Founder of Anchor Ceramics, Bruce Rowe, supports a new generation of designers working with one of the world’s oldest materials: clay and ceramics.
April 16th, 2018
Based in Melbourne, Anchor Ceramics is a design studio that operates in an applied research, prototyping and product development capacity. Producing handmade ceramic lighting, tile, outdoor and furniture product ranges, Anchor’s signature continues to be the love with which their objects are brought to life by hand, and the care at the heart of the brand’s endeavour.
We caught up with Anchor founder, Bruce Rowe, to find out more about the studio’s fascinating design journey.
IndesignLive: Your architecture training clearly influences your approach to ceramics. Could you describe how the built environment continues to colour your work?
Bruce Rowe: For me, there are two main architectural influences to my work. Certainly, through my initial training in graphic design and then architecture, the idea of a design process has been drilled into me from a young age. This means that design iteration, processes, testing and design resolution has been brought across into my training in ceramics for Anchor.
Traditionally, ceramicists are trained in a very different way – and architecture and design briefing is very important. My training in this has been invaluable, and it remains a real strength to the way that Anchor Ceramics operates.
But more specifically with regard to the built environment, I believe that we do experience the world through our senses, and this sensorial experience allows us to understand not only where we are, but also who we are as well. Ceramics is very sensuous, and this aspect of engaging with ceramics is, I believe, very shared with the built environment more broadly.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you find it difficult to demarcate between the more traditionally defined roles of architecture, design, art and craft. What, in particular, do you see these disciplines sharing that makes them difficult to extricate from one another?
I think that they’re connected through this idea of experience. The most powerful works of architecture and art, for instance, are the ones that move you on a different level. And by this, I mean on a different level other than a building or an image that flashes by. It maintains some emotional aspect, arising from experiencing and engaging with the object, building or artwork.
I believe that the impulse behind the work very much affects its possibility to make an impact on an individual, and the conversations in our studio are not different from the ones that I used to have in architectural studios.
We still talk about experience, materiality, texture and emotional impacts – we just approach them now through a different manner that is more holistic and encompassing than distinct disciplines.
I understand that your approach to design is highly organic, and never follows a set agenda or process. Do you believe that this authentic approach to each different design results in a highly resolved end product?
It is the way that we approach making something. It’s really that simple. We don’t have an underlying, prescribed methodology, because each project and intent is different. It comes back to openness to possibility. The material itself is so full and rich with possibility that you can’t approach it in any one specific way because then you are shutting down a whole host of possibilities that could’ve been otherwise explored.
“We like to question the possibilities that can arrive from material. And we don’t want to fill this with roadblocks straight away. We want to embrace risk, opportunity and experimenting. Openness in this regard means that if you are willing to pose the question, then you have to be open to different answers too.”
I also understand that collaboration is a vital stage to you design process. With particular regard to ceramics, how does collaboration with other practitioners and disciplines enliven your work?
For someone who has been trained in a design context, you learn that nobody makes a building by themselves. In fact, I don’t think that anyone can make anything all alone! You need a team of other architects, engineers, designers, consultants or builders. It really is a huge team.
And, for Anchor, we know that we’re not experts in every detail of the built environment, so this means that we are keen to learn and collaborate with those who are pushing various areas of design and manufacture forward.
Working with these like-minded experts who are committed to Australian design and manufacturing is very rewarding. They’re open to the conversation of refining an iterative process because, in order to perfect a prototype, you really need to look at it in every possible aspect. Even those you might not be aware of at first.
One of the most interesting aspects to your studio is the degree to which you collaborate with people of all levels of seniority and discipline. Does supporting emerging talent hand-in-hand with established talent important to the philosophy of your practice?
Ceramics in Australia – not in the sense of a studio potter, but in the sense of a ceramics manufacturer – has experienced a big exodus in recent decades. The handful of people we do have access to that body of knowledge is precious. We are very lucky to work with these people who hold so much IP in ceramics and clay and manipulating their material qualities.
But on the flip side, working with emerging talent has meant that we can preserve and push the future of ceramics forward as well. Ceramics is difficult to manufacture and develop, so the more that we can build and engage the next generation with the material – and a career with the material – the better that our design industry will be for the future. This is a future-proofing move that wants to give back to the community that has given so much to our combined disciplines already.
We support some initiatives throughout Australia – such as Next Wave (a biannual festival in Melbourne that supports emerging artists). We’re currently sponsoring a new artist that is working in three-dimensions because we are seeing this type of work less and less as more two-dimensional artistic expressions continue to gain practitioner and market popularity.
We are trying to build a supportive model and a community that can also elevate the profile of design, making and producing things in Australia.
In many sectors in recent years – but especially so in the hospitality, residential, retail and commercial sectors – we’ve seen an increased degree of attention given to textural variation and materiality. Even though you specialise in one particular material, how has this affected your practice?
I think this comes back to what we were talking about earlier about experience and sense. We do experience the world with our bodies and we crave that sort of textural and visual variation – it informs us, and it’s our first interface of interaction with the world.
It comes back to the authenticity of the space, and the material’s expression. Clay is a very humble thing, and taking out that authentic quality is impossible.
We work with all different sorts of clay bodies and different materials in our glazes – which are developed in-house rather than commercially bought. We are using up to about 10 different clay bodies at any given time, and some of those are even mixed with others.
With clay, if you change one variable the options really are limitless – you open up a world of new possibilities and it’s one discipline that has no end, but only development.
Anchor’s business model is one that is concerned with sustainable production, manufacture and consumption of design products. With a ‘buy well and buy once’ mentality, how important is it for Anchor Ceramics to lead the sustainable design business conversation?
Absolutely. No question! It is very important to us. We have only one world, and once that’s been used up and finished … well, that’s it. I’m aware that we are making and bringing a product into the world that consumes resources and leaves an impact – as with any discipline. But I believe that you can be conscious of this, minimise it, offset it, and promote a more conscious culture of manufacture and consumption.
And, more pointedly, what new directions would you like to see the industry make a collective effort to pursue?
With respect to Australian design and manufacturing, we need to continue supporting the ongoing mission for sustainability. Since Anchor launched we have seen a huge shift in how the landscape of manufacture in Australia operates.
The support that has come from the local design community for our local manufacturers has been immense recently – and without it, many practices, studios and manufacturers would have had to shut up shop a while ago. Yes, we’re a small voice in a massive ocean of cheap, offshore, replica imports – and this is a big problem.
But with more collaboration and reciprocal support, we can make significant inroads into elevating our global manufacturing profile, as well as help bring Australian design to new audiences around the world.
“I think that our sustainability journey isn’t complete – in fact, it is never complete! That needs to be an ongoing mission that we all strive to push forward.”
Working with what has to surely be one of the design world’s oldest materials, I want to know what draws you personally to clay?
It is definitely one of the world’s oldest materials that we choose to express ourselves through. But for me, I was drawn to working with clay at a time when the bulk of my work was very screen-based. I was looking for a way to reconnect with material and working with my hands.
Whether it is painting, working with timber or making models, I have always used my hands, and this is always the way I have sought to understand and explore the world. At the time it looked like a series of accidents that lead to me sitting behind a potter’s wheel, but looking at it now I can see it being very connected to what I have always understood about my approach to being in the world, and helping shape some of it.
And, further, what ancient clay manipulation techniques, ideas or approaches still continue to inspire your work?
There definitely are. At its simplest, clay is the earth – dug up out of the ground, mixed with water, shaped into something and then put in a fire. That is still the process even though the tech has changed (such as electric kilns). A lot of the sculptural work I do is constructed, and this means taking clay and sculpting it in a manner which hasn’t changed very much in thousands of years. We’re aware of this kind of history and romance, and there has been so much done with clay and participating in this rich legacy is very humbling.
Every morning I eat my cereal out of a bowl that isn’t too dissimilar from bowls you can see in museums across the world. It helps to orient us not only in the world, but also within time. Our work will start and finish at the studio, this will get slotted into a certain time in history, and then that too will help develop the future of the practice of clay manipulation.
Our studio doesn’t shy away from tech, and we believe that using openness and risk, we should try anything and everything to see what new possibilities can be. 3D printing, for instance, has been incredible for us not only as a manufacturing process but also for developing our tooling. It is interesting to see the legacy of clay informing its present, and then these current technological developments informing its future. It’ up to us, however, to implement that future and those possibilities.
With respect to Potter and Earth Lights (pictured) in particular, what inspired the development of these two products?
At the times they were both developed when I was still working as an architect. The idea was that I was trying to find a particular form or product while working on a few projects. I just couldn’t find exactly what we wanted to fulfil, but with the Earth Light, I was working on residential projects that needed a simple wall-mounted light.
But I still wanted something that also had an authentic quality and visual texture. I wanted something that still contributed to the space other than just a light source. At the time, I really struggled to find something that could achieve this.
I wanted something that still contributed to the space other than just a light source.
Both of these products marry ancient hand-made techniques with the latest in digital technology. Is this mixing of old and new something that you pursue across your entire portfolio?
There are lots of interesting things happening with 3D printing that we haven’t fully engaged with yet, but that we look forward to. We use technology as a tool to help solve a particular need – if we need to achieve something, we need to experiment with the tools at hand, and sometimes even develop those tools when one may not exist.
We look at all of these technological developments not as just a means to an end, rather than just an end in itself. We like to see collaboration and experimentation changing the way we look at clay, and working with emerging technologies throws open the doors of new and unexplored possibilities.
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