In the stately townhouse of Koen Ghesquière, ceramist in Antwerp, everything is centered around a large wooden table filled with cups and plates. Koen designs and creates tableware for renowned chefs, but just as well for dinner parties in his own house, hosting thirty hungry guests around that same table. Not two cups on the table are the same. That’s exactly what inspired OSKAR and Koen to develop YANN together, a tableware collection which embraces craftsmanship in each and every piece.
“Do you know that book of Tarkovsky about cinema? It’s called ‘Sculpting in Time’. That’s what the essence of this profession is about: each piece is a snapshot. Not two cups are the same.” Koen Ghesquière serves tea in his living room. He grabs cups from the shelf behind him, which can barely hold the weight of the stoneware collection lying on top of it – more than what you would find in the average china shop.
“The first thing I do in the mornings is to check on my kiln. To me, pottery is not work but a way of living.” Although things used to be different. “Creating has always been part of my life. It used to be performances: events, theatre, music. But it became too big for me. Too many people, too many actors, too many tablecloths.
I bought this house and renovated it myself, during two years. The intent was to live a more quiet life. I started to build an atelier without knowing what I would do with it.”
PURELY ON INSTINCT
At OSKAR the focus is mainly on dining together, with family and friends. But OSKAR’s love for ceramic can be sensed through everything they do. A well-shaped plate, spotted in a restaurant, will never go unnoticed, just to check whose initials are engraved into the plate. The GHESQ stamp eventually led them to Koen’s atelier.
“There was no plan”, that’s what Koen remembers from the first conversation with OSKAR. “Except that it had to be tableware. Initially, we mainly talked about the different kinds of clay. The OSKAR team had just returned from a study trip to China where they tried out different types of clays and glazes. I found it fascinating to hear what they were working on, how they found me – purely on instinct. I felt an honest interest in how I work, and a lot of respect.”
“We didn’t want to work with liquid clay and moulds.
Everything had to be hand turned.”
Master mixologist Paul Morel introduced Koen to the top tier catering scenery in Antwerp. Today Koen designs and creates their tableware. Koen explains: “Chefs are tired off using their traditional white porcelain. They approach me with mood boards or a measuring rod, demanding that each plate has the same size.”
Meanwhile, OSKAR gave Koen free rein, with the necessary challenges to take into account. “OSKAR produces large quantities, but I work alone in my atelier and make one piece at the time. The contrast couldn’t be bigger. Handmade ceramic is my signature, therefore we didn’t want to work with liquid clay and moulds. Everything had to be handmade.”
Maintaining that craftsmanship, while trying to keep up with a larger production process, Koen and OSKAR decided to look for a factory in Portugal. “We found factories with ateliers where they were working with eight men in a row, handmaking cups. There, it still exists! The workshop supervisor, Miguel, is a true talent. He understood my intention perfectly when I told him each piece has to have its own individuality.”
GETTING RID OF BREAKFAST PLATES
The starting point for the collection was simple. “We wanted to design a tableware collection in which each piece is multifunctional”, says Koen. “You should be able to use a bowl for an espresso, as well as for a dipping sauce. We also wanted to step away from the idea of having a different kind of plate for each meal. So there is no such thing anymore as a ‘breakfast plate’ or a ‘soup bowl’. You can use what you want, how you want it.”
The shapes are a result of extended experimenting, grown organically. “Carefully we searched for the right proportions, shapes and curves. Eventually we ended up with a bowl as the base form.” The end result are nine different objects: a mix and match in groups of three, each piece fitting nicely into the next one and so on.
“The workshop supervisor in Portugal is a true talent. He understood my intention perfectly when I told him each piece has to have its own individuality.”
Choosing the materials was a matter of experimenting as well, bringing together knowledge from the different contributors. “We worked with clay from all kinds of places. Cream-coloured clay from Germany, black Grès clay from the North of Spain, and a red clay, frequently used in Portugal, which darkens beautifully in the kiln. Due to the big kilns they use in Portugal, there are always variations in temperature depending on the exact place inside the kiln, which translates into more intense colours.”
To enhance the uniformity of the collection and to bring out the natural colours of the clays, Koen chose one transparent glaze. “The glaze covers the edges of the cups. That way you get two different textures, a subtle difference in colour and a pleasant feeling to the lips when sipping your coffee.”
THE AUTODIDACT AND THE BEAUTY OF COINCIDENCE
This intuitive way of working is inherent to Koen. He likes to be driven by the moment, the materials and the people surrounding him. “I try to work towards a specific idea, but in fact, I haven’t thought it through, at least not intentionally nor consciously. The shape gets defined while I am throwing the clay. I don’t make sketches, I just start making. Intuitively you make decisions: at this point, I let go. I can’t explain why, as long as it feels good in my hands.”
Although there is one confession he made. “Honestly, I can’t do it, make the same pot a hundred times.” Koen is a late bloomer, who only discovered clay when he was 52 years old. “Before, I never gave it much thought to how these things were made. But as soon as I started to immerse myself into ceramics, I discovered a world that only became bigger and bigger. Pottery is practised in Africa, in Mongolia, everywhere on earth, and always in a different way.”
“Recently I made a whole series of plates with white glaze.
When I got them out of the kiln, they ended up being pink.”
Koen never went to school to learn his craft. He took an old wheel out of a shed and started trying a bunch of things. “I’ve watched tutorials online for hours. Centering the clay, using the thumbs, for me it ended being something natural.” In his work, there is room for coincidence which then creates beauty. “Recently I made a whole series of plates with white glaze. When I got them out of the kiln, they ended up being pink. No idea why,” he confesses. But for him, that’s an essential part of the process. “When working with clay you have to let go of all expectations. You have to give destiny all the space it needs. Playfulness is at the base of everything I make.”
That’s the reason why Koen never finds it difficult to create something new. The inspiration lies within his fingers, literally. “Teacups have been around for tens of thousands of years. Yet, each time I make a new one, and I never know what it will turn out to be.” But that’s probably why the craft is so attractive: the unexpected fascinates, while consistency easily becomes boring. “In fact, it’s very funny”, says Koen while closing the door of his workshop, “the industry drove away from the craft, but that same industry is now asking artisans like me to bring back life into their products. And that’s also the meaning of transforming lifeless objects in time turned to stone.”