A Ton of Clay by Ian McIntyre – Jerwood Makers Open 2015


6 July 2015

“I have actually decided to take the cups out,” says designer Ian McIntyre, gesturing towards tens of unglazed cups lining a drying rack in the corner of his London studio. “I didn’t go too far because I was actually quite unsure about them, but I have made about 200 in total.”

It is my third visit to McIntyre’s studio and this admission does not come as a surprise. The cups were supposed to be the third component of McIntyre’s upcoming Jerwood Makers Open project, A Ton of Clay, yet on my previous visits his uncertainty about the placing of the cups was increasingly evident. “I will probably smash all of those,” he continues. “It is more than likely going to be cheaper for me to break them than to continue.”

The decision comes three weeks before the project is exhibited at the Jerwood Space in London as part of the 2015 iteration of the Jerwood Makers Open, an annual contemporary art exhibition. With McIntyre working exclusively on the project for the past six months, such a last minute change to the installation may seem drastic. However, allowing the project to evolve through the process of making was essential for McIntyre. “Originally when I proposed the project it was very much about the objects evolving as I made them,” he says. “I am trying to design through making things that you would not necessarily be able to design in any other way, other than through the material.”

A Ton of Clay comprises over 1,000 bowls and plates made from a ton of stoneware clay. The bowls and plates are visually utilitarian – white in colour with a simple, clear glaze. However they differ from regular forms: the rim, usually trimmed upon production to form a clean, rounded edge is instead rugged with natural brushes of clay. And whereas usual tableware is designed to stack with a distance between each rim, McIntyre’s sit flush on top of each other.

For the exhibition, which will open at the Jerwood Space in London on 10 July before touring nationally, the plates and bowls will be stacked in staggered columns along two “almost dexicon" shelves which measure 2.4m long. “The stacking is a way for me to convey a solid mass of clay,” says McIntyre. “A raw weight.”

A Ton of Clay is inspired by the practice of English potter Isaac Button who died in 1969. Described by McIntyre as “a production craftsman” and “a one-man factory,” Button was the only remaining potter left to operate the Yorkshire-based Soil Hill Pottery following the first world war. There, Button gained a notoriety for his speed of production, known for throwing a ton of clay, equating to 1,200 pots, in a day. “I am really interested in the constraints he was working with,” says McIntyre. “People reminisce about his work in quite a romantic and nostalgic way but when you go into it a bit more, it is not as idyllic as it looks. It must have been a really tough life.”

Button’s mass production of functional objects – pots for feeding chickens, storing grains and wares for cooking – informed McIntyre’s decision to work with the most utilitarian manifestations of tableware: the plate, the bowl and the cup; the “workhorses of tableware,” says McIntyre. “I didn’t want it to become in any way an accessory or move into that area of applied art or sculptural design. If you dismantle the columns, they can still be hard-wearing, functional and designed for a purpose; not for a shelf or mantelpiece.”

A Ton of Clay is one of five projects to feature in this year’s Jerwood Makers Open, an annual exhibition that grants five contemporary artists £7,500 to realise projects that have an emphasis on making, practice and process over a six-month duration. With a background in both product design and applied art, having graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2010, McIntyre’s work typically lies at the confluence of craft and industrial design. A Ton of Clay is the first case study in McIntyre’s PhD research at Manchester Metropolitan University that examines the role of the maker and its potential to act as a catalyst for industrial innovation.

When I visit McIntyre’s studio in east London three weeks before the exhibition opens, the space is abuzz. The studio’s three kilns constantly hum as a growing backlog of pieces are fired and an abundance of plates and bowls line the studio surfaces as they wait to be glazed. “We had three kilns running pretty much consistently over the past six months and they have completely taken a beating,” says McIntyre. “I am so tired. It is tough to do a ton of clay in a day. It is tough to do a ton of clay in six months to be honest.”

Each piece is created using a bespoke mould. The most time-consuming stage of the project was the initial design of the mould that allowed for the plates and bowls to stack with no gap between the rims; a process that was so precise McIntyre would tweak the design by the millimetre. The steps that follow are relatively straightforward, a nod to the repetitive and rapid nature of Button’s practice.

First McIntyre cuts and weighs the clay to an exact amount and uses a machine to flatten it into a disc, known as "batting out". He then uses a jigger jolley machine. In normal practice, plates and bowls would be jiggered, meaning that they are placed on the outside of the mould where they are cut. Yet McIntyre positions and cuts his on the inside, a process that is termed jolleying. This results in the clay creeping towards the edge of the mould, where an uneven rim naturally forms. They are then fired in a kiln and coated with a clear glaze.

Despite its emphasis on process, A Ton of Clay is ultimately an exhibition piece intended for a gallery space. Aesthetic details remain significant for the processes they convey. Although Button’s pieces were produced for the commercial market many had subtle imperfections. Fingermarks from Button’s brisk handling was a norm. For McIntyre, the naturally textured rims of the plates a bowls which make up A Ton of Clay are a reflection of the project’s craftsmanship. “Because Isaac Button was a thrower and I am more of a designer, the way of me communicating that imperfection and trace of making or materiality is through the materials rather than fingermarks,” says McIntyre. “When I say imperfection, that is perfect for me. I do really like the idea that you are stripping back the process to reveal the quality of the material. It is quite reductive.”

It is McIntyre’s vision to convey imperfection, coupled with his desire to avoid the project becoming purely an aesthetic pursuit, that fuelled his decision to remove the cups from the final installation.“Placing the cups in between masses of clay became quite staged and decorative. I really just want it to look like I have stuck a mass of clay on some shelves. I don’t want it to look like I have spent a lot of time placing it or figuring out a lot of arrangements because, for me, it needs to be more functional than that,” says McIntyre. “I think there is something really nice about the columns in that they just look incredibly heavy, there is a real visual weight to them. The cups change the language of the piece.”