“The design object should also be a piece of art”: Architecture Meets Ceramics At RIBA North

Ceramica Exhibition 1 (installation)

Liam Peacock speaks to two of the designers testing the limits of pottery, porcelain and glass in RIBA North’s new exhibition Cerámica – and discovers how their cutting-edge production techniques could bring about a more sustainable future…

RIBA North, Liverpool’s new architectural centre, has just unveiled its second exhibition, entitled Cerámica. For those unfamiliar with RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects), it is one of the most, if not the most, influential architectural institutions in the world: established in 1834, it has championed the most renowned architects in recent history, from Lasdun, who designed the Royal National Theatre on London’s South Bank, to Zaha Hadid, who created the MAXXI in Rome. Its awards and prizes define an architect’s career, and the architectural schools it accredits are among the most prestigious. All things considered, its presence as a public-facing exhibition space in Liverpool is of great importance.

As the first major investment outside of its London headquarters at 66 Portland Place, RIBA North is the institute’s most significant act of decentralizing its resources. Positioned on the Liverpool Waterfront, it neighbors are other important cultural institutions, such as Tate Liverpool and Open Eye Gallery, as well as sites of architectural importance, including the Three Graces, Albert Dock and the Liverpool One development. It is it’s positioning in this location and specifically within the Mann Island complex that put it at the center of the UNESCO World Heritage Site debate. Acting as the WHS hub, RIBA North provides information about the cultural and architectural heritage of Liverpool as well as hosting talks and lectures around the subject.

“From hand building to throwing, slip casting to 3D printing, the incredible versatility of the material has meant it has always had a key place in the arts”

The recent increased focus on the World Heritage Site status follows warnings from UNESCO that further development on particular sites risks the status being revoked. The debate has raised several questions – including, is such growth on a global scale sustainable? At a time when continual development, consumption and growth have become a marker for success, can design offer viable alternatives?

Cerámica seeks to do just that; exploring the potential of ceramics as a sustainable alternative to more commonly used materials in architecture and design. The exhibition presents the research of ECAlab (Environmental Ceramics for Architecture Laboratory), founded and directed by Rosa Urbano Gutiérrez and Amanda Wanner, and features the work of international and contemporary sculptors and designers, including Edit Szabo and Matt Davis. ECAlab experiments with how traditional ceramic techniques and digital engineering processes can be used together to create more sustainable processes, objects and architectural elements.


As a material, the use of ceramics has transcended millennia, and its artifacts have offered insight into the lives of long extinct peoples. The oldest known ceramic artifact, the Venus of Dolni, was discovered alongside functional objects of that period, such as tools and vessels. This ceramic discovery pays testament to the human compulsion to render the world in three dimensions; not only for necessity, but also for the expression of ideas and beliefs. It is this link between clay, ceramics and human creativity that has driven the development of new processes and technologies over the ages. From hand building to throwing, slip casting to 3D printing, the incredible versatility of the material has meant it has always had a key place in the arts.

For Cerámica, ECAlab have worked with 11 ceramicists and asked them to reinterpret the light diffusing form that they’ve designed using digital software. The aim is to experiment with introducing an external input into the manufacturing process of an engineered object, allowing space for ‘local’ identity to be retained in a way that globalized markets and processes haven’t yet provisioned for.

“Sustainability for me is to create eternal pieces, not something that will be replaced in a few years”

“Sustainability for me is to create eternal pieces, not something that will be replaced in a few years”, exhibiting sculptor Szabo tells me (her work pictured, below) . “The key is the object’s personal significance and profound meaning. Spaces and objects are designed together thus the latter becomes an integral element of it’s environment. This way it becomes essential, not easily replaceable.”

It is this essentiality that has arguably been lost in a lot of the designed objects that we own today. Be it clothing, furniture, ornaments, appliances or handheld devices, they’re ultimately made to be mass producible, and to soon be obsolete or superseded. The impact of built-in obsolescence in contributing to our non-sustainable practices is reinforced by trends in the consumer and design worlds. “I find it important to embed my objects into a historical context”, continues Szabo, “that will ensure that they will preserve their aesthetics and concept in the long term. This is the reason why I don’t follow trends. Of course in many cases this makes it difficult to engage my work in the flow of the design field.”


The natural abundance of clay made it available to artists and craftspeople across the ages and all over the world. This led to great diversity in objects and tools produced at a local-scale with longevity in mind and decoration that reflected to the specific identity of people and places.

The historic use of clay in the production of everyday functional objects somewhat excluded it from the more accepted toolkit of the modern artist, and designated it as the medium of craft. However, the dissolving boundaries between contemporary craft, fine art and design have led to a resurgence in the use of ceramics. The preconceived notions of strict boarders between fields is something that Szabo likes to play with, asking the viewer to question the relationship between form, function and concept. “This confusion disturbs the cognitive process when a category is applied to the object,” she says.

“At Cerámica, you’ll be aware of the dual agency of the objects on display”

At Cerámica, you’ll be aware of the dual agency of the objects on display; in particular, Szabo’s work reflects a practice that includes furniture, sculpture, architectural components and conceptual objects. “For me, these categories do not have exact limits”, she states. “The design object should also be a piece of art. An object is good when it has many layers.” Szabo often uses traits borrowed from art and design history to create these layers, employing styles from Baroque to Minimalism.

For her sculpture in the exhibition the same is true, combining fiberglass with ceramics to create what she calls “a contemporary paraphrase of the Chinese rice grain technique”, whereby translucent glaze fills holes in the porcelain allowing light to pass through revealing detailed patterns.

Matt_Davies_Concept design

As well as broadening possibilities in the field of sustainability, developments in technology have also allowed for the re-interpretation of traditional techniques and forms. Exhibiting ceramist Davis (pictured, above) combines 3D printing with casting in bone china to create pieces that would have previously been unable to achieve with traditional techniques. His vessels and sculptures mimic forms from antiquity but are produced with an intentionally pixelated surface.

“The forms are only made possible by using modern tools and technology; this is how I machine physical objects that visually allude to their digital origins”, Davis elaborates. “My training as a graphic designer opened up the possibilities of 3D printing and incorporating digital design into a millennia old art form.” This combination of cutting edge processes and traditional techniques opens up new potential for the medium and positions it within a contemporary discourse, one being shaped by the development of technology and its effect on our lives.

“Analogue techniques of working with clay are now nearly exhausted, and there is very little we’ve not seen already”

Davis argues that “analogue techniques of working with clay are now nearly exhausted, and there is very little we’ve not seen already” — which begs the question: What is next for the medium? He adds “parallel this idea with that of intangible code and how, alongside technology, we’ve evolved to recognise this aesthetic in a physical form.” The physical manifestation of the digital world has become an area for new aesthetics and possibilities to be created for artists and designers working in a variety of mediums, and will arguably be the future for ceramics.

Cerámica at RIBA North not only offers a view of how new production processes, design technology and more considered collaborative endeavors could bring about a more sustainable future using ceramics, it also speaks of how artists and designers are working to test the limits of the material, making it relevant to the digital age while also celebrating its rich history.

Liam Peacock

See Cerámica at RIBA North, Liverpool, until 3 March 2018 — FREE

Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Programme includes the Moulding Futures: Architectural Ceramics Symposium on Friday 8 December 2017 and a curator tour on Saturday 9 December 2017 — see here for full list of events

Images from top: Cerámica installation shot, courtesy RIBA North; Nojan wireframe; Edit Szabo’s design for a masonry stove for the Dunaharaszti Laffert-kúria (mansion), designed to paraphrase baroque period masonry stoves; concept design by Matt Davis. All courtesy the artists

Posted on 22/11/2017 by thedoublenegative