Handcrafted incense holders by up-and-coming pottery studio CLÆ, founded by Josie Swift, are hotly anticipated at The Conran Shop. Each incense burner is thrown on Josie’s wheel using buff clay before being fired and glazed back at her studio in Folkestone. The Kent-based potter specialises in creating functional and contemporary ceramics that will be treasured for a lifetime and counts teapots, watering cans and plant pots among her repertoire of exquisite creations.
To find out more about the inspiration behind her designs, CLÆ and her fascination with pottery, The Conran Shop sat down with Josie.
How did you begin your path to becoming a ceramicist?
I have always been interested in finding a creative outlet and enjoy many things that involve nature and using my hands. As a result, I often found myself gardening, painting or walking the dog. Ceramics came as a bit of a surprise when, as an experiment, I went to an evening workshop at the charity Clayspace, based in Margate, Kent.
The workshop allowed me to have a go on a wheel under the guidance and support of seasoned potters. It didn’t stifle my creativity but rather allowed me to develop a method of working with clay. As soon as I sat at the wheel, something unlocked inside me; a desire to continue the process of completely shutting off from the world and losing myself in making. That is why I want to continue learning, working and experiencing the pleasure that clay brings me. I regularly attended Clayspace workshops and developed a network of friends in the pottery world. With their help, I set up my own studio where I live, and the rest is history.
Tell us a little about your creative process, what inspires your pieces?
I get a lot of inspiration from nature. The Earth is stunning and constantly changing so its inspiration is neverending. I also love clay, its textures, its colours and the tactility of raw unglazed clay on the skin. Its earthy tones are a fundamental theme that runs through my work. On the wheel, clays want to do certain things and far be it for me to try to control that. I enjoy travelling and am always on the lookout for beautiful pieces that can inspire new forms and tones in my work. Most of my designing is sitting at my wheel sketching. I have so many drawings of new pieces I want to create and new ideas.
How has your work developed since you founded CLÆ?
I’ve honed my skills as a potter. Things come more naturally now and my muscle memory is better than my actual memory! When I first started CLÆ, I was very keen to get things 'perfect' but as I have progressed, I have also relaxed. I have learned that it is such an organic process, from when the clay is dug out of the ground to when it sits finished in your hand, and so much is out of our control. The only thing I can do is embrace the process. I prefer work that is unique, organic and shows the journey it’s had with the potter instead of “perfect”. I love looking back at my early pieces and while they’re not as functional as my work is now, they definitely tell a story. I am also not as concerned with making work I think will be well received, I make things I like and if others like them too then that’s just great.
What is CLÆ’s central ethos?
I’m not overly ambitious. I am happy staying small, and I want to have as little a footprint on this wonderful Earth as possible. I want to always enjoy my work and give joy to the people that use my creations in their lives. I’m not after a complicated stressed life, I value family, friends, nature and having a spiritual outlook on life. I’m not interested in having my name in lights, but I am very interested in having a happy, balanced life.
Working with clay is so good for me and I feel so blessed I can do something I love to earn a living.
Can you talk us through the process of creating each incense burner?
I start out with the clay blend I want to use. By blending clay bodies, I create different tones. Once the clay has been blended, it is then wedged (mixed or kneaded) to remove any air bubbles and to get the clay molecules all going in the same direction. Wedging the clay also ensures the clays is consistent with no dryer or wetter parts. Then I weigh the clay and form a ball. This is then thrown on the wheel. Once thrown I cut the burner off the wheel and let it half dry (usually overnight), once it’s half dried it’s at its leather hard stage, the burner then goes back on the wheel but upside down for the base to be turned to reveal its shape. It is at this point that I stamp the item with my mark. It then needs to dry out completely before being put into the kiln and fired to bisque. Bisque ware is clay that has been fired enough to be forever turned into ceramic but is still fragile and porous and therefore sucks up all the glaze. I glaze the top of the burner and place back Into the kiln to be fired to stoneware, completely vitrifying the glaze and finishing the process.
What excites you most about your partnership with The Conran Shop?
What excites me most is the support independent makers are receiving from beautiful businesses such as The Conran Shop. The platform working with The Conran Shop will create for me to further develop as an artist is very exciting. CLÆ really is a tiny business, it’s just me - I design, I manage, I create, I market, I network, I buy, I troubleshoot, and I pack (with some help from my husband I must add) - apart from that there isn’t anyone else so for CLÆ to be noticed in a sea of amazing artisans who produce some stunning work I find extremely exciting and very empowering. I’m also excited to create something bespoke for The Conran Shop, letting you inspire me and seeing what we can come up with together.
Josie’s incense holders will be available at The Conran Shop soon. In the meantime, why not visit our stores for further inspiration?