Studio Visit: Reiko Kaneko

The Japanese-British ceramics designer discusses reactive glazes, her place in Stoke-on-Trent and her work outside the realm of pottery

At the softly sun-bathed studio of ceramics designer Reiko Kaneko, working with glaze is one big experiment. Occasionally, her steady process of trial and error includes herself, such as the first time she worked with a toxic raw lacquer and accidentally touched it with her bare hands: “I really didn’t think it was going to be that poisonous, but I got it on the skin and my whole face blew up! It was dreadful!” But for the most part, it’s fine bone china that serves as the testing (and play-) ground for Kaneko’s enduring curiosity and artistic vision.

Four years ago, Kaneko became so enthralled by learning her craft that she moved her studio from London’s creative haven of Hackney, 175 miles north to Stoke-on-Trent, a town in Staffordshire commonly dubbed “the Potteries.” The area is so steeped in history, a statue of ceramics industrialist Josiah Wedgwood stands squarely outside the train station. The Japanese-British designer has the bone china bodies created by a nearby family-run factory (which we also visited) while her studio focuses on all of the decorating and special projects outside of white gloss production, so moving closer to this cluster of professionals has provided Kaneko with a wonderful network of professional potters happy to share their wisdom.

“There are really good glaze companies around here, and it is that face-to-face conversation that you have with people who’ve been in that industry for their whole lives that you can get information from,” she says. “That’s the great thing about a cluster I think, there are these old-school people here that specialize and have a lot of knowledge and experience. I think they were also kind of tickled by the idea that someone would move up from London. They’re good guys as well, people here are just really friendly.”

Kaneko’s sublime knack for reactive glazing lured us to her studio, where, over a lunch of Staffordshire oatcakes, we learned more about her process, what pushes her as a designer and manufacturing in the UK. Those in London can see her new work in person this weekend at LDF 2016, where she’s showing in three different exhibitions.

How did you get started in ceramics?

I was at Central Saint Martins doing 3D Design. I dabbled in ceramics but not very much. Afterward, I had jobs at design studios but then I just got started [on my own]; I got a part-time job and started making things. I began with all sorts of different mediums actually, and then I made these plastic egg cups for holding up egg soldiers like we have in England. I had that made in China and that did pretty well, and I learned the business of making. I became more concerned with working with factories that I didn’t really know, and at the same time I started doing a bit of ceramics design and got to know the industry up here and I just preferred working with these people. Since moving up and being able to have kilns and space to do it in, I’ve been able to expand as much as I want and learn through doing.

Staffordshire’s history in ceramics dates back hundreds of years. What’s the tone like today?

Our local MP is quite keen on helping out the local industry because so many factories around here have left. I guess with all the cheap imports, manufacturing in England has really gone downhill. But it’s still managed to kind of hang on, which is quite unusual for manufacturing industries. Anti-competition laws have come in because they’ve worked out that a lot of Chinese or Indian companies are actually selling under the cost price—whether it’s subsidized or they’re just trying to flood the market with cheap products, they’re basically destroying the industry so that there just isn’t any competition.

How long does it take you to create a new piece?

I do a lot of 3D printing or I work with a plaster modeler around the corner. To get from that stage, or from the drawing and design stage, to a sample, it probably takes around five or six months. There’s a lot of testing along the way because if you’re doing a new shape it’s quite difficult to know what it’s going to do in the kiln; bone china is notoriously soft. Certain shapes can distort or collapse or crack. Like [The Boat] I took to the model maker and they’re like, “It’s not going to work.” We went ahead anyway and it actually did work, but there are some others where it shouldn’t have been a problem and then it didn’t come out of the mold; anything with a lid on it is quite difficult as well.

And we’re not too keen on having it uniform, in a way we want to do one-off things. Because it’s reactive glaze the nature of it is it’s not really going to be the same. There are certain ones where we’ve got it down, but depending on how thick the glaze is or even just how warm the kiln is, it just changes the color; even different areas of the kiln or using different kilns have different effects. It’s quite a troublesome process, but that’s the fun of it. That’s what’s quite nice about ceramics: it’s playing with natural materials and it does what it does and you can control it as much as possible but it takes on its own form.

How do you see your ceramics work in the future?

I prefer to spend more time on one piece than multiples. I think that’s more the direction that I’m interested in going, more the art way than the design side. Mind you, I’m a designer for other companies, and the bespoke projects are really fun because it’s nice to work with creative people in different fields, they’re always quite passionate people.

Is that how you ended up crossing over to make a chair for SCP?

Sheridan from SCP has always been quite supportive of all the stuff I’ve done. I think he just wanted to give me a challenge as a designer so we made the chair, and I’m working on a sofa and some lights as well. I like that challenge because, as I say, I’m not traditionally fully a ceramicist. It throws up a lot more questions and it’s a good exercise for the brain.

Reiko Kaneko’s ceramics and studio glaze pieces sell online, and are also available as bespoke commissions. Her studio and showroom are open to visitors by appointment.

Images by Karen Day