Will the next iPhone be ceramic? Since Apple replaced its top-end 18-carat gold watch with a ceramic version in 2016, speculation about the future material of the smartphone case has abounded. Meanwhile, clay factories have announced an increase in demand, and ever more technical applications seem to be indicating that humanity’s oldest malleable material is also the most futuristic. Meanwhile in Eindhoven, designers Atelier NL and Olivier van Herpt are positioning ceramics in the vanguard of design, at once addressing its provenance and destiny.

Dust to dust

A Soil Soirée and A Tasting dinner Collaboration between Atelier NL and Michelin-star chef Luc Kusters Photo: Wouter Kooken
A handful of dust does not look like much to the untrained eye. Add water, however, and clay emerges. Add heat, and glass transpires. Add seeds, and food grows. With the limitless possibilities for Western designers in terms of materials and processes, Nadine Sterk and Lonny van Ryswyck of Atelier NL believe we have become numb to the power of the substance that lies right beneath our feet.

Sterk and van Ryswyk had this realisation while visiting Brazil and Peru, where they were struck by how the constraints of scarcity resulted in designers developing deep relationships with their local communities and materials. “This is something that we’ve lost in our Western society, with all our possibilities.” Sterk further explains that, on the pair’s return to the Netherlands, they undertook an intensive research process in an effort to reconnect with the pre-industrial essence of Dutch design.

ZandGlas, a range of glass objects made of fused sand sourced from Zandmotor, a coastal town in southern Holland Photo: Teun van Beers
During a research stint at Studio Makkink & Bey’s farm, Atelier NL connected with local landowners and farmers to sample and collect all manner of clay, and also conceptualised a product range. This established the groundwork for the duo’s design work; over the past 10 years, it has expanded its clay collection across the entire Netherlands to produce conceptual exhibition pieces, affordable crockery, natural pigments, and workshops that reconnect ordinary citizens to the soil. At Dutch Design Week 2016, a conceptual dinner event served vegetables grown in the same soil from whence the clay of the plates was sourced.

“If you take a handful of sand it seems worthless to most people, but Atelier NL can see ‘gold’ in there, whether it’s glass or ceramic”, Sterk says, describing the intent of the workshops. It’s a question of design, not just clay. “If we look at the world around us, everything is gold, but how do we communicate the value of everything?” For Atelier NL, the alchemy is in the story or in the meaning that design inscribes through the derivation of the heirloom material, through the human relationships formed in the mapping and sourcing process, and through the hyper-local connection to our corporeal surroundings. As philosopher Bruno Latour argues, the revolutionary significance of design lies in how it transforms matter into meaning and objects into signs.

A close-up of a vase being made by the 3D printer Photo: Olivier van Herpt
Olivier van Herpt in his workspace Photo: Dirk van den Heuvel

Dust to digital

While Atelier NL’s work embodies sentiment by reengaging with our primal origins, Olivier van Herpt has sought to concretise the future of dust. Always fascinated by the 3D printer but disappointed by the sub-standard industrial aesthetic of the plastic objects it produces, Van Herpt developed a 3D printer for ceramics while studying at Design Academy Eindhoven. The machine works using standard clay placed in a piston-based extruder similar to what bakers use for cookies or icing. Depending on how much detail is involved, a large vase can be produced in just an hour. It then goes through the typical finishing process of being dried, fired, glazed, and so on.

“Every object, for me, has meaning by being a point in the process”, Van Herpt says. The forms of the vases are canvases on which he can explore the potential of the technology, visualising his experiments for exhibition purposes. Considering psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s notion that the vase is “the most primordial object of human industry” and that it introduces emptiness and fullness to the world, it is certainly a potent symbol for design on the cusp between digital and craft.

The craft qualities of the machine are one of Van Herpt’s particular interests, with mistakes or glitches often opening up new inquiries. For instance, he noticed that Moiré patterns were appearing on the vases without having been digitally coded, and he traced this back to the vibration of the machine itself. Seeking to amplify what he has dubbed ‘the handwriting of the machine’, the designer has collaborated with the likes of anti-perfection provocateur Sander Wassink and sound designer Ricky van Broekhoven to develop sensorial datasets that make the machine responsive to its environment.

In the two years after graduating (with top honours), Van Herpt exhibited throughout Europe, from the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam to the Milan Furniture Fair, and hopped across the Atlantic to show at Design Miami. The industrial applications for the machine have also opened up another realm. Already Van Herpt has collaborated with a company seeking to streamline the making of metal moulds, and with architects in regard to ideas for construction innovations. In fact, demand has become so high that he’s setting up a second company dedicated to making and selling machines for industrial applications and research. “I’m really curious about what they will make and where it all goes”, he says magnanimously.

Matter to meaning

Growing pains can be tedious for creatives. Van Herpt is anxious to move into a larger studio where he can have a support team so that he can focus on design-work again.

Atelier NL also experienced the challenges of success when it crowdsourced and purchased the old church it was based in. This has allowed the duo to set up a factory, bringing the production of their domestic wares in-house. In dealing with clay as well as with business matters, it applies a design-systems approach.

Perhaps tellingly, when asked if he designs machines or ceramics, Van Herpt also says he is a designer of ‘systems’. If the industry is indeed eyeing ceramics as the next material for mass-production, it will be up to the design systems that give meaning to matter, to maintain the romance. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in The System of Objects, “The technical need for design is always accompanied by the cultural need for atmosphere.”

This article appeared in DAM59. Order your personal copy.
Adaptive Manufacturing, a collaboration with Sander Wassink in which data from the cross-section of a tree was programmed into the printer Photo: Ronald Smits
View of the shelves in Olivier van Herpt's studio, displaying his experiments with form, clay, and scale Photo: Dirk van den Heuvel
Olivier van Herpt assembling the 3D printer Photo: Olivier van Herpt
Polderceramics tableware, made of clay from individual farms / Photographer Paul Scala sought to create still lifes that allude to Dutch painting of the 17th century