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One to Watch: Emma Johnson

We speak to Ceramicist and Hothouse17 maker Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson recently graduated from M(Des) 3D Design and Craft at the University of Brighton, specialising in mould made ceramics. Emma’s work is often inspired by architectural details. Emma works from her studio at Phoenix Arts Association in Brighton.

Emma has been selected for Hothouse, the Crafts Council's Talent Development Programme for emerging makers. Find out more about Hothouse

What first got you interested in making?

Since childhood I have always enjoyed making things and I’m really lucky to have always been encouraged in my creativity by my family. During my GCSE's and A-levels I made sure to choose a balanced range of subjects but found it difficult to not spend all of my homework time doing art and D.T. projects! Before my foundation year I hadn't picked which artistic route I would choose, but after trying out the different pathways it became really clear to me that the hands on 3D route appealed to me the most. My brain seems to be drawn to puzzle solving and translating 2D into 3D, so I really enjoy creating precise and technical drawings and then bringing these into 3D. I remember learning about nets in primary school and just being amazed at how a flat piece of paper could become this three-dimensional form - thinking about it this is probably where my preference for angular and precise forms comes from! As for the actual making side I love working with my hands and getting into 'the zone'. It's so rewarding to see a physical thing I've created at the day, especially when I can see all of the challenges I've overcome within that object.


What in particular drew you to ceramic?

Before coming to university I'd only really had the chance to make a couple of hand built ceramic objects, which weren't particularly impressive to say the least! As I had often worked with wood throughout school and in my foundation year I was expecting to be most drawn to furniture making, however this changed during the ceramics rotation in first year after we were taught about mould making techniques and slip casting. I was really interested in how these industrially used methods and techniques could be adapted to small scale production, and how it allowed me to create the precise forms which I'm most drawn to. I can be a bit of a perfectionist, so the need to improve and solve the challenges of working with a material I previously knew very little about kept me coming back to the ceramics department.

Where have you shown / sold your work so far?

I have previously exhibited at New Designers, Art in Clay (Hatfield), as a part of the Annual Graduate show at Bevere Gallery in Worcester, as well as the Emerging Potters Exhibition at Bils & Rye gallery in York. In January this year I was selected as one of six winners of the HOMI Maker Design Award; the prize of which included a free stand to exhibit at a home show in Milan. This was a great opportunity to experience a trade fair first hand. My wooden handled cups were exhibited at Lillstreet Gallery in Chicago during January and February this year, so both of these opportunities have been really useful for seeing how my work is received internationally. My current UK stockists include Tidy Street General Store (Brighton), Atelier 51 (Brighton) and VK Gallery (St Ives). These shops and galleries focus on the importance of handmade contemporary craft, and I am hoping that in the next year that I will be able to find some international shops who hold similar values to stock my work.

Which project are you most proud of so far and why?

So far I am most proud of my Atro-city range. This work was developed during my fourth year at university during my Masters of Design (MDes). During this year I undertook three practical work placements, and I think these were vital for helping me to develop my work; in terms of practicality in design, as well as quality of craftsmanship. Atro-city is a tea set based on Brutalist architecture, incorporating classic Brutalist aesthetics like heavy forms and asymmetrical proportions along with an awareness of the design philosophies embodied in the architecture including Form Follows Function and Truth to Materials. I wanted the subject of this range to be based on more than just aesthetics, so I chose to write a dissertation exploring possible reasons for the recent revival of Brutalist architecture before designing and making the pieces. I think this dissertation helped to give the project another dimension and took it a step further than my previous work.

What do you hope to get from Hothouse?

I want to develop my craft business to be a sustainable practice and, ultimately, a lifelong career. I have spent four years developing and refining my craft skills, but need help to further my business skills, including gaining a better understanding of finance and a knowledge of my target market. Having met the other Hothouse participants I can already see how important it is to connect with people at similar stages of their careers with similar aims to my own. I am also really grateful for the support offered by the staff involved in the programme and am looking forward to meeting my mentor.


Your work is inspired by architectural details, are there any particular buildings or architects who inspire you?

Brutalist architecture is the biggest influence of my latest work, and part of the reason I chose to focus on this type of architecture is because the sharp and rigid forms relate well to my preferred aesthetic. The National Theatre (Denys Lasdun and Partners) is particularly inspiring to me; I'm really interested in how it is made up of such heavy block forms but somehow still remains sculptural. I also love how the form completely speaks for itself, with a wonderfully subtle textured concrete surface enhancing the strong forms, with no windows or other unnecessary features to distract the eye. The other part of my reason for choosing Brutalist architecture was because I was one of the people whose opinion changed on it - the buildings which I once looked at as being just grey and concrete were suddenly something else entirely. Places like the Barbican (Chamberlin, Powell and Bon)  have been particularly good at withstanding the test of time; not just in terms of maintaining and caring for the actual buildings, but for keeping people interested in visiting and making itself a desirable, successful and iconic place. I created a few Brutalist tour routes for myself as research for Atro-City and I could list many other buildings, but some others which really stood out to me by Denys Lasdun include the Institute of Education and the Royal College of Physicians.

Your latest collection Atro-City combines wood and ceramics - what are the challenges of working with two very different materials?

Before my fourth year at university I decided that for practical reasons I would stay within the ceramics department so that it would be easier to continue with my range after I left uni. I couldn't say away from the wood department for long though, and I'm really glad I didn't because I think that visually the wood is a really important addition.

I was really lucky to get a shared ceramic studio with three of my class mates after graduating but didn't want to bring woodworking equipment into the studio; particularly a disk sander, which would produce a lot of dust which could cause problems for the ceramic production. My dad has been a lifesaver in this case because he's helped me to find an affordable wood stockist and a compact disk sander to use. I make the ceramic pieces in batches in my Brighton studio and then travel back home with them to make the wooden components in my parents garden near Epsom.

In terms of design a problem can be that, because of the nature of handmade ceramics (particularly porcelain), each piece is slightly different so it would be impossible to produce a batch of wooden pieces without the ceramic pieces to fit them to. Each wooden component needs to be individually made to fit each piece - even the lids of each sugar container will only fit properly if placed in the correct direction! This care and attention is what makes each piece unique and different from a mass produced object.

You also work freelance for other ceramicists, how valuable is this to you?

For this freelance work I help to create work to fulfil bigger orders, so it's great for me to constantly be reminded that it is possible to run a successful business making handmade ceramics! It's also useful for me to have the opportunity to practice and develop my skills making things which aren't my own work. Working with different clay bodies, other types of glaze and on varied designs allows me to learn a great deal more than I would making just my own work. The ceramicists I work for are also always really helpful, offering me advice which is invaluable to me at this point in time. I hope that one day in the near future I can offer someone the same as what they've offered for me at this point in my career.

You can see more work from Kate and follow her at the Crafts Council Directory 

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