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WHAT PORCELAIN IS

a research on porcelain by Julia Schuster


PORCELAIN HAS A MEMORY Fernando Brizio Viagem, 2005

All clay has something called memory (the tendency to

return to a shape previously held), and high-fired porcelain has it to a very great degree. Porcelain has therefore to be

treated with great attention as the material will memorize every careless touch. To create Viagem Brizio made use of this memory. He loaded still-wet unfired porcelain forms

such as bottles and bowls into the back of a jeep and then

took them for a ride. During the journey, the ceramics were reshaped by the sharp curves and the morphology of road.


Porcelain shrinks Laura StraĂ&#x;er 14 %, 2009

Porcelain shrinks both in drying and firing; depending on

the porcelain clay used, the shrink factor lies between 12% and 20%. The 14% lamp makes use of this very feature of

the porcelain mass. Each porcelain lampshade is a cast of

the previous, larger shade and becomes the model for the

next, smaller one. The modelling process is carried out five times. With each cast the influence of the firing on the

porcelain clay recurs. With this lamp the porcelain mass coshaped the result, there’s a slight yet visible modification.


Porcelain IS TRANSLUCENT Arnold Annen Floating, 2009

Porcelain derives its present name from the old Italian word ‘porcellana’ (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the

translucent surface of the shell. It has the particular quality

that light can shine through, especially if the wall thickness of a piece is very thin. The Swiss artist Arnold Annen takes this material property to its limits, creating razor-thin

porcelain pieces such as Floating. He uses a gas burner on

the outer surface to blast off various material layers and the result is a paper thin translucent form.


Porcelain has a CLEAR SOUND Self produced

Cup with pen, 2013

Porcelain has a characteristic high, clear sound. In fact, one of the hallmarks of porcelain is its ‘tone’ or ‘ring’. You don’t

see the cracks in a cup, you hear them first. An expierenced porcelain manufacturer is able to test if a piece is going

to break only by hitting against the piece with a pen. The

natural resonance of porcelain is also used for example in

the field of product design by designers who develop and then mould porcelain speaker shells.


Porcelain IS Strong and ROBUST Tjep

Hella Jongerius Ikea Vase, 2007

We often think of ceramics as weak and easily broken.

Experience has thaught us that handling ceramics recquires extra care, but is this perception of weakness really true?

Porcelain in fact is a strong material applied for its robust-

ness in medicine, e.g. Tjep invites people to re-evaluate the principle of breaking something, their ‘Do Break’ principle

is here applied to an Ikea vase by Hella Jongerius. Instead of falling appart when damaged, the vase remains watertight thanks to a special rubber coating applied to its interior.


Porcelain IS FRAGILE and delicate Clare Twomey

Consciousness/Conscience, 2001

One of porcelain’s ultimate characteristics: its fragility and

likelihood to break. Twomey’s floor piece Consciousness/Conscience is made up of hundreds of slip-cast fine bone china

boxes, laid out to occupy a room. In order to experience the art work, the viewer must walk on the fragile boxes which

haven’t been fired and therefore break. By walking across the work visitors effectively destroy the floor to gain access to

other works. Twomey refers to this breaking of her artwork as an “act of destruction through human curiosity”.


Porcelain does not age Marek Cecula

In Dust Real, 2005

Usually things change with their use; they show signs of deterioration or traces of corrosion on their surface but porcelain lasts. Cecula plays with our perception of the

perfect, white, longlasting porcelain and uses fire as creative and destructive force to age the pieces. Forms from various porcelain manufactures were burned again in traditional anagama wood fire kilns to achieve the totally opposite

effect from conventional industrial standards, imperfections and deformation are here intentional values.


Porcelain does not detoriate Victoria & Albert Museum Ceramic Collection, 2006

“Della ceramica mi ha sempre colpito ed emozionato la sua

durata e resistenza nel tempo.� Enzo Mari says he was always particulary struck by ceramics ability to last in time. Por-

celain is quite an indestructible material, which can in fact break but does not decompose. Ceramics are indeed one

of the most common objects found at archaeological sites,

being one of oldest commodities created by humans. Thanks to ceramics people have been able to study the development and the history of civilization throughout the ages.


Porcelain IS DENSE AND IMPERMEABILE Marcel Wanders Egg Vase, 1997

In contrast to other clay bodies, such as earthenware, por-

celain is a vitreous clay body. It is non porous and becomes impermeabile already after the first firing; the so called

bisque firing executed at a temperature of 900째C approximately. This means that a porcelain design for tableware

does not necessarily need glazing in order to be sealed and

used for liquids. It is important to note though that designs without glaze are much harder to clean and with time leave traces of usage where the liquid or food has been.


Porcelain CAN BE THIN LIKE PAPER Ruth Gurvich

Lightscape, 2011

Porcelain can be as delicate as paper, light in every sense,

as the edition Lightscape by Ruth Gurvich, which is based

entirely on paper models, beautifully illustrates. In order to create this series of tableware and vases her paper models

were dipped into porcelain slip, the paper in succession disappears during the firing but creates the base for the form. There are also certain types of porcelain, such as eggshell

porcelain, which can have an excessively thin, light and pure white body under the glaze.


Porcelain is Recyclable Self produced

Leftovers, 2013

In porcelain production a good part of the material goes

back into the circle of production and is therefore quite a

sustainable material. Disused porcelain or leftovers can be recycled into grog (ergo pulverized porcelain) by grinding

and pulverizing. Then one has to add the correct amount of water (in relation to the amount of porcelai) and can remix and reuse the whole bulk. The ability to recycle clay meta-

phorically speaking reflects our part in nature’s cycle and the idea of returning to where we come from.


Porcelain changes constitution from liquid to dry

Clay is heavy when it is wet and, because of its high water

Jim Melchert

drying times, while the drying process was filmed. Indeed,

Changes, 1972

content, light and dry when it is fired, because the water evaporates in the heat of the kiln. With the happening

Changes Jim Melchert experimented where the edges of the ceramic discipline lie, which was in its time quite radical. People dipped their heads in slip and then sat in a room

that was cool at one end and hot at the other to vary the clay bodies are a breathing material; in a sense they are organic in a matter that is lacking in wood.


Porcelain is less plastic and malleable than other clay bodies Ayala Steinitz

Quasistatic, 2012

It has to be treated with great care, as any deformation or

crack in the surface is memorised by the material and might reappear during firing. Porcelain contains more silica and

feldspar (the glass-making components in clay bodies) and

less clay (the plasticizers in clay bodies), so the body is very open and porous. This means that it is more difficult to

work with a porcelain body than other clay bodies since it

becomes saturated with water so quickly and collapses much faster. Porcelain’s memory means that it is less forgiving.


The idea. Calculation shrinking amount porcelain slip. Model must be the correct percentage bigger than the actual size of the finished piece. Creation of model - the positive. Soaping of positive model so the plaster negative does not adhere. From model a master mould in plaster is created. Plaster negative must dry for 1 - 2 weeks. Pouring porcelain slip into plaster mould. Plaster absorbs water contained in slip and fixes it against the sides of the mould. Excess slip is emptied after precise period proportional to the size of the piece. Piece is taken out. Drying process begins, piece shrinks by 3 %. When leather-hard pieces such as handles or spouts can be stuck to the piece with a binder. When leather-hard holes can be pierced as well. Retouching or fettling to remove seams caused by the division of the mould into several parts and any other imperfections. Piece must be completely dry before firing, 2 – 3 days drying period. Piece undergoes a first firing at 980 °C in kiln. This firing known as bisque hardens and dehydrates each piece, making it porous so that the glaze fixes itself to the surface. After first firing, piece is brittle and porous, called ‘biscuit’ now. Porosity enables glazing. Hand dipped into a glaze slop or sprinkled with glaze. Glaze must be applied with an even thickness on the surface of each piece. The parts which touch the kiln (usually the rim or foot) during the second firing must be cleaned of glaze otherwise the piece will stick to the kiln. Second firing at higher temperature, purpose of this firing is to vitrify the paste and the glaze to augment the whiteness, translucency, resonance and hardness of the porcelain. During this firing the piece undergoes significant shrinkage (10 to 20%) in relation to the model and reaches its final size. Take piece out of the kiln. Inspection of the piece and selection of damaged goods. Be happy about it.

Porcelain is slow production Self produced

Step by step production, 2013

Porcelain production is production in many different steps as the list above shows. It is time consuming as the timing of the material itself has to be respected. Each step in the production has a correct moment for its execution. If too soft, it can very easily deform; if too dry, it can break. It

takes time and experience to learn this particular timing. Also, the whole production process from the first model

to the final plaster negative usually takes some test runs in

plaster forms until the piece can finally be slipcast in series.


Porcelain needs manual skill, patience and detail CARE Self produced

My making tools, 2013

Porcelain is a curious material whose characteristics are

inexhaustable. Even professionals who work in the porcelain industry for a lifetime claim that they still discover new

things or that things don’t turn out as expected. I think this

is excactly what makes this material so rich and interesting. There is an awful lot to learn when working with ceramics in general; the designer is at the mercy of the material.


Porcelain production is like cooking Studio Formafantasma Autarchy, 2010

There is a strong link between ceramic production and

cooking. First of all, clay itself was propably first discovered in Stone Age when accidently placing clay next to the fire. Ancient people made the observation that clay becomes

rigid when dried and hard like stone when placed in fire.

Secondly, some parts of the process of porcelain production and cooking are very similiar. They both have to do with

measuring materials, pouring materials (the slipcasting) and finally cooking (the firing).


Porcelain shows the process of production Joao Abreu Valente

The Performance of Matter, 2012

The ‘teapot’ set, part of The Performance of Matter, is a single mould that produces an entire tea set. By using a fixed

amount of liquid clay, the production of each object leaves

less material to make the next one. The coloring of the clay is a visual translation of this process, where the first cast-

ing reveals the initial mixing of two different shades that

eventually start to blend into a single hue as the material is poured in and out of the mold, repeating the gesture.


CERAMICS ARE related to earth Atelier NL

Clay Service, 2009

Clay is the raw material for ceramics. It can be bought or it

can in fact be...dug up. Studio NL dug up the clay for their

tableware Clay Service for Royal Tichelaar Makkum from dif-

ferent locations throughout the Netherlands. The service shows the local identity and color of the earth of the area the clay was taken from. The various colors of the plates and cups is a result of the respective chemical components of the clay.


Porcelain has its own Mind Kuo-Long Lin, Chia-En Lu Future Cracks, 2013

Porcelain is an unforgiving material. Things happen in the

kiln that can not always be anticipated: the clay can become

distorted, can crack. This can lead to a high rate of porcelain

rejects, the so called second rate ware, especially if the forms are complicated. A 25 % error rate has to be calculated in

porcelain production. Future Cracks is inspired by cracked

ancient porcelain. Metals stiches and computerized assem-

bling techniques mend imaginary broken pieces, creating in this way new shapes.


Porcelain is Tradition Self produced in Limoges

Bernardaud service, 18th cent., 2012

Once it was tradition to own a fine dinner service as part of a homes inventory. Sunday afternoons with a well-laid cof-

fee table was a ritual. Nowadays this tradition is more often

than not outdated. In porcelain production the tea or coffee pot was for a long time the flagship of tableware. Today

tableware has do adapt to more flexible living conditions,

people want to have tableware that is stackable and adapts

to different modes of cooking. Producers cannot built any-

more on rigid conventions for the application of tableware.


Porcelain Is precious Ingo Maurer

Porca Miseria, 1994

Porcelain is a precious material not only economically

speaking but it can literally burst into a thousand pieces given its fragility. The Porca Miseria lamp by German

designer Ingo Maurer is an explosion of broken dishes, in

which rays of light escape through the shards of porcelain. It takes four people almost five days to smash, drop or

hammer regular plates in order to make the explosion look random, but according to Maurer it is only about 50 or 60 percent, the rest is calculation really.


Porcelain has often been associated with power, politics, the ruling class

August the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland,

August the Strong

for porcelain would border on obsession, so possessed with

Founder of Meissen, 1670 - 1733

was the founder of Meissen Porzellan Manufaktur in 1710, the first European porcelain manufacture. In a period when Chinese and Japanese where the only ones holding the

secret to producing porcelain he set out to discover the hidden process by approaching the alchemist Johann Friedrich

BÜttger who eventually found a recipe. August’s fascination the white gold he was that he swapped an entire regiment

of his soldiers for a chache of Chinese blue and white vessels.


Porcelain has a long history of copying Laura Straßer

With Love from China, 2008

When Marco Polo first brought porcelain to Europe from his journeys to China in the 13th century he unleashed a

veritable porcelain mania. Since they kept the recipe strictly secret it was traded at high prices and Europeans diligently attempted to copy it, succeding only in 1708. European’s

porcelain history therefore has been strongly marked by the copy, which is highly ironic given the situation today, when China is accused of copying. Laura Straßer plays with this;

comissioning Chinese craftsmen to make a copy of her own face.


Porcelain is a collector’s item Chris Antemann

The Collector, 2011

After Marco Polo’s discovery of porcelain along the silk

route in China porcelain became a fashionable collector’s

item which functioned as a status symbol and was sold at high prices. The Collector plays with the acquisitive mania

that is a large part of the history of ceramics and especially of porcelain. The room filled with miniature vessels and

objects, recalls the abundant ‘porcelain rooms’ of European

monarchs and wealthy aristocrats. In this example the desire to acquire objects is conflated with erotic desire.


Porcelain is nostalgia Self produced at Augarten Vienna Alt Wiener Rosen Service, 2012

“The mug, long a key signifier of the work of the tableware pot-

ter, might appear to have exhausted all the forms, variations and patterns possible yet new shapes and designs continue to appear. In many housholds and offices the mug has replaced the cup and saucer, and is likely to have been chosen with care by its owner.

Many kitchens boast a collection of mugs, proudly displayed and selected for use according to size, mood, time of day and any association of who made it and how it was acquired.”

Emmanuel Cooper, in ‘Contemporary Ceramics’


Porcelain has a skin Tamsin Van Essen Psoriasis, 2007

A common perception of porcelain’s surface is being smooth and flawless. Porcelain’s skin offers itself for surface treatments not only on a decorative level but also as a tactile

experience or literallly, as in Van Essens work, as metaphorical investigation about skin and its defaults. The Medical

Heirlooms Collection explores contemporary attitudes to-

wards disease and obsession with perfection. Based on 17th

and 18th century apothecary jars the vessels show symptoms of the diseases for which they formerly held the cure.


Porcelain is a sensual material Patricia Urquiola

DĂŠchirer tiles, 2008

When we think of porcelain the adjectives cold, hard, strong and smooth to the touch come to mind. But porcelain is also a highly sensual material which surface design can

create an tactile experience which invites a curious exploration with our hands. DĂŠchirer by Spanish designer Patricia Urquiola is a series of large format porcelain tiles which

explore the expressive potential of ceramics. The surfaces of the layered patterns evoke memories of the past, they give the impression of a surface worn away by time.


Porcelain is nice to the touch Bonnie Kemske Cast Hug, 2008

Kemske’s sculptural ceramic objects are cast hugs, that

aim to more fully engage the body’s sense of touch in an

experience of sensual groundedness, to make viewers into

touchers, and to evoke the intimacy of bodily contact. The experience goes from seeing, touching, grasping, lifting, holding, caressing to embracing. It moves viewers away

from sight alone which requires physical distance, to the

intimacy of corporality. Handling and embracing the work evokes touch memories and subconscious associations.


Ceramics and crafts have been judged as minor in the context of modern art Iina Vuorivirta

Mass-Produced Individualism, 2011

There has been a historical dichotomy between fine arts and crafts, mass production vers. handmade. Recently

designers consciously intergrate craft methods again, they

want it to be seen that there has been a real hand involved.

Mass – Produced Individualism in fact is a series of lamps and vessels moulded by machine into a simple form and

while the clay is still wet, the designer uses hand tools and sometimes directly cuts the piece into two unique objects. It is not a matter of eighter the hand or a machine, but of utilizing both, Vuorivirta claims.


Ceramics have (had) a second class status Grayson Perry

Edith Perry 1851, 1996

“Grayson Perry’s success in winning the Turner Prize in 2003

marked a seismic shift in the perception of ceramics, particularly in the world of fine art, and its reverberations were felt around the globe. With the pot having found a place within such a

high-profile event, ceramics - or even pottery - could not again be easily relegated to a more modest status, but the success was

hard won. As Perry weirdly remarked, coming out as a potter was far more challenging than coming out as a transvestite.” Emmanuel Cooper in ‘Contemporary Ceramics’


Ceramics are often seen as womens work Marie Garnier Method, 2008

“I think it’s to do with the fact that historically, pottery has been linked with eating and drinking and the domestic rituals of looking after people, with nurture.” Edmund De Waal

The French designer Marie Garnier is interested in a

method of making that links thought to the practice. She reflects upon ceramics gender connotations by combining porcelain and women’s hair. Her project dwells upon the

sphere of creation as being in correspondence with the idea of private and social codes organized by women.


Pottery has been made by ‘anonymous’ Craftspeople Susan Hiller

Fragments, 1977-78

Susan Hiller installed in her art work Fragments hundreds

of pueblo pottery shards, along with photographs and drawings that documented how they were collected. It reflected the ‘anonymous’ women who made them, the (female)

helper of the archeologist who collected them, and the

artist herself as the animator of these complex and uneasy

relationships between material culture, archeology and art. The marginalized place of the decorative in the context of modern art is approached in this work.


THE MOST influental art Work of the 20th century is made of porcelain

Almost a century ago, in the year of 1917, Marcel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp

both his most famous and most controversial art work, over

Fountain, 1917

created the most antifetish fetish, signing an urinal made of porcelain R. Mutt and sending it to an exhibition. In

doing so, departing from a ceramic material, he initiated ‘contemporary art’. Duchamp described his intent with

the piece was to shift the focus of art from physical craft

to intellectual interpretation. Interestingly this readymade, time again and again highly debated, has so far not been discussed in the light of a ceramic context by critics.


Porcelain Asks questions Ai Weiwei

Dropping a han dynasty urn, 1995

A peculiarity of contemporary porcelain designers is a certain consciousness, a tendency to reflect the whole history

of porcelain and use it as a clearly recognisable and yet multifaceted referencepoint. In the case of the artist Ai Weiwei

he evokes the growing phenomenon in China of destroying historical cultural sites to make way for new development.

By showing the process of rupture (dropping and breaking a 2,000-year-old urn), he demonstrates a questioning attitude towards cultural values and social history.


WHAT PORCELAIN IS a research on porcelain Š 2013 Self-published by Julia Schuster at The Faculty of Design and Art,

Free University of Bolzano, Italy Design

Julia Schuster Limited edition of 30 Not for purchase


What porcelain is