INTERVIEWED BY Michaela Stehr
We chat to local multidisciplinary creative and ceramist Jan Ernst about his processes, using clay as a medium and his new partnership with Galerie Philia in New York.
Give us a bit of background about yourself?
I was born in the Freestate and was raised all over the country – a bit like a gypsy. I finished high school in the Karoo and studied in PE. After finishing my degree in architecture, I moved to Barcelona, Spain, and did my master’s. Cape Town was the next big thing and where I started practicing as an architect.
How did you get involved in ceramics?
Holding a master’s degree in architecture, most forms of design come naturally to me, it is just about shifting the scale and adjusting spatial relationships. My journey with ceramics started last year during the lockdown. I needed a creative outlet and a material that I could easily manipulate. I soon realised that being in this space made me feel good. Working within the collectible design realm allows for personal interpretation, an opportunity to create something that still has a use, but also has a message from the creator.
What are your favourite things about working with this medium?
Clay has been the focus because I believe it is a material that has not been explored to its full potential in contemporary design. I am drawn to the organic nature of clay, its ability to connect the maker with nature, and how it can be shaped and manipulated. There is also something quite meditative about the process of making. You get to focus incredibly hard and see how ideas translate into three-dimensional forms.
What does a day in the studio look like for you?
I get up at around 5 am and go to the gym or a run on the promenade. I have some of my biggest ‘a-ha’ moments early in the day. When I get home, I will spend some time putting ideas on paper or making models.
The day is then split in two, attending to admin and making time to create.
A day in the ceramic studio starts by planning the day ahead. Things on my agenda would be attending to client emails, driving around for supplies, in-person client meetings, and then prioritizing the ‘making part.’
Time set aside for making includes the forming and building of a new piece. I check every item before it goes into the kiln and again when they come out. Sometimes I glaze it and then a second firing will take place. Time gets spent packing and unpacking the kiln.
Because most of the pieces are functional it is important to make sure they fulfill their purpose. If it is a lamp, I need to do the wiring and make sure everything fits, switches on, and is safe to use.
I usually work in the studio until 6 or 7 pm.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I have never intentionally tried to look for a single source of inspiration that could be used to shape my work. I am inspired by nature, ecological systems, and biology. Within that, there are endless possibilities. I think subconsciously I have created things that are not usually possible in architecture – forms, textures, and defying gravity. I am also still a child deep down and take immense pleasure in being able to explore a non-conformist way of thinking and making.
How do you keep things fresh?
Prior to studying architecture, I completed a year of art school. Part of the programme was graphic design, and I had a lecturer that always used to say: ‘get out all the bad ideas.’ I never stop making, I just get out the bad stuff because even if it is just a tiny idea, sometimes something great is born when digging in the mess.
I also love getting out of the city. Our lives are very manicured here and we sometimes forget that there is beauty in a farm kitchen that is not designed, but lived or strange rock formation in the Cederberg that was shaped by years of being exposed to the elements.
Lastly, I love to collaborate with other designers. I think it’s very important to be exposed to the way other people approach the process of making and the things that inspire them.
Do you have a preferred method of creating?
My creative process is very organic. I spend a lot of time outdoors to find inspiration and often collect found objects that I study to understand form, structure, and surface texture. From that point, the rational part of my brain kicks in and I start drawing what is in my mind’s eye, or I create maquettes that capture the essence of what I am planning. When I am happy with where the design is going, I will start the final piece but not be limited by the original drawings or ideas. Clay has a way of guiding you in the direction it wishes to go.
Any local creators to keep on our radar?
There are talented creators shaking things up at the moment. Some of my favourites include Murr Murr [Oyster couch], Meeco Home [Lucky Look chair], Nindya Ceramics [Terra Landscapes] and Frances VH. Mohair.
The world is a very confused and confusing place right now – we see this reflected in all forms of art and design. The work being produced by the well-known artist is either expressing this sense of being lost or digging in the past and culture to give a sense of belonging. If ever there was a time to create something unusual, conceptually mind-blowing, and dare I say, ‘aesthetically challenging,’ the time would be now…
How do commissions work and do you find them tougher than your own creative pieces?
I love commission work – the Origin Collection, curated and commissioned by Meeco Home, based in London, and created in collaboration with Vorster & Braye Ceramics was an incredible journey.
The designs were outrageous because we wanted to push the medium and the aesthetic as much as we could. There were many risks and challenges, but also great joy in creating one-off pieces. Seeing the appreciation from the client made every single hour of work worth it.
Tell us more about signing with Galerie Philia and the story behind that partnership.
I exhibited at The Collectible Salon in May with Artskop who represent my work in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Usually, the design fair is held in Brussels, but due to Covid, the event had to be held online. The fair was very proactive and partnered with 1stDibs, a platform for galleries around the world to showcase their artists’ work.
Soon after the fair Galerie Philia, based in New York, reached out to me. They will represent my work exclusively in the United States.
Follow Jan Ernst on Instagram, here.