The local ceramics-ware industry in Israel has dwindled to an almost non-existent state due, for the most part, to competition in a global market. This is true in many parallel production fields and across nations, with Asia emerging as the world’s production center. What would have happened if a local ceramic housewares factory had survived the upheavals of time and kept on manufacturing to this day? This question was posed by curators Maya Ben David and Johnathan Hopp to a group of Israeli designers and ceramic artists and was followed by the “Matter of Fact” exhibition at the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center (http://matteroffact.co.il) in Tel Aviv, Israel, in June of 2016. My V300-mold-design project was realized as part of the exhibition.
Participants in the exhibition answered the above question with objects. This practice of creating objects is sometimes referred to as “design for debate” or “conceptual design,” implying that the objects’ prime reason for existence is to generate discussion, to raise a question, to make a point, and so on.
The project began with a study of the feasibility of a contemporary local ceramics-ware industry and review of comparable European ceramic-manufacturing case studies. These case studies pointed to several survival characteristics that I used to form a theoretical foundation and context for the V300 project.
1. Factory size: The factory is envisioned as a big workshop, or a boutique factory-production facility, that is not competing on true mass-production scale, where value is only measured in cost. There is an expanse with many shades of industrialization between the artisan workshop and large-scale, fully automated production lines. This hypothetical manufacturing facility is selectively placed within this expanse.
2. Design-Driven Products: The focus of the facility is on products with an added value, whether that is functional, emotional, or cultural.
3. Dynamic Production: The manufacturing process is adaptable, and has the ability to change and to react quickly to shifting realities (market needs, trends, technologies, etc.).
4. Branding: The products are identifiable by creating a narrative or attitude with a visual language that can be embraced and followed.
The ceramics-ware production process quickly became the focal point of the current project, with several opportunities lending themselves to this process.
Industrialization brings with it standardization and quality control of the product replication process which, in turn, economizes the product. The most common method of industrially producing ceramic ware such as cups, vases, toilets, and sinks is slip casting.
The slip-casting technique is, in principle, the same in factories as in artists’ studios, and begins with a plaster mold containing a cavity in the form of the product (vase, sink, etc.). The plaster mold is then filled with fluid ceramic material—slip. The slip is attracted and compacts to the walls of the mold through which the slip’s water content is drawn and a solid clay wall slowly builds on the surface of the plaster mold’s cavity. The longer the slip rests in the mold, the thicker the walls of the final object will be. When the desired wall thickness has been attained, the excess slip is poured out of the mold and reused. The ceramic vessel that emerges from the mold is fired, glazed, and then fired again to the final temperature.
Plaster, which does a very good job at drawing the water from the slip as well as not adhering to it, is mechanically unfit for endless production and in industry has a lifespan limited to several dozen production runs. Additionally, due to the time involved in the slip-casting process, production demand often also dictates that several molds producing identical products be used at the same time, hence the need for a mother mold (usually made of rigid polymer) that is used to repeatedly produce many plaster molds for the production line.
Generally speaking, molds are functional machines whose purpose is to produce finished pieces in the most efficient way possible. What if we were to view a mold as a product? What changes come about simply by redefining our thoughts and perception on the means of production in relation to what is made? Certainly the plaster molds created using a mother mold in the ceramics industry by definition alone qualify as products in themselves and should be treated as such.
A Well-Considered and Detailed Tool
Returning to my project’s hypothetical ceramics-ware boutique factory, we find caring workers handling plaster molds, filling slip, pouring out the excess material, and removing solidified vessels. The V300 plaster molds they use are part of a production system that takes this whole scenario into account and adds additional constraints. It is an exercise in logic and form.
The mold produces vases of varying design but within geometric limitations: The vase must be symmetrical and concentric, at a height no greater than 300 mm and with an inverted lip. This particular vase design is decorated with six fine lateral ridges that run along the vase’s body from base to lip. This ribbing exists in part to mask the inevitable marks left on the vase where the two parts of the mold meet—the parting line.
The V300 mold has emphasized hand-grasping areas so that workers can securely manipulate the mold. Its top is sculpted so as to form a funnel into which the slip can be poured when filling the mold, and incorporates two spouts for pouring out excess slip. In conjunction with the spout is a rocking feature at the mold’s base, allowing heavier molds to be tipped on a tabletop when pouring out the slip. The funnel feature also doubles as a guide for the tool used to cut away the excess material and form the vase’s lip when the slip has partially dried.
Two standard nylon straps are used to fasten the mold closed while horizontal grooves keep the straps in place. When the straps are removed, the embossed V300 codification becomes visible and air pressure can be used on the now exposed inlets to aid in the separation of the mold parts and slip-cast vessel. A recess for labeling is also included should the mold go into storage before it has finished serving in its full production run. This label has a visual icon of the vase design for quick identification as well as textual and QR coding for background information (date produced, amount of products it produced, etc.).
The plaster mold is of a hexagonal shape as this makes for efficient nesting when in storage on a shelf. It also means a reduced volume (and weight) of plaster and relative consistency in water-absorbing mass. Rounded, large-angle exterior corners mean less chipping in its assembled form.
The V300 mold is meant to look like a fictional product, a contained form, and a well-considered and detailed tool. A blacksmith takes great pride in making his own tools, carpenters make their own jigs as do many other crafts people. It would make sense that this kind of attention be given to mold design in the envisioned context.
Making the Mother Mold
Casting twice in the mother mold produces a single plaster mold, i.e., the mother mold produces identical parts, two of which form a complete plaster mold from which a ceramic vase can be made. The identical mold parts are the reason vases cast in the V300 mold system will be of a symmetrical design. The two-part plaster mold receives its “keys” (male/female geometric features responsible for the mold parts’ alignment) from the mother mold and not from each other as common in traditional workshop mold preparation.
Two additional contemporary technological production methods are considered here with regard to the mother mold: The first is injection-molded plastic for its competitive costs and the second is 3-D printing for its customizability.
The mother mold is made of two parts: the first is a box-like form that conforms to injection-molding constraints (made in a simple two-part steel die) including the V300 designation—describing the product line it supports. This part could be in long-term use as it forms the exterior of the plaster mold—independent of the actual ceramic vase form that ultimately emerges from the plaster mold. The second (flatter) half of the mother mold defines the shape of the object to be produced or cast and is made by 3-D printing in a photopolymer. The second part of the mother mold fits inside of the first. The plaster is poured between the two halves of the mother mold, casting both the interior and exterior faces at the same time.
This 3-D printing technology, also called SLA (or stereo lithography), uses a specific light wavelength to solidify a liquid polymer and construct objects layer upon layer, like a topographic map. The advantages of using it here include the ability to introduce new vase designs at a relatively high pace; forgoing the actual existence of the vase in the first place (the vase is designed on computer software and then a negative half of its body is incorporated into the interior mold part—and 3-D printed into existence); and the print resolution is very high so a smooth surface is attainable right out of the printer. In addition, this technology allows the printing of interlocked parts, so that a fully functional screw and hinge system, for instance, can be printed together without the need for assembly later. Here all the moving mechanical parts that fasten the two mother mold parts together are incorporated into the printed part.
I hope that the V300 project provides a tangible vision of an alternative local ceramics producing reality, taking into account functionalist manufacturing thinking and aesthetics alongside a holistic attitude incorporating the people on the production floor as well as a coherent handling of the material process. In what ways will contemporary technologies, such as CAD (computer-aided design) and 3-D printing, impact long term on the way ceramic products are realized? Lets speculate with objects.
the author Dov Ganchrow is a product designer and senior lecturer in the Industrial Design Department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Israel, from which he graduated in 1993. See more of his work at www.amidov.com.