One of four up-and-coming young talents selected for this year’s Talent Shop exhibition at the Habitare fair was ceramics designer Laura Itkonen talks to Weekly Studio about high-tech making methods and the importance of having good studio workmates.
You are one busy lady! You’ve been selected for Talent Shop at Habitare in September, but you’re also exhibiting at Chart Art Fair in Copenhagen, and London and Vienna Design Weeks. Are you showing the same work for all of them?
Well in Vienna, London and Copenhagen I’m showing some of the Sculptural Series containers. But in Helsinki, it will be a slightly bigger exhibition. Initially, I had really big ideas, but eventually you realise that you have to produce something in a limited amount of time so you have to compromise.
Talent Shop’s organisers said it’s good to have something familiar and something new. So, I’m showing older works which people have perhaps seen before. There’s Marquis, a tiled wall piece I’ve done before, but I’m showing it in new colours. I’m also showing some small pieces which are the result of a 3D-printing research project I started this spring. I’m combining traditional ceramic hand-making methods with 3D printing. It’s still early days for that project, but it’s nice to be able to show some of the work. Of course, I’m also showing Sculptural Series pieces with a few new bases.
Are you using 3D printing for mould making or something else?
Well, you can print with clay, but that’s still quite new technology. It doesn’t appeal much to me because I want to work with my hands. For me, it’s very important in developing new ideas, so I don’t want to transfer all production to 3D printing. But I’ve been making models which I use to make moulds. They can be further modified during making, so it’s a way of mixing together different techniques. I do think ceramics can be very traditional, but for me, the technology is here to help so why not use it. And because I like very detailed ceramics, 3D printing gives me more tools for my work.
You’re also interested in clay bodies and I know you’ve used Finnish clay in some of your work?
Before I studied at Taik [now Aalto University], I studied at a ceramic artisan school, Tammelan käsi- ja taideteollisuusoppilaitos. There, we used a lot of the red clays that come from Somero, so I became very familiar with them. They are technically difficult to use, though, so you have to find the right place to use them. I do love the colour and structure, but for a long time I didn’t have any ideas for using the clay because it’s not so ideal for tableware. The way I use it with Sculptural Series is that I let it be very organic and feel my way to the right structure.
That’s what you use for some of the lid decorations that look almost like red lava rock?
Yes, it gives such an interesting effect.
And are those effects something that come from loads of experimentation with shape making and firing times or something that happened as a happy accident?
Well, I’ve been using a lot of this Finnish clay and it’s very sensitive to different firing temperatures. But because I used it so often at the artisan school, I’m already familiar with those aspects and I can concentrate on the form and the structure. For me, designing while doing is also very important. For example, in those pieces, I work the clay in my hands until I find the right form and structure.
In general, I design with a computer to achieve clean lines and the simple cup forms. But I also design on my work table just by putting my hands on clay and trying to find different kind of forms; just letting go with the material. That’s how those red clay knobs came about, while I was playing with the material. For my way of working, it’s very important to do both aspects. I wouldn’t be here if I was just designing and somebody else was making.
It’s interesting that you use computer design work as part of your process. Could you maybe say more about that?
I use Rhino, the 3D drawing program. For me, it’s a quick tool to design, for example, the modular wall pieces. It means I can quickly arrange pieces and test different forms. One of the reasons why I use slip casting and plaster moulds is because I like to produce something as I have it in my mind. If I tried to make these pieces on the wheel, where I needed certain measurements and forms every time, I couldn’t do it. That’s why the plaster mould is my tool and for that, 3D drawing is useful in allowing me to produce what I want.
I wanted to ask about aesthetics and inspiration, because, in particular, some of the details from the Sculptural Series remind me of Memphis design. What frames of reference are you working with?
At school, I was mainly interested in clay bodies and I experimented with bringing colour and structure through clay bodies. Glazing, decoration and colours weren’t of much interest. It wasn’t until I started my own studio that I started thinking differently. I had a project with my colleague where we made plates for a Helsinki restaurant. We experimented with glazes and colours and that was when I started to get interested in both.
In recent years, I’ve been developing my own style and that’s reflected in my current work which uses a lot of metallic lustre decoration and is colourful. Maybe after school I wasn’t ready to do my own production. I hadn’t yet found my own style. Looking back, I can see how far I’ve come.
The colours I’m interested in right now are often taken from Art Deco, a style I love because of its simplicity, but also its colours and forms. Maybe I’m an old soul, because people often say that my work has a 70’s feel; actually, people see quite different things in my work. But for me, it’s mainly Art Deco and perhaps a little bit from the 1970s and 80s.
I wanted to ask how you came to make ceramics, because I gather you used to study photography?
In school, we had photography lessons where we made pictures in the darkroom. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a photographer and so I studied it for a while. But this was around the time Photoshop started to appear and, compared to the experience of being in the darkroom–the enjoyment of doing things with your own hands–I didn’t really enjoy the two-dimensional world of Photoshop photography.
That doesn’t really answer your question, though, of how I ended up studying ceramics. I don’t know how that happened. I think I needed to find a new avenue for making. Clay was also a very familiar material to me. I applied to the artisan school and was accepted. There, it was much more about learning techniques than asking questions. Afterwards, when I went to study at TaiK, there were so many questions: what are you doing and why? You really had to develop your design thinking and stop yourself from producing every single idea you had.
But after TaiK, you didn’t start your own studio straight away?
No, I didn’t feel that I was ready to start my own business. I worked doing visual design for a few years. Looking back, I see a lot of wise decisions in my past even though I didn’t make them intentionally.
So, what was it that pushed you to start your own studio finally in 2016?
Well, my mother was very ill with an incurable disease. That was very eye opening for me. After she passed away, I thought that life is actually very short. Do I want to end up later in life asking myself what things would have been like if I’d done certain things. I received a little bit of money and thought it was a good opportunity to give the studio a try and see what happened.
I already had a studio, but because I was working Monday to Friday, I didn’t have very much spare time to work there. So I decided to give myself an opportunity to really spend time making and see what happened.
As an independent designer, you often have a front side and back side where you make and sell your products on the front and then have to take on various commercial projects on the back to support the studio. Does this reflect your experience?
Yes, of course. Although it’s evolved as I’ve grown and built the brand. Last fall was perhaps the first time that I didn’t have to push myself so much as people started coming to me. Things are now a little bit easier economically. In terms of commercial work, I do some retail spatial design and some product photography which bring in a bit more money. I’m quite pleased with the balance because, although I love making ceramics, I wouldn’t like to do that and nothing else. It feels like many of the things I’ve studied in my past—ceramics, photography and spatial and visual design–are all coming together.
I think it should be something that is discussed more, how and where you get money to support a business. When I was at TaiK, we mainly talked about how to go to Milan and find a producer to manufacture your design, but there are different paths and everyone cannot choose to follow the same path. I would also have liked to hear more examples from people across different professions or entrepreneurs and the paths they took following graduation.
It sounds like everything feeds into each other and there’s a nice conversation going on between the different forms of work?
Yes, and it’s that combination that gives me the opportunity to make the ceramics. If I were doing only that it would be economically very difficult.
Do you have people you can ask for advice or do you feel like you have to figure out how to run a business by yourself?
Well, I have studio colleagues and we share a lot of these things. Even though we’re also doing our own independent production, we’re in similar fields. Heidi [Aulikki] does ceramics as well, so we support each other with technical problems and related issues. And Lotta [Larissa] has also started doing ceramics, but she makes jewellery so we’re all in a similar business. So we all support each other. I think it’s really important to have people around you and for me that’s in the studio. We have a really good atmosphere here and we help each other out a lot.
So, did you all find the studio together?
We all studied at TaiK at roughly the same time. Heidi studied ceramics. And Lotta I met as well during our Master studies. But Heidi and I were sharing a studio before this one and then Lotta also started looking, but our old studio was going to be renovated so then we all started looking together for a bigger space. So now we’re here, in the centre of Helsinki in the yard of this old brick house and it’s a pretty good size. We have basically two rooms, one for clean work and then in the back we have a messy space.
Would you say you have a strong relationship between your working space and the work you produce?
No, I don’t think that I have any specific relation to the space. After all, it’s not my ideal space. It would be lovely if the view from the windows were of nature or the sea, something other than a view of buildings. But for me, the value of the space is actually my colleagues. It’s very important to me that we have a good atmosphere and I like working with people who are inspiring. Although I do like being based in the city centre. I used to work in the eastern part of Helsinki and it felt quite isolated.
I like that the idea of a working community becomes almost more important than the space itself.
Maybe someday, I’ll have a space that is really beautiful. It’s funny, though, because I love architecture, but also nature. Maybe someday I’ll have a studio with a big garden in the middle of the city. Then I could enjoy both at the same time.