a tavola

In our Design and Production class, we are working with a local restaurant to design tableware, barware, and accessories. a tavola is a really interesting little restaurant, with a rustic Italian menu, expertly mixed old-fashioned drinks, a local farm to table philosophy, and a casual but intimate atmosphere. Excited by a tumbler that I picked up at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia this summer (I’ve been meaning to post about that cup–I’ve fallen in love with it), I chose to design barware. I really wanted to translate traditional glass barware into ceramic form. In my once and future life, I worked as a wine buyer at a beer, wine, and liquor store. I also tended bar on and off for years. Because of this, I am very familiar with the intricacies and rituals of wine, beer, and liquor tasting. In my opinion, there is no reason to exclude ceramic as a viable material from which to enjoy wine and spirits. There are considerations, sure. The rim should be thin or smoothly contoured or both. The color of the glaze on the inside of the cup, while it doesn’t have to be white, should be luminous, bright enough to reflect light back through a liquid, illuminating the color of the wine or spirit. I drink wine from a cup that Rebecca made all the time. I am constantly admiring the way the celadon interior glows through the wine. The weight of the cup should be balanced. It can be weighty but it must be satisfying to hold, not difficult or precariously balanced. Sadly, from our initial interview, I could tell that the client really wanted mugs. That may or may not be because pottery and mugs are synonymous sometimes.

We have been designing, ideating, and refining for weeks now. Our second visit with Nathan and Derek (the owner/chef and bar manager respectively) was this past Friday. We showed them some tangible, material examples of our more fully realized designs and asked for their feedback. I stupidly chose to pursue more than one design, making my life a little harder. But I am stubbornly holding onto the idea of classic cocktail glasses in ceramic form, so I am going to continue making the tumblers below, despite the fact that Derek and Nathan want mugs, in case they see some merit in them when I am finished. I’m making mugs too. Cups are my favorite form, after all.

The first picture is my very first design, a mug that is shaped like a hoof. The second version of that design morphed into a very traditional teacup that has a hoof-shaped foot, which fits into a hoof-shaped imprint in the saucer. The original sketch has an ornate blue and brown pattern. I have to work on a different, more subtle pattern but I will still use blues and browns. The tumbler is in bisque form but I am very happy with the mishima (slip-inlay) technique so far. It’s not practical for production but I think that I just wanted to do it to prove that I still can. The last design is another cup and saucer set, this one with botanical and biological diagrams. Both saucers are currently cooling in a kiln.



The Mystery of the Missing Meaningless Message

I have been searching for more on the practice of inscribing nonsensical or asemic calligraphy onto pottery. The example that I have of that practice came from our visit to the Smithsonian museums in DC last year. A fellow grad student at the time was studying Islamic ceramics as an independent study and we were looking through the galleries devoted to this area of study. Separately and then together, we read the information card explaining that the calligraphy said nothing and was meant for an illiterate population, discussed the implications, marveled over the meaning that must have been ascribed to those meaningless marks. And now I can find nothing on the production of such vessels. Do I seriously have to travel back to DC to find this pot? For now, I am going to contact the Smithsonian branch (The Freer Gallery?) responsible for curating this collection and request some information.

I did come up with more background on historical inscriptions on pottery. The following examples are among the oldest and stem from Islamic and Greek cultures.Image

Pots with inscriptions, such as this one pictured here and in a previous post, are commonly referred to as epigraphic ware. There are examples in Islamic lusterware, Samanid, and Seljuk pottery. Samanid pottery was inscribed with proverbs and morals. Seljuk ceramics came later and focused almost exclusively on poetry, specifically love poetry.  A typical inscription reads as follows:

            In the world of love, grief is no less than joy:

            Whoever is not glad to grieve, is not happy;

            However wide the wilderness of calamity may be

            I have seen that, for the foot of love, it is not even a step

What does love poetry have to do with pottery? To me it speaks to the poignancy of everyday objects, to the wish to have these words always with, perhaps even on the lips of, the beloved, to be forever within reach of the heart in need of those words. Fired and permanent, fragile and precious, held close to life in use, the immortal sonnet made material again. 

There are also examples of Greek inscriptions on pottery that indicate some sort of erotic love but have not been satisfactorily explained by historians and anthropologists. Inscriptions on these pots compliment a specific person on their sexual attractiveness, usually by saying simply “X is beautiful,” where the word “kalos” or “kale” meaning “beautiful” carries an erotic connotation.



So, even though I am distractedly more interested in the asemic examples of calligraphy in these traditions, I am very much intrigued at the choice of message for inscription on pottery. It seems that dishware, pots, and vessels have been used as records and tokens of love for longer than jewelry or adornment. Though both forms would eventually serve as material for messages of love, domestic pottery seems to have come first, or at least simultaneously. To me, that implies that adornment was, at first, status-oriented alone and that lovers and teachers held more domestic intentions for their words of love and morality. Or were these pots prominently displayed, like hunters display heads on plaques, their tender or self-righteous words held out as evidence of one’s desirability and morality? Could the greek pots be nothing more than notches on a bedpost? And still, what an odd place to put those notches.