Behind the Potter’s Wheel - Gaya Ceramics

In Bali, more than some places, there exists an appreciation for the handmade, the rough, the asymmetric. Offerings, made from folded banana leaves and fallen flowers are our daily testament to this.

 

Like the island’s all-natural religious offerings, each of the pieces by Gaya Ceramics & Design are made by hand, informed by nature and completely individual.

“Italian sophistication meets Balinese Craftsmanship,” is one of Gaya’s doctrines; the Italian contingent coming in the form of founders, Marcello Massoni and Michela Foppiani.

 

Milan’s vibrant art scene, where Michela was studying sculpture, was the setting for the pair’s meeting, and afternoons helping the young sculptor in her studio sealed Marcello’s love for ceramic art.

 

Twenty years later, Michela and Marcello are partners in life and work, overseeing the design and production of bespoke ceramic items for international clients like Bulgari, The Aman Group and Potato Head Family as Gaya’s Creative Director and CEO.

 

Over a tour of their workshop in Ubud, which houses around 80 local craftspeople who produce the clay, mould and decorate each item by hand before firing the products in-house, we learn more about what drives them, their thirst for innovation and insistence on individuality.

Have you always had an eye for design?

I have always liked to paint, draw and sculpt. I studied politics and economy in Italy, but my academic study path didn’t really reflect my passions. But anyhow, these days I’m not directly involved in the creation, more so in the management, so the study I did is helping!

How did Gaya Ceramics come about?

After I quit my job, we opened a little pottery studio in Piacenza, my home town. We had a little farm and we were living and working there, doing classes and workshops. Then in 2001, we presented a ceramics collection at Salone del Mobile, one of the biggest furniture and homeware exhibitions in Milan, where we met our first big client, Armani.

 

Our work also caught the eye of Stefano Grandi of Gaya Fusion. He already had a restaurant, an art gallery and a few villas in Bali and he simply invited us to the island to be part of the Gaya project and partner up with him. We thought, “Why not?”

What do you love about making art with clay?

Pottery offers an infinite world of technical challenges. I love discovering new opportunities with ceramics.

And it’s quite therapeutic too…

Yes, sitting at the pottery wheel is like meditation. At the beginning, it’s not meditation, it’s frustrating! (laughs) But when you know how do it, it’s so relaxing. The love the process of making ceramics, the technical challenges, the enjoyment of throwing, much more than the finished piece.

Behind the Potter’s Wheel - Gaya Ceramics

Tell us about your Artist in Residency programme.

We invite artists from all around the world for two or four months residences. While they are here, they share their projects with us, we learn from them and revamp our techniques and ideas. The ceramics community is a very sharing community, that’s another aspect that I love.

How many types of clay do you work with at Gaya?

Together with our Ceramics Art Centre, we can basically explore any type of ceramic firing and technique. We explore so many different techniques; porcelain, stoneware, different types of firing, oxidation and reduction… Our customers can order 50 of this cup and 2000 of another. If someone wants to make a unique collection, without limits, and create it specifically to their functional and aesthetic needs, there are few places in the world they can go. That’s what makes us successful.

What is your favourite clay to create art with?

When we were in Italy, we worked mainly with Raku, so that was our first love. It’s beautiful but it’s not particularly strong and it’s porous so I wouldn’t suggest it for tableware. Rustic and natural, there is a side of Raku which is uncontrollable. It’s closely connected to the Japanese aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, which celebrates the raw beauty and rough edges of imperfection.

Tell us about the creative process at Gaya.

People think creativity is a flash of genius that comes to you one morning when you wake up, but in reality, it’s a process, it’s eight-hour days, you have to learn, you have to adapt. First, we sit with our clients and try first to understand their idea. Then comes a visual presentation and list of needs. Next, we make prototypes and test them for functionality as well as aesthetics. It’s quite a long process. The range we created for Kaum took around eight months.

What inspired Kaum’s range of ceramics?

All of the plates, casserole dishes, ceramic glasses, and cups for Kaum were inspired by the traditional pots and drinking vessels of Indonesia. The intricate wooden carvings of the Toraja tribe is echoed in the decoration as well as batik, the traditional print patterns. Earthy colours and browns reflect the tribal concept behind Kaum and the whole collection is meant to recall the heritage of Indonesia.

Behind the Potter’s Wheel - Gaya Ceramics

Tell us about your Artist in Residency programme.

We invite artists from all around the world for two or four months residences. While they are here, they share their projects with us, we learn from them and revamp our techniques and ideas. The ceramics community is a very sharing community, that’s another aspect that I love.

How many types of clay do you work with at Gaya?

Together with our Ceramics Art Centre, we can basically explore any type of ceramic firing and technique. We explore so many different techniques; porcelain, stoneware, different types of firing, oxidation and reduction… Our customers can order 50 of this cup and 2000 of another. If someone wants to make a unique collection, without limits, and create it specifically to their functional and aesthetic needs, there are few places in the world they can go. That’s what makes us successful.

What is the most ambitious design project you have embarked on?

We created an eight-metre-long chandelier out of porcelain for a very prestigious client. For the same hotel, we also install a five-metre-wide by five-metre-tall hanging Christmas tree every year; it’s become an iconic feature of that property. We had to piece the ceramic tiles together with strings and carry them in boxes. It was pretty challenging!

Has Indonesia inspired any of your designs?

National Geographic asked us to come up with a design inspired by Indonesia and so we decided to use rice husks as decoration. We created a range of hand-thrown bowls, mugs, vases and sake cups with a unique rice husk texture, the result of firing the clay with the rice husks pressed into the surface.

Why do you think Bali has so many skilled artisans?

In their DNA, there is craft and art. Their daily offerings are like origami. Children learn how to do it when they are three years old because their mother is doing it. It’s not that they have an education or training in art, they live in it every day. When we hire people and give them a tool, they already know what to do with it!

One of Gaya’s missions is to preserve and promote craftsmanship. Is it dying out in Indonesia?

It’s dying and rebirthing at the same time. It’s dying because not a lot of people are doing it. Craft work is hard; it takes years of learning and it doesn’t pay as well as other employment. At the same time, a lot of buyers are ditching industrial design and moving towards crafts again. People want to be as unique as possible, but if you buy industrially-made products, you cannot be unique.

How is this resurgence affecting demand for Gaya’s custom products?

We are already full, we have a lot of requests. If we grow more, it’s going to be difficult for us to control what we’re doing and we would have to introduce industrial processes, which we don’t want to do and which also we don’t know how to do. Our background is in craft and we want to keep it that way.