Reiko Kaneko's London studio, built by her brother at the end of her garden.

Reiko Kaneko

Studio Visit

Reiko Kaneko is a ceramicist, designer and educator based in London. Our Editor visits her studio to find our about life during the pandemic and new perspectives in her working practise.

Reiko Kaneko is a ceramicist, designer and educator based in London. She works at various scales in a range of typologies, designing both products for manufacture and bespoke pieces for commissioned projects. The focus of her working practise is on mastery of material and form. She has created designs for SCP since 2013, when she first presented the Adderley Works pendant light, made from fine Bone China. I first met her around 2007, when she was exhibiting some of her early work at the wonderfully irreverent Designersblock exhibition. She is, and always has been, a tenacious and serious soul, one also in the possession of a fantastic sense of humour.

We visited her London studio to talk about the last year and about new perspectives on her working practice. Her studio was built in 2019 by her brother, at the end of the garden of her north London home. It’s been a new chapter in her life and career, after a number of years up in Stoke-on-Trent, where she had relocated from London in 2012 to set up a large scale ceramics studio.

The garden around the studio has been lovingly tended.
Reiko Kaneko talks to Duncan Riches.

So what was it like at the start of the pandemic for you?

“At the beginning of the first lockdown everything kind of stopped, in April, when there was so much uncertainty. So it was a case of just sorting things out here. So, April to the summer was pretty dead, and to be honest I was mostly doing childcare, but it was quite a happy time. It was almost like an exercise in seeing what life would be like without work.”

One consistent outside of her working practice over the last year has been her teaching, which is on the ceramics course at Staffordshire University, which she travels up to every two weeks at the moment. What has it been like at the University?

“It’s been really sad for the students. It was tough for the first lot of students that graduated during the pandemic, because it kind of fizzled out for them, there wasn’t a degree show. It was really sad for them to have not reached that conclusion to their studies. The last contingent of students didn’t have full access to the workshops at points, which was also challenging for them. All practical courses in the arts were shut, which in my view is just another example of how creativity is not seen as an important part of life.”

"All practical courses in the arts were shut, which in my view is just another example of how creativity is not seen as an important part of life."

Reiko Kaneko

Creativity is overlooked so much.

“I do love teaching. Looking after the students’ wellbeing has been difficult in this period, but it’s a beautiful place to be, at an art school. I am such a fan of the environment. I really love teaching and the new team we have. It feels like we are building up this course that I want to be part of. It’s also nice to get out of London, which is part of the reason I first set up the studio in Stoke-on-Trent in 2012. I wanted to see a different bubble I suppose, a different view. I love being back in London, the immediacy of everything, having colleagues and friends who are in the same sector, the same world. You can share things and that’s really enjoyable.

I feel weirdly more part of Stoke-on-Trent now that I have left and started teaching there. I feel part of a community of people trying to do stuff. When I was up there, I was really concentrating on my ceramics and my skills. I was seeing the producers in the factories, and the manufacturers and glazers all the time. Now, it’s interesting being with the students, and the University being part of the British Ceramics Biennial, and it having a lot of links to all the industry there. It’s a really nice vibe.”

It seems Stoke-on-Trent has had a bit of a renaissance.

“It’s got a great base there. It doesn’t have a city centre, which is difficult in a way, but when you look up there, you can see the industrial glory around you.”

There is this idea that after bad things happen, like the pandemic, there will be a “flight to quality”. The idea that people will want the best of things, will be less ready to accept substandard quality in any area of their lives. I do wonder if there is any possibility of a bit of a manufacturing renaissance in Britain, in places like Stoke-on-Trent.

“The idea of being able to work remotely might mean people who have roots in places like Stoke-on-Trent might go back. The pandemic might have a big impact on different regions, there might be less brain drain to places like London. At the moment, it seems factories are busy there.”

A shelf with one of Reiko's Terracotta vessels for SCP

There does seem to be this retreat from the whole idea of Globalism, particularly in manufacturing, where the idea of transporting goods all round the world is making no sense.

“Going local is definitely the way forward. My first product, which was an egg cup, was made in China. At the time I had no way of really knowing what the working conditions were like, the health and safety aspects. I think as a business you have responsibility, because you are producing that much more stuff. So then I transitioned to Stoke-on-Trent as I wanted oversight on everything and I knew the staff there were treated well, took holidays, had good lives. Then I could then say hand on heart that everything was okay. That was important.”

It seems that both the manufacturers and consumers are now setting a base level of what is acceptable in regard to working conditions, sustainability and so on.

“I think more businesses need some scrutiny and some self-questioning as well. Including myself. That’s the great thing about craft, because if you actually know the materials that you are working with and you are responsible for the disposal of the waste you produce, it’s all part of being a responsible and decent human being.”

"I think more businesses need some scrutiny and some self-questioning as well. Including myself. That’s the great thing about craft, because if you actually know the materials that you are working with and you are responsible for the disposal of the waste you produce, it’s all part of being a responsible and decent human being."

Reiko Kaneko

Perhaps there are a confluence of different factors that might play into a positive picture in terms of British craft and manufacturing over the next decade.

“I think the pandemic has made me look at my own practice. It’s been quite interesting to think about it as well. Of course with Bone China, half of it is from bone ash, which is a waste product from the meat industry, as questionable as that might be as an industry. However, it is using waste material in a beautiful way. Bone China is kind of okay, some of the glazes need to be looked at closely, I have been brushing up on my glaze chemistry. I have also been playing around with different clays, stonewares and porcelain as well.”

What are the day to day workings of the studio like now?

“The plan hasn’t changed much in the pandemic. I first started off by selling to trade, shops and retailers, but that space has gotten smaller and smaller. It just got harder and harder. That sector seemed to expand and contract quite quickly. I’ve always wanted to do more bespoke projects, with a greater design element to them. Small batch production. That has been quite a transition, it’s taken a few years. I had actually wanted to get rid of the online shop, to solely focus on commissions. However, when the pandemic started, I kept the shop up but with a smaller selection of larger pieces, which has worked.”

People seem to be going to producers directly.

“In the early days of the pandemic I had all these people contacting me wanting all these different things. One was an etymologist in Germany who wanted all these vases, it was interesting talking with customers directly. Esme was on furlough for about 4 months, so I was doing everything, it was just really nice to get in touch with people that buy things from the website. I realised that side of the business actually had real value and it has got busier since then. People seemed to start spending more on their homes and interiors as time went on. Small scale producers benefitted, and yes, people seemed to be choosing to buy from independents.

I still have the Stoke-on-Trent studio and a couple of other people have come in to share the space, which creates a good vibe and makes more financial sense. It’s nice to have the capacity up there and the access to the raw materials. This is more like the development space.”

The garden around the studio has been lovingly tended.
Esme, the studio assistant works overlooking the garden.

"Ceramics is such an interesting material, because when you are starting to work with it, you are just trying to control it. Then at some point you just have to let go, and then you just understand it. In a way that it has its own character and you just let that character show through."

Reiko Kaneko

Have you come out of this period with a new plan for the shape of the business?

“I don’t really do one thing and stick to it. However, I am really enjoying working in hospitality, working with chefs, who are creative in a different way. I always find that feedback and the sense of trying to improve the project satisfying. Recently, I have worked more in the interior design space, working with designers who have clients that want quality bespoke pieces. The owner of the London Flower School got in touch and she wanted to do a project related to my kintsugi experiments. I like doing things that have that storytelling aspect to it.

Part of that broken beauty thing allows me to say things out of my own experience of craft and industry. Part of Stoke-on-Trent’s demise as a manufacturer at a particular point was because they were trying to be too perfect. Any little speck on a plate rendered it almost valueless. All that work, all that effort, all those precious materials that go into making that beautiful plate, and one speck makes it valueless. Is that right? There is a lot of money lost in that industry because of that. The wrong idea of perfection is just not good for anyone. Bringing in some of those waste materials while I am developing things is important. I am enjoying that side of things. I like telling stories, I took great solace in reading over this period. My work has not been that political, but maybe it should be.

I feel like my whole working career I am just trying to skill up and make things. Ceramics is such an interesting material, because when you are starting to work with it, you are just trying to control it. Then at some point you just have to let go, and then you just understand it. In a way that it has its own character and you just let that character show through.”

What does a normal working day look like here?

I get up really early. I understand now that if you have a family and a lot of work to do, you either have to burn the midnight oil, or get up early. Physically I am more of a late night person, but I just had to change that and get up early. We are really busy at the moment, we can’t take any more orders until September. So I come in here and I feel like I am just fighting against time, but that’s the thing about ceramics, you can never rush them, but I never learn.

We’re already well over time, so it feels like the perfect moment to leave Reiko to work. As ever, seeking new learning.

Reiko Kaneko and her studio assistant Esme.
Reiko's botanical collection was inspired by the flora and fauna in her garden.

A big thank you to Reiko Kaneko and Esme at the studio for welcoming us in. Credit for the photography to Sarah Rainer, who accompanies all our studio visits.

Reiko Kaneko’s new Botanical Collection is exhibiting in SCP’s Curtain Road window the August, as part of a programme of shows. New additions to her Terracotta Collection for SCP are being launched during the London Design Festival in September 2021.

Reiko Kaneko Terracotta Collection

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