Mid-Century Modern potter Lucie Rie links two designers of different aesthetics, ages, and even cultures
When I wrote a long article for Luncheon magazine on internationally famed potter Lucie Rie, I had no idea of the fascinating journey of art and culture that would unfold — nor how Snowdon’s photographs could weave the strands of the story together.
For a good read, like the rest of Luncheon, produced in London by Editors-in-Chief Frances Von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Persson, here is the story of a link in the fashion chain that no-one could have expected.
Lucie Rie: A master of clay inspires Issey Miyake and Jonathan Anderson
Jonathan Anderson cups his hands so gracefully that I can imagine that his wide palm and curved fingers are the Lucie Rie pot he is describing. “It's a tactile thing,” the designer says, as though he had been a ceramics collector for a lifetime. “I think I am obsessed with Lucie Rie. I love the way she collaborated with Miyake, who for me is probably the most important fashion designer of the 20th century.” He tugs furiously at his hair. “I remember the first piece of hers I ever bought, a salad bowl she did in the 1950s with a very undulating shape, and it started to become incredibly addictive.”
Why would two fashion designers like Issey Miyake and Jonathan Anderson — from different generations, countries, and cultures — find community in a stoneware bowl with white glaze over dark clay, modelled by the hands of a woman born in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century, who fled to England and became internationally renowned as a potter?
Jonathan was a five-year-old child from a small town in Northern Ireland when Issey Miyake organised “Issey Miyake Meets Lucie Rie” in Tokyo and Osaka in 1989; an exhibition in his native Japan that was devoted to the emotional contact he felt with the ceramicist. “I was surprised that Lucie’s work, largely unknown at the time, was so well received,” said Miyake about putting that exhibition together. “The success owed a great deal to the hall designed by Tadao Ando, in which every piece was displayed, floating upon the surface of a gigantic rectangular pool.”
Miyake described his first connection with Lucie Rie’s work as being “moved by beauty”. It had started with a ceramics book found randomly in a London bookstore and had led to a visit to the potter in the workshop at her modest London home.
“Seeing some of her work, I sensed that this is what it means to create — I remember feeling suddenly energised as well as inspired,” said Miyake, describing fervently how the encounter with the ceramicist and her art had left him “tingling with excitement” to organise the Tokyo exhibition.
“The beauty, simplicity, nobility, and natural character of Lucie’s work commanded centre stage — even in such a beautiful setting,” Miyake explained. “The appeal of her work lies in the warmth and nostalgia of the hand-work that floods our hearts. I have always been poor at speaking, and for me, the work eliminated the need for words and instead aroused a desire to feel. Each of Lucie’s pieces gives us a sense of the origin of its creation; each exists in a world of its own, neither East nor West.”
In contrast to Miyake, Jonathan Anderson, with his Irish gift of the gab, is eager to explain why and how he feels such a powerful connection to the subtlety and simplicity of Lucie Rie. Through his words he brought to life for me the volcanic surface of a stoneware bowl or the fine white-on-white sgraffito patterns of a coffee set.
“The shape is like this — and then you have lines across it,” says Jonathan, talking with both lips and hands. “There is something magical about Lucie’s work and the way you want to touch it. When you pick it up, it has such an interesting dynamic in terms of weight: it can be heavier or lighter than you think. Then there is the way she evolved through each period of the 1970s and 1980s.”
“I always love to look at something that I couldn’t make, because I feel it’s enlightening,” he continues. “It means you are not invincible, you can respect something and look up to it and go ‘WOW!’. It’s a skill that I don’t have, but I can understand the merit of it.”
I felt at this point that I must learn more about the artist who, by the time she died in 1995 aged 93, was considered the 20th-century master of her craft. Even with little knowledge of ceramics, I could feel the tension between her massive stoneware and delicate porcelain. I felt the urge to touch the narrow neck and swelling belly of a vase and to trace with my fingers a solid stoneware bowl that looked as though it had been squeezed like putty into an oval shape.
I read Lucie Rie’s biography by Emmanuel Cooper and learnt about her close friendships with other artists, such as Fritz Lampl, whose glassblowing skills were so different from her own, and her colleague and close friend Hans Coper, who with Rie gained empathy from experiences as a refugee.
It was Lampl, owner of a glass-button business, who — during the 1940s in war-torn, bombed-out Britain — encouraged Lucie to use her ceramic skills to make buttons. This side-line to her career produced decorative and colourful pieces; buttons shaped like shells, miniature fans, metallic flowers, or squares in coral, cream, or ink-blue, with the dark colour bleeding onto white.
I remembered a moment when one of Miyake’s collections (Autumn/Winter 1989/90 had the artistic Lucie Rie buttons on the collar and drape of big, soft coats, although I had no idea at the time that they were two interconnected artists.
I understood better what Miyake and Jonathan Anderson might have in common after reading Mark Holborn’s introductory essay to Irving Penn regards the work of Issey Miyake (Jonathan Cape 1999). The most artistic expression of Miyake’s work is in his decade-long collaboration with the fashion photographer Irving Penn. It created a powerful artistic partnership that turned the Japanese designer’s work in forms and textures into something far deeper; a tribal beauty expressed as futuristic fashion. The figures and their clothing seemed to have separate identities, moving in parallel geometric lines. These images were about the body moving both with and against cloth. “Miyake’s designs were conspicuous for their absence of eroticism,” Holborn writes. “There is no voluptuousness in his work, but rather delight in the purity of form. Delight seemed to have displaced the desire.”
Couldn’t those same words be applied to Lucie Rie and her work? I remembered a review in The Guardian by Edmund de Waal, himself a passionate potter, about a biography of Lucie Rie. It was called Modernist Potter by Emmanuel Cooper and de Waal described Lucie Rie as “slight, immaculate in white” and as someone who could be “dauntingly rude”. “Lucie Rie’s pots reveal an instinct for powerful concision, for the paring back of forms, textures, functions — to the essential,” wrote de Waal. “Her life reveals someone who was able to get to the point.”
I could apply some of that judgement to Miyake, although he is profoundly quiet and polite in character. But would Jonathan Anderson fit into Irving Penn’s vision of purity and an absence of sexuality?
Jonathan has raised some interesting issues in his male and female collections about gender fluidity, taking elements supposedly referring specifically to women for his men’s collections. But he has never been provocative in fashion’s more familiar sexual context. If anything, he is a sculptor of clothing; for example using off-kilter shoulder shapes to question current style.
I asked Jonathan if he thought his designs had been influenced by Lucie Rie’s work or by other pieces in his personal British ceramics collection, for example Bernard Leach, Hans Cooper and Jennifer Lee. “I think two projects were about Lucie Rie,” the designer said, recalling his work for the Spanish leather company Loewe, where he has been Creative Director since 2013.
“I did a piece where we moulded leather into shapes and it meant looking at British ceramics, people like [Paul] Cardew and Jennifer Lee. It was about re-interpreting leather in that way. You find that the ceramic community is not very supportive when you do fashion things like that, but I think it is important that the next generation know about Rie, and also important to keep it contemporary. I have a huge amount of respect for all Japanese designers because I think there is consistency and respect to craft.”
One aspect of Rie’s work that fascinates him is, perhaps inevitably, that early foray into buttons.
“I did a plastic version of coined buttons because I felt like it was such an important moment in craft and design when Miyake worked with her: it was a kind of homage… I liked that it was sculptural. Buttons for me are very sculptural things and they are so fascinating.”
In fact, Jonathan became so obsessed with the buttons that he found someone who had worked in the earlier period and bought a large selection of buttons that Rie had initially worked on.
“What was interesting is how feminine some of them were. There were ones in very simple glass which had a thumb print on them and when you see something small and sculptural, the idea of them imploding is so spectacular. It’s such an interesting thing and that’s what I thought was so incredible with Miyake. I am a huge fan.”
I felt that it was time I understood more about the buttons and about 20th-century Modernist pottery in general. So I went to see Robin Cawdron-Stewart, a specialist in Modern and Post-War British Art at Sotheby’s in London. He defined for me the importance of Lucie Rie and how her work stands in relation to other sculptors of that period.
“Lucie Rie — as opposed to other ceramicists — has this unique position; she treads a very fine line between form and function, so some of her pieces are functional but they are also aesthetically stunning… I think that part of the reason why Miyake and Jonathan Anderson — and indeed a number of other designers and photographers —are so drawn to Rie’s work is her connection with the fashion world when she came over from Austria and started by making buttons in the 1940s.”
Robin showed me examples in pictures, encouraging me to go to the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich where some of her best work is housed.
“When she came to Britain, she was already an established potter in Austria and was making quite a name for herself… But when she came to London, she had no money and no name for herself, so she started working for a manufacturer with glass and ceramic press and moulds.”
I had seen the glass buttons, which were her first pieces of “fashion”, and the ceramics, both of which were sold to clothing retailers. “She made buttons, brooches and umbrella sticks and handles, which are gorgeous and feel beautiful in the hand,” Robin said. “Obviously it was difficult to get beautiful buttons in war-time Britain with all the rationing, so she really found a niche. She employed six people at a certain time in her little studio on Albion Mews, and that is how Hans Coper, another potter, initially came.
“When she died, she left her button mould and many buttons to Issey Miyake, and they were these tiny little plaster moulds that you would push clay into and fix a little baton on the back in order to attach it to clothes. It was a real sort of factory… She also kept these amazing notebooks detailing the buttons and it showed that she would think about everything; the form, the colours, the glaze, the textures. Her buttons at the time were really popular. But it never really expanded beyond London, I think because there was a war going on.”
I asked Robin what it was about the pottery that might so inspire these two fashion designers who, despite being from such different generations and backgrounds, both focused on Lucie Rie’s ceramics. He continued:
“I think there is a wonderful elegance to her work: it is all so thought through… She would throw a bowl and she would squeeze it ever so slightly to give it off-centre balance. It wasn’t the same as when someone like Bernard Leach or Michael Cardew were throwing clunky, traditional early-style terracotta in a sort of functional way as opposed to form. But Lucie would put form before function… Her mugs are a great example. They’re tall and elegant, with these delicate, tiny handles, which look fantastic. It was definitely her awareness of the shape, but also the detailing; things like the glaze and the texture. And in the 1960s she developed these really interesting, thick, volcanic glazes.”
I tried to single out the different styles that, in my personal conclusion, meant both Issey Miyake and Jonathan Anderson were drawn to Lucie Rie’s work. I saw the 1950s pieces using sgraffito decoration − the concept of glazing one colour, then another on top and scratching through to reveal either the clay colour or the glaze beneath. I thought about whether either fashion designer used a similar technique with lacy forms. Robin explained that there were many other Lucie Rie techniques in the 1960s, especially the “chunky, volcanic glazes”.
But there was also Lucie Rie’s sense of colour. Although she is often thought of as a neutral colourist following the effects of natural stone, her glazes in the 1980s were powerful: greens, yellows, pinks, blues - the kind of colours you might find in an Issey Miyake Pleats Please collection.
“She was fascinated by a glaze that she called American yellow,” said Robin. “Before, she had used a yellow that was a bit mustardy, very British. But this American glaze was so bright and Pop Art-y. Her oxides are particularly beautiful. It is a sort of gold running oxide. She was unique in terms of production in that she fired an item only once — she threw it and then she would glaze it raw, so that you would get colours that could be a bit brighter and more engaging.”
Issey Miyake had connected with Lucie Rie in person. But why would Jonathan Anderson be so drawn to her work? “I think any good craftsman or artist or any good designer will say the same thing,” said Robin. “She was excellent at what she did. She had a confident and distinctive style. You can spot a Lucie Rie bowl from the other side of the room. And I think her group of craft crosses a number of different disciplines. It’s not just ceramicists: you get weavers and the people who work in textiles who are drawn to Lucie Rie and her work.”
So Lucie Rie binds together two quintessentially different designers. One Irish, the other Japanese, the designers have never met, in spite of Jonathan’s efforts to make contact. Yet Jonathan remains in thrall to master Miyake.
“I find Miyake’s connection to craft — even with something like ceramics — is so fascinating because of the way in which he is building to create form… I have a scarf that Miyake did, which is linen but woven into pleats, and at either end there are giant bits of plastic. It just drapes, but when you do that, it kind of bundles up. There is something interesting in the coiled structure that is in Miyake’s work. In a weird way, it also goes beautifully with ceramics.”