In Studio with Hannah Massey

WORDS Steve Smith PHOTOS Jan Ras

We caught up with the talented ceramicist behind the brand HAN to find out more about her design approach and studio space.

There are a couple of reasons to visit the gem that is 31 Loop Street. One: its saint of a landlord has resisted the temptation to “modernise” the beautiful facade, and the shop retains its original Victorian-era wooden windows and doors. The second reason is the clincher, though: its tenant of the past few months has been ceramicist Hannah Massey and her brand HAN.

Hannah is known for her biomorphic aesthetic translated into organically shaped vessels, bowls and candleholders, and her Loop Street premises is both a showroom and – artfully hidden behind big canvas curtains – her workspace.

How she learnt her craft

Sometimes you choose your path, and sometimes it’s chosen for you. In Hannah’s case, it was perhaps a gentle nudge from the earth goddess that got her working with clay. After studying set design, she started her own decorating design business – which was abruptly stopped in its tracks by the serial business killer better known as lockdown. Fortunately, a family friend who was a ceramicist needed help with her classes, and an unplanned apprenticeship of sorts began. “I started to make things for myself – stuff I wanted to see, wanted to have, and didn’t have access to,” says Hannah.

Going from zero to ceramicist wasn’t easy, or error-free. “I don’t think anyone ever truly masters the medium,” she says. “It’s a craft for artists who never stop learning. There are so many different techniques and ways of building, so much science behind everything. The way I work is very intuitive, but I have a collection of technical books about ceramics that I refer to quite often. So much can go wrong, especially when it comes to glazing and firing in a kiln.

“The toughest part of it all is the heartbreak when it doesn’t work out. You never know what’s going to happen – there may be a little air bubble in there, the air-con could mess up the drying process… It may look perfect when it goes in the kiln, but the next thing, it’s cracked in half. That’s pretty devastating – but you just have to let go, be patient, and not become too attached to anything.”

Her approach to design

Her inspiration comes from the past, looking at the forms of traditional vessels and how they express the human narrative. “I then adapt them to be an expression of myself – the parts of myself that need healing,” she says. “My original H candleholder was fundamental to the start of the HAN journey. Many of my designs are based on expressions of my own body and how I’m feeling about myself. For example, the Pot Belly designs are meant to look like skin and cellulite, and have that textural feeling in their biomorphic forms.

Hannah Massey
Details of various pieces in progress in the workspace that Hannah has created behind a large curtain in her studio. Her signature “H” shape features prominently in various iterations.

“All of my pieces feel like they have their own personality – they’re all a little off-balance and not exactly right. If they were perfect, I wouldn’t feel anything for them. I don’t want them in the family.”

The space, why she chose it, and how it’s evolved

There are also a couple of reasons that made Hannah choose 31 Loop Street. The beautiful frontage is one, but there’s another, more “hidden” advantage that had her signing the lease. It’s an advantage any ceramicist would kill for: there’s no loadshedding. Much of Cape Town’s CBD around Long, Loop and Bree Street is shielded from the disruptions a lack of electricity causes. For a ceramicist with a kiln that requires time to reach an operational temperature, it’s a godsend. Thanks again, earth goddess.

“It’s also great to have a space in which I can interact with potential clients and people in the industry,” says Hannah. “And to get face-to-face reactions of what people think of my work is pretty invaluable. It’s not like posting your work online or putting pieces in shops and galleries, where you don’t really know what people are thinking.

“The best part is that it’s now morphed into a space for collaboration – artists and designers can come in and make use of it. It’s quite exciting to have this blank canvas that you can do whatever you want with. I studied set design, so it’s also subconsciously why I went for a big white space, where I can move stuff around and change things up all the time.”

Her future plans

Those collaborations are certainly part of the plan, and working with Tanisha Neill and her brand NISH has proved a great success. The two first connected at the 2023 Cape Town Furniture Week – a meeting of creative minds that resulted in a lighting collab, and a display in 31 Loop Street’s gorgeous windows that won the 2024 CTFW Award for Best Window Display.

“There’s a long list of things we want to make that draw on her aesthetic and my forms,” says Hannah. ”There’s an upholstered chair that takes inspiration from my H-shaped vessels, a modular interlocking shelving unit that also takes on the H-form, and a headboard. I haven’t seen any wonderful headboards lately and I really want one!”

In terms of her own work, Hannah wants to experiment more with colour, as well as scale up her signature H-form. “When I first started, I was working with raw textures quite a bit and not doing any glazing. Since moving into this space – essentially a big white box inside – I’ve started to play with colour. I’m still figuring out what my palette is through experimentation with glazes and bigger forms. I’d love to be able to scale up. Time is the enemy, though: having the time to work on one piece is a problem. I’m trying to find the balance between running the studio space, and filling orders for this space and for other shops. To then still find time to experiment is difficult… Once I have an assistant, I should have more time!” |

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