ART, DESIGN AND CULTURAL REPORTAGE: NEW YORK — LONDON
by Melissa Gamwell

14 December 2009

For the first term project at the Royal College of Art we were asked to choose an object from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s new ceramic gallery, create a replica and produce an interpretation. Nearly a week after considering hundreds of objects, which are displayed in a stunning strand of spaces on the third floor, I finally landed on a French porcelain cosmetics jar, originating from a factory in Mennecy, outside of Paris in pre-revolutionary 17th century France. My initial attraction was due to its hundreds of seemingly identical flowers coating the surface. Any object oriented between the typologies of industrial production and delicate craftsmanship usually catches my eye, and this piece in particular, despite my feeling that it was too simple of an object ( which I now retract entirely), became my focus for the past 8 weeks.

  Cosmetics Jar, Mennecy, France, 1755. Soft paste porcelain with hand-pressed decoration(left) Mennecy II, London, 2009. Slipcast porcelain, casting wax, graphite, plaster(right)

Cosmetics Jar, Mennecy, France, 1755. Soft paste porcelain with hand-pressed decoration. Approx 16 cm x 13cm(left) Mennecy II, London, 2009. Slipcast porcelain, casting wax, graphite, plaster. Approx 28cm x 18cm (right)

Aside from the technical challenges I was particularly interested in the life of such an object and its user. This jar would have been part of a set, living on an impressive vanity where the ritual of beautification would occur. Both the 17th century french royalty and the bourgeois court were heavy subscribers to the cosmetics industry. Ointments and powders were used to make the skin appear more fair and white, which was a visual proclamation of the luxury of service, situated well beyond a sun-cast, agrarian means of living. Despite the privilege, cosmetics at the time used arsenic as an ingredient, which lead to skin disfigurements and fatalities.

I love that an object can possess such a dichotomy, sourcing beauty and disfigurement, and inherently also be a decorative particle of another surface. When developing an interpretation, my focus was derived from the temporal quality of cosmetics as a surface device, and how it might integrate an object abstractly with a person and their environment.

The form itself became an exaggeration of the original Mennecy jar, but now coated in a series of residual materials that will fade and deteriorate on the vase, while making marks on the person and their habitat. Consequently the object will become a record of its use, questionably more unsightly or constantly cleaner, more deteriorated or progressively beautiful with age.

Here is a visual time line of the project showing varying stages of the process.

First attempts at throwing porcelain

First attempts at throwing porcelain

The original jar and lid would have first been thrown in a soft-paste porcelain on a wheel, then turned by hand to create the decorative marks and shape. The flowers are hand made and immediately applied.  For my attempt I experimented with different templates to accommodate the form of the original, and also created a plaster tool to aid in the production of the flowers.

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Base form with and without floral application

Original Mennecy Jar ( left) and replica ( right)

Original Mennecy Jar ( left) and replica ( right)

Details of the replica object

Details of the replica object

One of my earlier reactions to the form and use of decoration was to invert the expectation of flourish by creating the texture/subject/interest on the inside of the vessel. While I was also contemplating the final direction of my interpretation, I made a test study for this concept ( which was also used as a glaze test). I will definitely be developing this concept further for another project called secret fauna@ secretfauna.com

Inverted Mennecy, London, 2009. Hard-paste porcelain. Hand applied flowers and horses.

Inverted Mennecy with hand applied flowers and horses. Hard-paste porcelain. Approx 13cm x 9 cm

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Detail

Detail

Detail

Below are some sketches that were made from the original thrown forms which began to dictate the forms of the final interpretation. These were thrown spontaneously  and after living with them in my studio  I began to see them as small sketches of how I might go forward.

Thrown sketches

Thrown sketches

This led to more refined forms turned in plaster for casting.

Turned plaster forms

3 form developments in plaster

Porcelain Casts

Porcelain Casts

Porcelain casts and color sampling

Porcelain casts and color sampling

Porcelain casts

Porcelain casts

When considering materials to coat the surface of the vases, I experimented with colors and textures that I felt had a notion of cosmetics and that historically related to objects and object-making. One of my first thoughts was to use red wax because it  reminded me of the body, blood & femininity. It also works as a nod to lipstick & rouges.  I was very attracted to the residual quality of wax, in that despite the color, if you are to touch it, you end up repelling other kinds of matter, rather than obtaining a visual mark. Contrary to that I also started testing graphite mixed with binders, which makes it a bit harder and slightly less transferable, reminiscent of an eyeshadow or pencil. Finally I tested plaster with different gradients of tint, to reference a finely pressed powder.

Porcelain sample dipped in wax

Porcelain sample dipped in wax

Tinted plaster swatches and porcelain samples dipped in plaster

Tinted plaster swatches and porcelain samples dipped in plaster

Porcelain samples dipped in varying consistencies of liquid graphite

Porcelain samples dipped in varying consistencies of liquid graphite

Final prototypes:

Slip cast porcelain with wax, plaster and graphite coatings

Slip cast porcelain with wax, plaster and graphite coatings

Graphite and plaster transfer

Graphite and plaster transfer

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habitats

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Detail

Here is an article about the renovations of the new V&A ceramic galleries:

http://www.septemberindustry.co.uk/?p=2985

The Anish Kapoor exhibit:

http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/anish-kapoor/