Inspired by nature — sea life especially — South African ceramicist John Newdigate collaborated on a two collections with west elm. We asked John to share some background into his inspiration, process and technique…
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by forms, patterns and colours found in the natural environment, where everything works automatically: colours cannot clash, forms derived purely for their function are always beautiful, never clumsy or wasteful, stunningly complex patterns derived from simple elements.
How would you describe your work?
My aim is to make functional ceramics wares that enrich the experience of every day life as well as special occasions, when friends and family spend time together to share a meal. My first consideration is the form — it has to suit its purpose and appear to be light and refined, while in fact being robust enough to handle the rough-and-tumble of everyday life. These two seemingly opposite aims can overlap, within reason, if one considers both when designing. The challenge is to think up original, functional, unpretentious but fun wares that will give many years of pleasure to the user. I respect tradition, without being bound to it.
Tell us a little bit about where you work + your process.
My studio overlooks a tree-filled garden, which has a small stream running through it. The garden is planned out to make space for nature’s visitors, which are my inspiration, so at any time I can look up and see something unexpected and beautiful.
Who are your favorite artists and designers?
David Hockney, for his fresh, honest interpretation of the world around him, his visual wit which can be amusing and serious at once. His work is just as relevant today as it was when painted decades ago.
Lucie Rie, for her complex simplicity, her ability to create a feeling of lift and power from a simple small bowl. She steadfastly stayed true to her vision, disregarding the ceramic power-brokers of the day, eventually earning their recognition and respect.
What’s your approach to decorating?
When using literal imagery, I try to show an aspect of what I depicting that may not have been noticed before, something that only the I (and then the viewer) know about. This creates a subtle communication between maker and viewer, one that makes using my work feel personal and the user special. My abstract designs do not intend to portray an emotion or concept, rather to set up colours, lines and forms that interact with one another. This interplay creates visual entertainment, not only beautiful when on display, but also a stage for the contents to perform on.
Tell us about your collection for west elm. How did it come together?
Some years ago I lived in a very wild and isolated region, and would spend some days fishing in the river nearby, to save a long drive into town to buy supplies. One day I came home with a catch of five fish and put them into a bowl in preparation for supper. I noticed that they looked beautiful, regardless of how they were arranged, and so started carving and painting bowls with fish depicted in random configurations. I wanted to contain the feeling of that day, the satisfaction of catching and providing a delicious meal for others, and to highlight the difference between this sort of fishing and the kind where a huge fish is hauled onto a gantry and photographed. Now every meal eaten from one of these bowls is imbued with the spirit of that day, even though I am no longer able to catch the contents!
The ‘blue spaghetti’ range was inspired by an idea to create a set of bowls whose design was not restrained by the edge of the bowl, but had broken free and could romp from one bowl to the next, in fact across the entire table, touching on anything it happened to encounter along the way. This has the wonderful and unexpected bonus of creating a new, unique design each time the plates are put out for use, as well as when put back into display shelves afterwards.
Other than west elm, where can we find your work?
I supply a few specialist ceramic galleries in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, and have supplied Conran Shops in London and Paris. My work is in the South African Cultural History Museum’s permanent collection.
Images: Henrique Wilding
SHOP JOHN NEWDIGATE AT WEST ELM