It Breaks Open like a Universe: A Conversation and Studio Tour with Romy Northover
The word "chawan" is not a word you hear every day, but then again a chawan is not a common object. Elegant and marked by human craftsmanship, a chawan is a ceramic tea bowl that plays an essential role in the Japanese tea ceremony. A chawan requires a steady hand, a passion for the ritual of tea preparation, and a place of prominence in the household. At once poetic and functional, it is among the most beautiful of the useful objects. Romy Northover knows this first-hand: as the ceramic artist behind the design house No., she has become known for her organic, primitive vessels. Fueled by an interest in the raw character of clay and a fascination with open spaces, No. pieces examine the composition of vessel forms, exploring both the presence and the emptiness represented in a simple bowl. Indeed, No.’s portfolio reads like a love letter to the humble vessel: she has created golden crushed cups for Alex Eagle, a dark void-like bowl for The Line, and a towering vase for Calvin Klein. But it is the chawan that continues to fascinate her, and it is the chawan which has become the subject of our exclusive No. for Rikumo collaboration.
On a sunny Monday morning, we meet Northover in her studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She gives us a tour of her space and glazes a batch of freshly dried Mokutan bowls as we chat about her background and artistic process. Afterwards, as we take in the fresh air by the studio terrace, we talk about tea, the importance of flexibility as an artist, and the beauty of open spaces. As our conversation unfolds, a crucial truth emerges: in Northover’s work, it is impossible to separate craft from philosophy. Like an empty tea bowl waiting to be filled, they encompass the fruits of an impressive oeuvre and the anticipation of further paths to be explored.
You come from an artistic family - your father was a designer and your brother is a photographer. What made you want to go into ceramics as opposed to another medium?
I think it’s the connection to the earth and the raw material, but also the relationship between objects and space. When you think of a bowl, you think about the object but also about the negative space within it. A container has that sort of volume within it and outside of it. I was interested in how that interrelates with the body, in terms of using ceramics for nourishment but also symbolically in an anthropomorphic sense.
The potential to hold new things.
For me, it’s philosophical. It’s how you experience existence and life.
Is that the reason why you tend to do bowls and vases as opposed to the usual ceramic pieces like tableware?
I think the tea bowl for me is particularly strong for it having such a strong sense of history. Once you involve the tea, it breaks open like a universe. You can keep on working with it and never find an end point. For me, that has a much deeper sense of purpose and interest for me than straightforward tableware. That’s not to take anything away from [tableware], it’s just that the tea bowl has a symbolic and historical reference that I find fascinating.
Do you enjoy tea yourself?
Yes [laughs]. Once you’re a tea drinker you see what it does, the power of it. You know, it’s a bodily experience, and something that you share with other people, or not. It’s very expansive.
Is that what draws you to Japanese techniques and artistry? It’s something that you’ve cultivated in your work for a while, and I’m wondering why that particular tradition caught your eye.
When I was doing ceramics when I was younger, it had a much more sculptural leaning. And then when I started learning at Toge in Manhattan, I learned that I wanted to throw again.
Was that your first studio here?
Yes. In New York, yeah. I wanted to throw again and they were throwing in the Japanese techniques. It was almost accidental, it’s just where I was where I started to pick up the technique and got throwing again. Also through osmosis of being there. The attitude is different, you feel connected to [your work] rather than things just being products that you are producing and selling. There’s a little bit more going in there.
A little bit more soul.
You know, [Japanese] ceramic history is so rich and so vast and so celebrated, it’s been really revered as part of their culture. They were given the space and the energy and somehow the funding for it to really hold court. What I like about Japanese ceramics, was this earthy character and an interest in what the clay itself is saying. It’s a conversation between the material.
I think working with ceramics must be interesting because it’s one of the few mediums where you can actually see the artist’s hand behind the finished product. It obviously depends on what style you’re going for, but with Japanese ceramics you can clearly see there’s a human element to the process and you never forget that this cup came from someone actually making it for you. When you are preparing to make a piece, what is your artistic process like? Is it a picture that’s inspiring you, a movie, a song?
All of the above, really. I find that I’m never off. The transmission is always on. Everywhere I am filters back into my work. I also cultivate and hone my senses to be responsive as well. I look at art, I read literature, I enjoy film… it’s sort of a multimedia aspect. Things come up at certain points… something comes up that I haven’t seen in awhile and it suddenly becomes relevant again. It’s really sort of a multitude of information coming from different angles. But it’s also about the conversation between the clay and the artist. One of the things I was criticized a lot for when I was young was being too sensitive and letting things get to me too much, but I feel like that’s really the place where I work from. So when I work with the stone - carving, for example - it’s really about understanding the stone and receiving the information from the stone when I’m working with it. It’s the same with clay. Or ink, or whatever it is. I don’t have a hard image in my mind to get to that point. I do have an idea, but it will move.
Process-wise, what’s your step-by-step?
I do a lot of concepting. I pretty much always start with the concept, that’s a strong part for me. Thinking about not necessarily what the piece is going to look like but what the feeling is behind it. Who’s using it, why, what’s the purpose. I do a breakdown of all those questions. Then I start forming inspirational images and influences. I do a lot of mood boarding to really draw my visual ideas together. Within that, I’ll be working with clay to do maquettes. That’s really where the majority of the work goes. If I’ve done that part well, the making part is more fluid. Then it’s throwing, trimming, drying, firing, glazing, firing… and that’s it. It’s such a long drawn out process, there are many opportunities to see new things.
How does it differ when you’re making a piece for yourself as opposed to when you’re making a piece for a client?
I like both for different reasons. [Collaboration] can stretch you to produce new work, so I like that aspect. I find that when I’m working for myself, I tend to be more secretive, you know? I trust my cards more. I don’t really share until the endpoint. Making work is never a finite point, so even if I’ve made a piece, it’s just going to be something that’s influencing future work. I rarely have that moment of completion. Sometimes I’m really productive and producing a lot of work, and sometimes I have to step back and indulge the conceptual side of things. It’s very much a tide-like motion, it can’t be all one direction.
Can you talk to me about the two bowls you made for us? The concept of duality is important in this collaboration - they fit together but also have their own personality. I was wondering what your idea was behind that concept.
There are lots of elements that can go into designing a work. We liked this idea of duality and binary oppositions. Some things are strengthened by having an opposite. There’s tension but also attraction. Pairing two objects together forms an interplay between them that extends beyond a singular product.
I liked the idea of a language of a quote-on-quote “summer” or “winter” bowl. A summer bowl is used to drink when there’s more heat in the environment, so you want more flair, which creates a wider surface area, so the liquid would cool faster and you’re able to drink it. Whereas the winter bowl is a high-sided tea bowl, more enclosed, which would keep the heat in when it’s cold outside.
So it’s quite functional.
There’s a functional element to it, yeah. The white was chosen to emphasize this idea of lightness, of elevation, of white cotton, airiness of summer. But also within that, you can really see the green of the tea. [The glaze] is almost like a vehicle for examining tea. Same with the black bowl- when you have a dark background, it’s actually really interesting what that does to the color of the tea. It can really intensify that green until it becomes more luminous, whereas the white one you tend to see more of the earthy tones of the tea. You get the brightness with the dark and the earthiness with the white. It’s a part of the process of tea, of experiencing it, of taking your time with it. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use one bowl out of season. It’s a cyclical feeling: you have the cycle of the seasons, the circle of the bowl, the cycle of your digestion… all of these movements that are meridian as opposed to linear processes.
Can you elaborate on the details found in each bowl?
The summer tea bowl has more textured clay, a sandy, groggy texture. I wanted that to be able to come out and show the earthiness of the clay. You can feel it when you’re drinking from the bowl, so you’re stimulated with your fingers as well as with your tongue and your nose. It’s a sensory experience. Then, we’re using a white glaze that still allows some of that graininess to come through. It’s got that same translucent feeling so you’re never losing the character of the clay. The black bowl has a high-sided, squared-off form, still with the same foot. I used a knife to cut the facets on the side to create something more angular. The summer tea bowl has a fluidity and elevation to it, and I liked these harder lines in contrast to that. The black is a charcoal matte black, more of a thicker coverage than the translucent of the white one. More dense in contrast of something more fluid. It has dark, smoother clay with more linear angles. The experience of using each one would be contrasting. Not just a visual contrast but an experiential contrast [laughs].
You have described your work in the past as having an “ancient future” aesthetic. Can you elaborate a little bit more on what that means?
It’s something that’s quite personal, and it goes back to what I’ve been talking about with never having a finite point. Ceramics has been going on for millennia so me producing a bowl is not anything groundbreaking: you’re following on a tradition that has been carried out through thousands of years. So it can be a very humbling experience, to produce something that will outlive me. Your position is something transient, and all the works mean different things to different people. Using the past and tradition in a lot of my work, I feel indebted to take that knowledge to create something that then falls back into that continuum of making stuff. It’s something that’s, in a way, quite subtle.
You experimented with other mediums before coming into ceramics. Do you have any other outlets that you dabble in? Do you ever paint?
I don’t paint [laughs]. I draw, I make videos, I work with creative direction, I do consulting work, I do styling. I love anything that involves concepting a space and translating those ideas. I work with stone, I’m working with glass as well. I’m tethered by clay, but it’s not the endpoint. I find thatIi have many areas of inspiration. Something I learn in glass will come back to me in clay and vice versa. It comes in and out.
And you can’t make art in a vacuum. You have to always be trying out different things that will inform the art that you have chosen to go on with.
I find that if I feel frustrated that the art I’m making is not moving forward, my strategy is to go sideways. That’s how I get out of the stuck feeling. Sometimes it can be very painful, being in that sort of process, but once you get through it you get a flow. It’s just getting used to the rhythm of making and how you can manage it.
Is that one of the hardest things about being an artist? Getting through the process?
No, I think it’s money! [laughs]
Without a shadow of a doubt! No, I’d do that any day. It’s more about trying to do [your artistic process] while running a business. Knowing when to shut off this kind of openness and that flow and say “Okay, right, now we’ve got to discuss something else.” It’s a completely different energy level.
I think that’s something a lot of working artists struggle with, how to coexist with both parts of yourself.
Staying healthy is really important, too. Making sure your body is in good condition, that you exercise, eating well… that gets me on a level where I can handle stuff.
Do you have one thing that inspires you that isn’t necessarily related to ceramics?
Being outside is really essential. I love the natural world, I love animals. They give me the space that I need. Aesthetic influences are really key but they wouldn’t be anything without the right space. A good example is when you walk into a cathedral and you feel it soar. The visceral response is what drives me. I can get that from a conversation I have, I can get that from looking into a building. When the body reacts, that’s how I know I’ve hit something that resonates with me.
The No. for Rikumo chawan collection debuts on Wednesday, November 1st. Each chawan style comes in limited quantities and is made in the U.S.A. by Romy Northover. Thanks to Romy for hosting us and for a wonderful partnership!
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SETTY