Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Mug's Mug

Writing in the January issue of Icon magazine, editor Justin McGuirk describes going into a shop in Tokyo that sold Japanese handicrafts. Inside one particular cabinet he saw a handmade mug made of black clay with a white glaze. It was, he says modestly, ‘rather beautiful’. The crunch, however, was the price tag – nearly £30 – and he hastily put it down thinking it was way over the top. Several minutes and two streets later the mug remained in his memory as he recalled the pleasing way that the dark clay resonated behind the milky glaze, the uneven surface, a base that was not quite circular and the handle not perpendicular. ‘Eloquently imperfect, the mug lingered with me’. McGuirk contrasted the quiet beauty of the mug with the ‘factory-smooth and mute’ mugs he used daily, adding how much he would rather have the black and white one than all of his own.

It is a paean of praise for the discretely handmade, for the quality of individual expression, for an awareness of character and the pleasure of intimate contact with an object that performs a simple but important task. McGuirk’s reluctance to buy was down to perceived worth or value when contrasted with functional mugs produced by industry that could be purchased for a fraction of the price. Yet, in terms of satisfaction value, he makes it clear that the handmade product far outweighed any material cost, its intrinsic worth more than justifying the higher price. He concludes by saying that, in his opinion, ‘the only way forward for us as a consumer society is to buy fewer things that we value more’, a statement with which it is hard to disagree. When Icon magazine features the best/liveliest/inventive/pleasing/beautiful handmade mugs from the UK then this will, indeed, be a sign of change.

Should you want to support Justin McGuirk in his appreciation of the handmade his email is

Monday, 8 December 2008

Save Harrow Ceramics

It has come as a shock to hear from the ceramics course team at the University of Westminster, Harrow, that, after working to create a beautiful, well-equipped new department after last year’s devastating fire, management has prepared a case for the closure of Harrow’s world-renowned BA Hons Ceramics course. Recruitment of new students has been suspended in a run-down to closure, which is planned for 2013 – the fiftieth anniversary of ceramics teaching at Harrow.

The University of Westminster has taken the closure decision despite the national and international reputation of the course, its first-class academic standing and its huge significance for British art, craft and design. Far from its standards being questioned, it is said to pose problems because it takes up too much space. As a senior manager justifying the course closure said: ‘the trouble with clay is you can’t store it on a memory stick’.

This issue appears to not only be London-centric, but nationwide. A feature in the forthcoming edition of Ceramic Review (CR235, Jan/Feb 2009) reports on Mapping Current Activity and Sustaining Future Making, a symposium called in response to the recent closure of Glasgow’s BA Hons Ceramics, the last dedicated ceramics course in Scotland. It seems that ‘bums on seats’ is the priority and ceramics departments are being pushed out as a drain on resources. As Jane Cairns, spokesperson for the Ceramics Students Action Committee says: ‘This is an appalling act of cultural vandalism – it is all about balance sheets, square footage and accountancy, not art. It is a betrayal and a disgrace.’

Current students and staff have embarked on a determined campaign to save Harrow ceramics and are seeking as much support from the wider ceramics/arts/education community as possible to stop the closure. Please write or email your views to Vice-Chancellor Geoffrey Petts (, with a copy to the Dean of Media, Arts and Design, Sally Feldman (, and also to the Ceramics Course Leader, Kyra Cane (