Making the Designer

Michael Rice Ceramics Art + Perception 108 2018 Yarrobil Home

As a child I was always engrossed in, and obsessed with, imagery. When I would look at books or magazines the pictures were far more important to me than the text; only after the desire for the visual was sated would I even consider reading. In fact, I would often stare at the words looking for images and patterns to appear from the jumble of letters and paragraphs, which they often did. Reading was third on my list of priorities when digesting any form of printed media. Drawing was the same; it was my language, and writing always seemed like such a waste of good drawing time. Of course, the irony of now writing this is not lost on me, but I would find so much pleasure in drawing throughout my childhood that it was obvious to both me and my parents that this would be the direction my life would go in, there was never any doubt.

Clay really is a wondrous substance. Antonio Gaudi realized this and the window and door handles in his famous Casa Batlo in Barcelona took their design from clay gently squeezed in the hand to create perfectly ergonomic, intuitive and beautifully distinct design elements. When I first used clay I immediately realized that this material was something I had to master. I was still drawing, but now in 3D. I realized that I needed to understand the processes, skills and techniques that would transform this soft malleable and forgiving material into the hard and fixed ceramic that it could become; all the time I was learning but it felt like I was simply playing. Not that there weren’t frustrations: making successful ceramics is mastering a series of sequential processes each one of which can spell catastrophe if not correctly executed. Life lessons are truly experienced in getting to know clay: patience, acceptance, failure, accuracy and repetition, making small gains as you go.

The key is not to see mistakes as mistakes, and not to have too fixed an idea, the design can always be continued faithfully but too ignore what happens in this process is to miss many new inspirations and miss the muse in the making.

Materials have always been important to me, and I’m always drawn to works that display a mastery over material. Knowing the difficulty in process, the commitment required and the failures that success necessitates, I have a great respect when I see skill and obsession evidenced. An expert really is someone who has made all the mistakes it is possible to make. I always tell students you can read a book about riding a horse but it won’t help you that much when you’re on the back of one. Practical knowledge is a different understanding to theoretical understanding; this takes dedication to your practice and there are no short cuts.

As a designer-maker I have always wanted to created objects that looked organically perfect, objects that could easily mimic natural phenomena: nature is always the inspiration and getting close to it nourishes me not only as a designer or maker but as a person. When you occasionally manage to create something that works particularly well, there is a moment where all the struggles and problems in the process of creating the final artworks collapse into an epiphanous joy that is quite simply sublime, calming and exciting at the same

The advantage of being a designer and a maker is that you have a deep understanding of the materials you are working with. Knowing the material, the process, the limitations, the costs and time involved in creation and how it reacts or will react given a set of circumstances allows an understanding of what can and is possible, not to mention saving time and money on ideas that may prove costly and difficult. That is not to say that anything is easy; on the contrary, the work is extremely technical, and working with temperatures of up to 1300oC alone is a challenge. But many times I have had to explain to clients why their ideas would not be best created in ceramic, within their budget and timescale, this is something that only comes with experience.
As much as it is extremely important to stay faithful to the design, especially when working with a client, for my own work I am open to the possibility of even radical change during the process of making. This has always been an area where I have learned to see everything as an opportunity, and even blunders at this point have ended up being future design features.

The key is not to see mistakes as mistakes, and not to have too fixed an idea; the design can always be continued faithfully but to ignore what happens in this process is to miss many new inspirations and miss the muse in the making. This is where great design comes from: playing, being open to what may happen, being free to discover and noting the outcomes. I’ve come to see this part of the process as fundamental and to understand it as praxis. Praxis is learning by doing, by first taking action and then reflecting and re-reflecting upon the action – seeing all of the outcomes, wanted or unwanted, as pure potential. The journey really is just as important as the destination.

Design for me, therefore, is more than just design; it is seeing a project through all of the stages and being the decision-maker and the actual maker in all – creating a beautiful solution to a problem that may or may not exist: its function may be its actual form, to function as an artwork. In my own work, which is specifically based on the vessel, what I am seeking to achieve, what it is I’m really interested in, is elevating the vessel to the status of art object, in some ways similar to an ‘Objet d'art’ or ‘Objet de vertu’. Creating objects that resonate with a timeless quality with a feeling beyond the genesis of the manufactured and constructed.

I enjoy that the works are difficult to date to a specific culture or place exhibiting an aesthetic that is visually striking yet with a familiarity of form and application that makes the most of the least materials. The finishes are straightforward yet complex creating a dialectic that transcends simple visual appearance, redefining iconic or ceremonial territory. This, complemented with the gestalt of the works, creates a synthesis, gracing them with an archetypal presence.

The nuanced subtlety of optimized simplicity and materiality leads to a contemplative understanding, acceptance and precognitive agreement with the finished works.

by Michael Rice

Michael Rice is a designer, artist and educator specializing in ceramics and, more recently, glass. He is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at the American University of Dubai and a member of the International Academy of Ceramics (IAC) based in Geneva. Rice is also the IAC UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) representative for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). He is particularly interested in terra-sigillata and firing techniques such as raku, smoke and saggar. His work is concerned with surface, tessellation, natural geometry and virtuosity.

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