In an article recently published by the local.se, the author writes that, whereas the general perception of Swedish style is still that of light and white tones, the Swede is in fact falling for colour, abandoning the “sleek and clean interior design” for which they are epitomised. In the art of ceramics, the same concept applies, as is apparent in the works of one of Sweden’s most highly regarded ceramicists, Per Hammarström.
In the world of British ceramics the variety is diverse and vast. Many, would be familiar with the work of Edmund de Waal (famously known for his book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes) and his simple, delicate white bowls; or if you are based in York, as I am, you might consider the Centre of Ceramic Arts at York Art Gallery, where a tower of white pots looms over you (“Manifest: 10,000hours” by Clare Twomey), or a tall urn imprinted with black lineal flowers, overlaid with a blue glaze (“Hua de tu an – Flower Pictures II” by Felicity Aylieff) stands proud in the vast open-ceilinged room. However, in Sweden, the ceramic arts are regrettably much less prominent, but not from lack of talent. Among the latter, is Sweden’s Hammarström.
Hammarström began his training at the Gustavsbergs Porcelain Studio in 1978 – sadly no longer in existence, indeed there is no longer a centre for ceramics production in Sweden, rather the industry now relies on independent artists – as the assistant to Berndt Friberg and Stig Lindberg. In 1984 he opened his own studio, and has worked in this manner ever since. His works are either made from stoneware or porcelain, and have been exhibited throughout Sweden, as well as the Universal Exposition of Seville, Spain 1992, and at the Ceramic’s Biennale in Cairo, Egypt 1996.
The artist’s studio is currently based in a yellow building, Keramikenshus (The Ceramicist’s House), in Ugglans Park in the centre of the town Strängnäs – definitely worth a visit if you are nearby, which you never know, you might be. On the one side is the artist’s studio, and on the other a gallery, with a restaurant in-between. The gallery is a small space, just the one room, however the space available has been put to good use. Each corner reveals an entirely different display. Upon entering, a small display unit hangs on the wall, within it are miniature works in shades of green, blue and yellow. The influence here is the sea – as is indeed the inspiration in much of his work. One small piece, recalls a sea urchin, prickly and unwelcoming, however as a piece of art – fragile and intriguing. Other pieces recall the scales of a fish, seaweed, or coral; and others the undulating colours of the sea itself – of blue, turquoise, aquamarine, green, and brown. The intriguing bird like figures, shaped like pears and with a similar choice of colour, are an interesting, if not peculiar, interlude between the oceanic references made in the other miniatures.
Along the wall, a vastly ornate swan on a pond of small white flowers, adorns the centre of a table, surrounded by similarly intricate bowls and plates, with ceramic fruit and vegetable placed around a three-tiered stand. It is like stumbling across the mad-hatters tea party, and yet it is not the guests who are mad but the tea service itself. Exhibited as part of an exhibition at the Royal Palace in Stockholm last year – “Extra Everything! A Baroque Fantasy in Honour of Hedvig Eleonora” – Hammarström put on a table display composed entirely of his works, of which this swan was a centrepiece, to commemorate the three-hundredth anniversary of the death of Queen Hedvig Eleonora. It is fun, and exciting, there is nothing dull or predictable about it – tell me, who has ever seen a ceramic swan, decorated with gilded foliage?! This entire set-up is a decorative exploration of the practical; turning something we take for granted – in the case of the plates and bowls – and making it visually exciting and appealing.
As the room progresses, the contemporary interpretation of pieces does the same. The following corner features six white block stands, with individual pieces atop them. Two of those which stand out the most, are two seemingly simple bowls. One, a sky blue exterior with a starkly contrasting red inside, the other with a textured mustard colour outside and a yellow-speckled green inside. Whereas a ceramicist such as de Waal, is intrigued by the nuances of the colour white, and the simplicity it evokes, Hammarström loves colour. He does not shy away from using it, and instead takes full advantage of the properties it possesses. Furthermore, he plays with texture, something which you do not expect from ceramics, instead anticipating a flatness in form and structure. He catches you off guard, especially if you go in unsure as to what you will find.
In his creations, Hammarström doesn’t conform to this idea many have of Swedish style and design – there is nothing plain or boring, or underwhelmingly simple to his creations. They are at times daring, whether that be in form or colour, and at others traditional – a dinner service in blue and white with a floral motif, instantly evokes native Sweden. Whereas his colourful bowls and miniatures evoke the sea, not something which comes to mind when you consider Sweden, yet something which is intrinsically important to the Swede. Where the people are often brought up around lakes, the country itself bordered on one side by the Baltic sea, and for many, holiday destinations include the beaches in Thailand and Turkey. The sea, and more importantly water, is part of the Swedish psyche and way of life, therefore it is only natural that the artist would respond to this. In his pieces of art, Hammarström breaks with the conventions of understanding that associate Swedish design with simplicity and sterility, exploring instead the multi-faceted function of ceramics, and their role as decorative pieces of art, as well as practical household items. He surprises us with a shock of colour; a shock of mesmerising forms; a shock of the new.
(All photos by Isabelle Gapp)