The recent debut of the clé Guild was not what clé founder Deborah Osburn had ever envisaged. Having created and run a tile production business early in her career, she did not imagine she would be doing it again.
The idea was never to actually become a production operation, but when searching for the perfect glazed thin brick proved an elusive challenge, she realized there was no alternative: clé would have to begin experimenting with the creation of its own handmade tile at its headquarters in San Rafael, California.
To do this, Deborah needed to secure two critical components in the creation of a clé tile-production studio: advanced manufacturing plus artisanal creativity.
The Guild’s Blaauw kiln made its way from The Netherlands to Marin County, fulfilling the manufacturing needs, and local ceramicist Eric VanderMolen brought art and science together to help deliver the clé Guild vision.
Eric’s presence in the ceramics world arose in a somewhat unconventional fashion. Not formally trained as an artist, Eric’s background is in the sciences (biology, physiology, chemistry). He always enjoyed creative pursuits but never considered himself an artist. After interning and being exposed to ceramicists from all around the world, Eric’s appreciation for ceramic artistry turned into a passion.
We recently sat down with Eric to understand what he finds so unique about the clé tile Guild, and how it feeds his newfound appreciation of tile.
Combining Science and Art
clé: What flipped that switch in you, to go from a more science-based mentality to art?
Eric: I studied biology, physiology, chemistry in school, but art was always there, in the background. It was only after leaving school that I realized those topics were stimulating for my mind but not stimulating to my soul. Ceramics is visual, it is tactile, it’s science-based, it’s process- and systems-based. It really relies on a lot of different ways of operating and thinking that I enjoy. It’s really the perfect combination of science and art.
clé: You’ve been on this journey with us since the beginning. What are your thoughts about this process, as compared to the processes you were exposed to throughout your training in ceramics?
Eric: The kiln in the Guild is almost a polar opposite of the kilns I trained on, in that this is a very precise instrument. It is computer controlled, very repeatable, whereas the kilns I learned on were more rudimentary than analog. Everything was done by sight, by smell, by touch. It allowed me to really get a better handle on the fundamentals of firing, and the way the fuel interacts with the air, with the wares in the kiln, and the rhythm and the pulse of the firing process. Even though the Blaauw kiln we have now isn't quite the same tactile approach to firing, that knowledge and sensitivity has given me a really nice jumping off point to be able to fine-tune this super-accurate kiln."
clé: So that's kind of the opposite of how we often think of clé tile, with the rough edges and the nuances. Each batch is different. Would you call this approach more predictable?
Eric: I would, but just from firing to firing. With ceramics you have this dizzying, poly-variable situation where you have the glazes, and the materials going into the glazes, and the clay, and then the firing. We have really tremendous control over the firing. But we are electing an approach with all of the other materials that introduces that variation, that irregularity. That nuance. That soul. We are really able to meld the best of a natural, raw approach with the highest technology and efficiency available to us in the firing aspect.
clé: Describe a little bit about the process of setting up the kiln, the first firings. What did that look like?
Eric: The first few months after having the kiln set up and established, we did scores and scores of glaze tests. Deborah is very fast-moving and intuitive and her reactions are very visceral. She would look at everything and it would invoke certain feelings, and I would try to parse out those feelings to put into a more objective view of ceramic qualities.
The “Ah-Ha” Moment
clé: Was there a moment that stands out in your mind? That “voila” moment?
Eric: The very first firing was just a test firing to make sure everything was operational. The second firing was where we actually put product into the kiln. The first round of tests, the first round of tile substrate, was completely unknown. While it wasn't the most dazzling of successes, it was the most emotionally gratifying of successes in that we could tell right off the bat that we did not have what we were looking for, but it was within our reach. We could tell we had the foundation of what would be our first product line, just from that first firing. It was tremendously satisfying. It had been such a long process of getting the kiln shipped over from the Netherlands and coordinating the installation. There was so much anticipation and expectation built up around this process so to have that first tangible bit of evidence that yes, we were definitely on the right track; beautiful things were going to come out of this. That was really stirring.
Clay and Glaze: Working in Symphony
clé: What role does the clay have in the quality, the “soul” as you say, of the end product?
Eric: Clay is often the most important element in ceramics but also the most under-looked element. It is absolutely foundational to the end product. It's the bones; what everything else is built upon. All of the surface qualities, all of the chemical interactions hinge upon the quality of the clay. This is a very raw, rough, nuanced clay. It has a lot of grit, a lot of tooth, a lot of surface texture. It's a very old clay bed. And, we're lucky to have it so close by. It is very minimally treated, not very refined.
clé: How does the clay for the Guild tiles stand apart from other clays on the market?
Eric: An analogy I use is that with industrial clay, you have a highly-refined product that's been screened, sifted, treated, sorted. That’s just what industry does. You try to get to the most consistent product possible. It’s like very refined white flour. But all you can make from it is Wonder Bread. This is a very raw product, and so you get something that is a more craft, artisan quality from the foundational element. It's like your Della Fattoria bread, your Tartine Bakery bread. Every bite is different, every tile is different, because each bit of clay has its own character.
clé: What about the glaze? We know you’re creating the glaze from scratch—how does that add to the artisan quality of the tile?
Eric: Another analogy I use speaks to the chemical interactions that happen with the glaze during firing. With a lot of commercial ceramic tiles, you have surfaces made of frits and a pigment. So, you essentially have a pre-melted glass that's ground down, then pigment is added to it and applied to the surface. This is very consistent, but you lose a lot of the opportunity for character. It's like a choir with only two voices. You have the glass and you have a color. Alternatively, and just like the raw clay, we're using raw glaze materials. Everything is coming together at once; being chemically activated, awakened. And the clay is as well. Everything is changing its form, changing its chemistry altogether. There are all kinds of chemical interactions happening at once. You have all of these multiple voices that are coming into play. It's a full chorus, a symphony. It all adds to what makes the end product so special.
The Hands Behind Hand-Crafted
This first installation of the Guild is just the beginning. As we expand upon opportunities for innovation, we look forward to sharing more about the journey, all while maintaining the essence and philosophy that is, simply, clé.
In Eric’s words, "It's critical that we keep the same feel. It's very much a studio product. It is handmade, from start to finish. The substrate is handmade, the glaze is handmade. Every step in the process is touched by someone."