of the pieces are designed to have a section that is a half concave arch, just like one would trim for a thrown plate. This allows a user to be able to pick up the plate when it is on a flat surface. For bowls, the rims have a thinner section for ease of picking them up. I used to not worry about being able to pick up a piece with one hand, but being able to do so makes the piece so much more user friendly. I do struggle to refine the forms so they successfully marry functionality and my aesthetic. It is this design challenge, with trial and error until a piece is resolved, that I enjoy most and it keeps me excited in the studio.

6–7 Semecadria, 6 ft. 2 in. (1.9 m) in length, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, fired to cone 9 in an electric kiln, 2014.

For the design of the individual pieces, I create an appropriately sized interior concave section for food that is delineated by a rim with varying width. The larger the piece is, the more area I have to vary the rim and interior shapes. The proportions for the rim size change from form to form to be in concert with the interior space. These proportions are determined by my aesthetic, which is consciously or subconsciously influenced by historical Art Nouveau, Asian, and Indian reference materials.

As far as the structural elements for the work, I choose 2-inch Styrofoam to make the model for casting because the work shrinks to 1¾ inches in height. This is a comfortable plate height that allows the piece to fit in a dishwasher. It is also a low enough relief for the forms to be stable on the wall. All of the pieces hang on the wall with either one or two drywall screws. The interior of the foot is designed with a shallow overhang that hooks over a screw. To remove the work it needs to be lifted up and off of the screw.

As for the glaze and background color decisions, the glaze color comes first and that choice is dependent upon the mood I want to set in the gallery. For the exhibition “Bouquet” at the Burnet Gallery in the Le Meridien Chambers Hotel in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I wanted each grouping to have its own individual voice with bold colors for both the work and the wall field. For the “Six McKnight Artists” exhibition at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I wanted the gallery to feel cool as on a freshly snow-covered winter day, therefore all the work was white with some pieces having cool, minty green rims.

Once the work is completely glazed, the designs are arranged over varied paint color swatches to choose background colors that are in keeping with the desired mood for the gallery. The goal for the color relationship between the forms and their field is to force the viewer to give the same amount of attention and awareness to the negative spaces as to the ceramic forms. Therefore, the spacing between the individual pieces plays an important role for giving prominence to the negative spaces.

In contrast to designing work for a gallery setting, when working with a patron to create an installation for a private setting, we work together to maintain my aesthetic while resolving any of their concerns. The color palette in the room, existing wall color, and wall dimensions are taken into consideration. It’s a welcome challenge that continues to enhance the versatility of my installations.

Since my installations include very precise background designs that are time intensive to transfer to a wall and paint, I have not been actively applying to galleries outside a 100-mile radius from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I recently completed background tile sets for a few small groupings of pieces, making it possible for anyone to install the work. The tiles have an arrangement of holes. Two holes are used to attach the tiles to the wall with drywall screws and others are used to hang the pieces. I specifically created these tile backgrounds so I can apply to a more diverse group of galleries.

the author Kimberlee Joy Roth lives and works in Minneapolis, Minnesota. To see more of her work, visit

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