The art of taking chances

Decorative art is the physical manifestation of an idea, which is formed by the material in a constant dialogue and negotiation between the artist’s experience and the properties of the material.

By Joakim Borda-Pedreira

When the British potter, Bernard Leach rebelled against the soulless, banal forms of industrially mass-produced ceramics at the start of the 1900s, it was the Japanese pottery traditions that he turned towards to find a role model for his own new design language. Despite ceramic production in Asia having taken place industrially and on a large scale for several centuries, Japan, as well as other countries such as Korea and Vietnam, still preserved a workshop-based tradition, which honoured the unique experience that is found in the potter’s contact with the material. While the workshop-based technique in this tradition is certainly based on a knowledge accumulated through many generations of masters, it still encourages a considerable degree of chance-taking, as the end result is never guaranteed.

From studio to industry
In our Scandinavian context, the desire to experiment has generally been weak, however.  In the 1900s, the decorative arts were highly characterised by the utilitarian ideas from functionalism and the social-democratic efforts to build up the “folkehem”, or “people’s home,” as the Swedes affectionately call the welfare state. The aesthetic value of the decorative arts was placed on the same level as its utility value, and its intrinsic value was expressed in democratic terms rather than aesthetic concepts. While on the continent the term “Decorative arts” is used, here in Scandinavia we talk about “applied art” – art, which can be stacked, filled with food or hung up on the wall to create feelings of warmth and cosiness. Over the next hundred years, artists and craftspeople went directly from studio to industry.

Functionality is no longer a criterion
Based on this, it is interesting to note that the development is now moving in the opposite direction. In her book Craft in Transition (2005), art historian Jorunn Veiteberg points out that the functionality of the decorative arts has for a long time created a tension between art and craftsmanship, between the functional object and the purely aesthetic. She also describes how more and more decorative artists are finding strategies to free themselves of the functional object.[1] There are many examples of decorative artists, who reserve themselves to the designs and history of the functional object, but yet also abstract them beyond recognition. During the 1980s in particular, many decorative artists strived to undermine the functionality in their works. Worth mentioning here is the Norwegian silversmith Leif Stangeby Nielsen, whose hollowware often takes its aesthetic cues in modernism and refers clearly to Art Deco. As objects, Stangeby Nielsen’s coffee pots are exquisite, but due to their size and design, they are more or less unusable. Functionality is, as Jorunn Veiteberg concludes, no longer a criterion, which can be used to distinguish between handicrafts and art.

Photo: Annemette Beck & Mette Maya Gregersen Photo credit: Dorte Krogh
Photo: Annemette Beck & Mette Maya Gregersen
Photo credit: Dorte Krogh

In recent years, decorative art has moved into the same field of discourse as fine art. In numerous articles and lectures I have drawn attention to decorative artists who work with ready-mades, performance and digital techniques in a way that until recently was considered as standing in opposition to handicrafts’ existence. Fine art’s release from the “handmade” runs parallel to and reinforces handicrafts’ identity as material-based, technical and anti-intellectual. But this has now been turned on its head in both disciplines – after decades with idea-based practice, fine art has found itself in an identity crisis, and young artists are increasingly returning to material-based practices. One of them is Swedish Veronica Brovall, whose expressionistic and provocative ceramic sculptures in a large format have garnered attention. Ceramics and textiles in particular are experiencing a revival among a younger generation, which is replacing the laptop with the loom so as to restore the role of handicrafts in fine art.

It is exciting to note how earlier distinctions between art and crafts are gradually dissolving. Not in the way that the visual and decorative arts are about to meld together into simply “art”; on the contrary, more and more artists are choosing to identify themselves as craftspeople or “makers”. But many of these external distinctions, which have traditionally separated the idea-based art from the material-based art, have become irrelevant.


Just as Bernard Leach researched Japanese pottery traditions to attach it to the history of ceramics, I am seeing how, at many Scandinavian design schools, the students are opting to an increasing extent to dispose of the ultra-modern ceramics ovens in favour of the primitive, wood-fired Raku-oven that they have built themselves. Increasingly, there is a longing to experiment with the materials and make room for chance. One student that I met waxed lyrical on the ecstatic feeling as he opened up the Raku oven, the excitement of never being able to be completely sure of the result. This can be seen as a reaction against the high degree of precision in modern technology and against the fact that the great historical mysteries in ceramics manufacture, such as how one fires true porcelain or manufactures a sang de boeuf glaze, have been solved long ago.

Photo: No title, Søren Thygesen, The Biennale Award 2015, Photo by Dorte Krogh
Photo: No title, Søren Thygesen, The Biennale Award 2015, Photo by Dorte Krogh

In addition to a return to working by hand and to archaic traditions, I often apply another strong tendency, which shows that decorative art has become fragmented into different, apparently  contradictory positions. The future will show whether I am right, but I have in several contexts argued that the new digital techniques, especially the ever-more sophisticated 3D-printers, will start the aesthetic revolution of our time. It has already changed our viewpoint of what decorative art is and can be.


Paradoxically enough, it is the ceramicists and the textile artists, who are leading this development. One of my favourite examples is the British ceramicist Michael Eden, who as a sideline to researching 3D techniques in his artistic work, has also formed some ideas about what it comprises on a philosophical plane. “Making”, writes Eden, “is a voyage of discovery, one where we adapt our knowledge and experience to unfamiliar or unknown landscapes. For me, it is a way of visualising the abstract, of realising an idea or concept as an artwork.”[2]  The consequence of this is that the creative process becomes equally as important as the end result (the finished product), which makes it possible to consider the digital technique as a tool similar to the potter’s wheel and the weaver’s loom.


What then does this conceptualisation of decorative art mean in a longer perspective? We can already observe that this field is starting to develop an academic discipline with its own conceptual framework, which however remains strongly dependent on art and design historical discourses, and yet continues to become more and more independent. This text is an example of this, as is the symposium “Making is Connecting”, which is arranged in connection with the Biennale in Copenhagen.


As a consequence perhaps of the fact that decorative art is increasingly being given a intellectual dimension at the expense of the handmade, the concept of materiality is becoming widely regarded as the universal criterion for decorative arts’ specific characteristics. That which unites a Raku cup with Michael Eden’s digital pots or, to give another example, the Norwegian ceramicist Jens Erland’s [P1] ready-mades, is the materiality of the objects. Erland uses discarded industrial porcelain, which he does not alter in any way but rather places in a new context, which stresses the abstract shapes and the material’s own aesthetic qualities. That industrially manufactured sanitary porcelain has the same materiality as ceramic masterworks was proved by Erland at an exhibition in 2014, where his found objects were exhibited next to antique Korean pottery from the Nordenfjeldske Kunstindustrimuseum collection.

Photo: Josefine Rønsholt Smith, Aske Rif Torbensen &Mette Saabye Photo credit: Dorte Krogh
Photo: Josefine Rønsholt Smith, Aske Rif Torbensen &Mette Saabye
Photo credit: Dorte Krogh

I interpret the theme “Making is Connecting” in the same ways – through its materiality, the art object attaches itself to both its history and the present. Decorative art is the physical manifestation of an idea, which is formed by the material in a constant dialogue and negotiation between the artist’s experience and the properties of the material. Seen from this angle, the decorative arts have finally been released from having to define themselves based on practical value or technique. Once this has been said then we, who think in terms of its manufacture, are unable to express what we see in any other way: it is the artist, who is taking the chances.

[1] Veiteberg, Jorunn, Craft in Transition (2005), Pax Forlag, Bergen, p. 29.
[2] Michael Eden, “The New Ways – Digital Craft Skills and The New Industrial Revolution”. I: Borda-Pedreira & Steinsvåg (ed.), Materiality Matters (2014), Norwegian Crafts, Oslo, p. 54.

[P1]Spelled Erland, not Erlend