When Max Lamb was growing up in Cornwall in southwest England, the road outside his family’s home turned white whenever it rained. Much of Cornwall is built on kaolin, the fine white clay used to make porcelain. If the soil is soaked by rainfall, fragments of clay dissolve in the rainwater and flow down the roads.
“During heavy rain, our road had a white stream running down it, and in the valley below, the river turned milk white,” recalled Lamb. “It was nicknamed ‘white river,’ which was also the name of the local cinema.”
That milky-white “china clay,” as it is called, was the catalyst for two of Cornwall’s most important historic industries, ceramics and mining. As well as supplying potteries in Cornwall and elsewhere in Britain, Cornish mines exported their clay all over the world. But by the late 20th century, most of them had closed, as had many of the potteries.
One of Lamb’s recent projects reflects his fascination with both industries. He designed the Crockery series of plates, bowls, cups, jugs, and vases for 1882 Ltd., part of the new generation of potteries that are reviving the historic heart of the British ceramics trade in the city of Stoke-on-Trent in northwest England. Crockery is made partly from Cornish china clay of the type Lamb remembers seeing streaming along the road outside his childhood home.
Lamb’s design projects are always defined by his interest in materials and the stories behind them. He transformed a dead 187-year-old ash tree from his grandfather’s farm in north Yorkshire into 131 log seats, and devised the formula for a man-made marble using four different types of marble, each with a rich history, extracted from mines near Verona in northern Italy.
To manufacture Crockery, Lamb chose the slip-casting process, which begins by casting a mold from a model of the finished object. Typically, the models are made by specialists in accordance with a drawing by the designer, but Lamb decided to make them himself by using a stone mason’s chisel to carve solid blocks of plaster into a bowl, vase, and so on. Such chisels are considered too heavy to carve plaster, which made it impossible for Lamb to control the outcome with precision. As a result, the final forms were determined by random movements of his chisel as he hacked into the plaster blocks.
This technique, which Lamb described as “designing by making rather than designing by drawing,” has produced a series of objects whose shapes are so roughhewn and craggy that they share the raw, naturalistic air of rocks, like granite or flint, and whose exterior surfaces feel raw and coarse when touched.
Equally distinctive is the dazzling white hue of Crockery’s bone china, which strikes a discordantly industrial note against the haphazard forms and textures. The color is the product of the combination of materials chosen to make this particular type of bone china, which consists mainly of Cornish china clay, which creates its whiteness, and calcified animal bones, which strengthen it.
Lamb developed Crockery’s manufacturing process in collaboration with the potters at 1882 Ltd., which was founded in 2011 specifically to work with young designers like him but traces its roots to its namesake year when the Johnson Brothers pottery was founded in Stoke-on-Trent. 1882 Ltd. is run by Emily Johnson, from the fifth generation of the family, with her father, Chris.
An intriguing outcome of Crockery’s production is that each piece of the same type looks unique, even though they were all made in the same way from the same molds. The staccato patterns on the bone china are so intricate, and appear so different from different angles and in different lights, that even if you examine, say, two plates alongside one another, they seldom look the same.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton. Her next book A Field Guide to Design is to be published by JRP|Ringier in spring 2018.