There’s often a moment around the midway point of a project when we crave to produce something immediate. As an ecosystem of many moving parts, an architectural project can take years to evolve. Code requirements, fluctuating resources, weather patterns, competing stakeholders – all require time and patience to navigate.

Of course, that complexity is part of the joy of it. However, we do occasionally feel envious of makers who can produce new works within a day or a week – developing something lasting and valuable through sheer vision and skill.

The practice of ceramics is a good example. Like a building, a ceramic vessel is a play of inside and out; it serves to contain, but also invites opportunities for overspill. Its materiality suggests a direct connection to the earth – something which an architect can only achieve through multiple design phases and the expertise of consultants. The process of firing ceramics involves risk – a crack may have formed, or a bubble or crystal developed in the glaze. But more often than not, these apparent defects can be reframed as essential aesthetic qualities. Architecture is much less forgiving.

As a momentary break from ongoing projects, Jin Jin Chiu and collaborator Matilda Bathurst of WHY’s LA office have selected some of their favorite works of ceramic art. These objects provide a counterpoint to architectural form, inviting us to think in terms of touch, tools, ritual, and memory.



George Ohr


This is one of George Ohr’s “mud babies.” The “Mad Potter,” as he was known, established his “Pot-Ohr-E” in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the late 19th century. There, he created vessels of extraordinary technical proficiency, fired to forms which seem fluid as silk and glazed with diabolic colors which test and twist the retina. This pot seems suspended between two states – mid-way between being crushed inwards and expanding outwards – as though a reptile had crawled from the river and slowly shed its skin. Ohr was dismissed by contemporary critics, and for decades after his death the pots lay forgotten in an auto-body garage in Biloxi. They found their way out in the 1970s, and eventually into the paintings of the artist Jasper Johns. After that, the pots were – as Ohr had predicted, “worth their weight in gold.” -MB


Black Vessel

Theaster Gates


Theaster Gates’ practice often traverses a broad range of media including painting, sculpture, performance, and architectural intervention, resulting in immersive spatial experiences that give life to forgotten places and histories of the African diaspora. In his exhibition “Black Vessel,” Gates delves into his personal history as a ceramicist, finding a measure of comfort in the malleability afforded by the clay, the kiln, and the firing process. The exhibition’s arrangement of these human-scale vessels is grounded yet freeform, embracing the viewer in a type of tacit social community. -JC


one way or other

Edmund de Waal


Often, the porcelain vessels of the British artist Edmund de Waal are installed just out of reach – behind the glass of a vitrine, high up above a museum stairway or lobby, sometimes embedded within a wall or beneath the floor. Several of the vessels will remain unseen; hidden behind taller forms or obscured by shadows as part of an installation. However, when de Waal staged an architectural intervention at the Schindler House in West Hollywood, he presented his compositions in open aluminum vitrines suspended on wires – close enough to touch. The effect was both ethereal and inviting, playing with space, light, and form to create an environment which was simultaneously reverent and offhand – as though to advise against holding life too tightly. –MB


Asymmetric 1

Magdalene Odundo


There’s something so mesmerizing and affirmative about this vessel by Magdalene Odundo. Having spent her early life in Kenya and India, Odundo later moved to the UK where she trained as a ceramicist, combining techniques from multiple cultures and histories – you can see traces in her work of the urns of Ancient Greece, the elaborate earthenware of Japan’s Jōmon period, and the domestic pots of the Nupe culture in Nigeria. This particular vessel is coated in terra sigillata slip and the surface has been burnished with stones and polishing tools, traditional techniques associated with women potters in Nigeria and Kenya. The form is modeled on the curves of the female body and the opening seems both to listen and speak, drawing the world in and channeling it out. –MB



Kevin John O’Keefe


O’Keefe had been preparing for a large installation in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, causing catastrophic damage. His ceramic sculptures can read like found objects, perhaps remnants of a more whole piece caught in the aftermath of an enduring calamity. Scars and rips and fissures – these bodily traumas are captured in Kevin O’Keefe’s work. They are not vessels which easily contain. –JC



Lucie Rie


Lucie Rie is broadly recognized for her vibrant tableware and distinctive modernist aesthetic, but much less is known about her early work making buttons as a Jewish émigré in London in the 1940s. For Rie, buttons were both a way to earn a living and an opportunity to experiment iteratively with form, material, texture, and color. She shaped the buttons by hand, working intimately with clay to hone her designs and she developed glazes in brilliant colors. Each button is distinctly individual and forms a harmonious assortment; they invite us to touch and toss, burnish and buff, sensing the uniqueness of each. –JC


Collected vessels

Beatrice Faverjon


Beatrice Faverjon is a local LA designer based in Topanga, where she lives in a midcentury Usonian house designed by the architect Earl Wear. Beatrice’s vessels appear to share some of the qualities of the house itself, borrowing from its unfussy domesticity and clear-cut definitions of daily rituals. And just as a Usonian house might shape the way an inhabitant moves through the day, so these vessels prompt a certain manner of pouring, measuring, and arranging on the shelf; they have weight and poise, but the quizzical spouts suggest a humor which defies overbearing preciousness. In their inherent fragility, ceramic objects are a reminder that nothing lasts forever. These vessels respond: “Yes, and enjoy breakfast!” –MB


Weed Pots


Doyle Lane

David Kordansky Gallery recently presented an exhibition of the work of Doyle Lane, which gave us a new perspective on the spaces we designed for the gallery. These tiny “weed pots” (named for the width of the apertures, just large enough for a single stem) seemed even more delicate under the branching bow truss roof and expansive concrete floors. There’s something so modest about these iterative, diminutive works, but at the same time deeply involved and visionary – aspects which bear parallels with the remarkable story of Lane’s life. This central pot makes me think of a rice cracker with sugar droplets, and the tactile indentations suggest that the pot is in the process of formation – at any moment it might expand and bubble outwards, or shrink from human touch. –MB



Moon Jar

Approx. 1650–1750

This Joseon dynasty porcelain moon jar is one of the masterpieces which guided WHY’s design for the permanent collection galleries at the Asian Art Museum. It’s an unusual piece – a little wider and rounder than other moon jars of the period, and its slightly skewed poise provides a clue to the making process. Moon jars are typically large enough to wrap your arms around, which means they can’t be made in one piece on a potter’s wheel; the upper and lower halves of the vessel are shaped separately and joined together at the middle, leaving a seam. That’s why you’ll never find two moon jars exactly alike or perfectly spherical – all the same, they’re considered to embody an aesthetics of simplicity and elegance, offering a much more forgiving perspective on perfection. –MB


The presence of the Moon Jar in the renovated exhibition spaces reminds us of the interlocking scales of human making. Arms wrap around the jar, just as the jar would have wrapped around its contents – perhaps grain, perhaps liquid. The exhibition spaces shape the relationships between visitors and objects, and the museum as a whole contains (and is made by) the relationships between different spaces: spaces which define human experiences. Likewise, the museum is designed to relate to its surrounding environment, generating a constant oscillation between inside and out, containment and exposure, stillness and motion.

Whether standalone sculptures or functional vessels, ceramic objects can be read as microcosms of the designed life overall – but ultimately, these objects are made for the scale of the human body. Cups, jugs, and buttons are intended to fit to human hands and the timeline of a day’s activities – a scale which provides perspective and grounding. When we are deep in the technical details or high up at the level of concept, these works bring us back down to earth.


Article by Matilda Bathurst


May 6th, 2021
Exhibition Design,  Museums,  Objects,  WHY Features
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