How to Make It
Over the Rainbow
Bethan Laura Wood crafts conversations in porcelain
East London-based designer Bethan Laura Wood is known for her fearless embrace of color and pattern, both in her work and in her signature, exuberant personal style—the latter involving multiple layers of fabric, oversized headwear and jewelry, and dramatic, doll-like makeup. But in fact it’s the balance she achieves in her pieces—frequently produced through traditional craft techniques, material exploration, and location-inspired projects—that make her so exceptional. Wood knows where the line is, pushing her designs to just the point where they maintain both elegance and a sense of play. It’s this ability to negotiate the bold and the beautiful, the substantive and stylish, that has made the 2009 RCA-grad standout over the past decade and quickly rise to the top of the contemporary design game.
From Wood’s perspective, balanced, good design comes through a series of dialogues—among form, material, and color in her objects; between herself and the specific places that inform much of her work; and in exchanges with the traditional, expert artisans with whom she often collaborates. “I just really enjoy making conversations,” the East London-based designer says with a soft laugh.
Take, for example, Wood’s Rainbow collection, a series of vessels made with Lineasette, porcelain stoneware experts located in Maristoca and Nove, the heart of Italy’s ceramic handicraft tradition. Though Rainbow was first produced in 2014, “it’s remained very dear to my heart,” Wood says. And in these strange times, she’s finding it especially meaningful. “Perhaps because we’re all spending more time at home these days, I’m really enjoying being able to buy a few nice flowers here and there, arrange them and observe them. I’ve [since] become interested in the world of Ikebana as well, and I find the proportions and the interactions between something ephemeral and something permanent fascinating.”
Inspired by a rainbow piece she found in a Lineasette nativity set designed by Angelo Spagnolo, Wood sliced the existing, banded arc’s form into fragments, which she then “abstracted and played with to see how many shapes I could create from the one form.” The resulting standalone and stacked arcs—in greys and creams—demonstrate Wood’s sense of balance to a T. The vases’ neutral, porcelain stone surfaces and architectural lines allow flowers’ expressive forms and vibrant colors to pour and shoot out at various angles—an exciting exchange to be sure. “It was really interesting to take on the challenge of how do I make a work that is still me but that is also mono- or duotone,” Wood recalls. “I loved the juxtaposition of putting bright, colorful flowers in these porcelain, sculptural vases, and the very strong conversations they could have together.”
Wood’s partnership with Lineasette came through Valore Artigiano, a multiyear project curated by Italian-born, London-based designer Martino Gamper that connects international designers with traditional artisans in Italy’s Veneto region, with the aim of creating fresh design objects that help maintain time-honored crafts and support artisans’ survival. Wood participated in the project twice over the course of a few years; for the 2014 iteration, designers partnered with artisans in and around Vicenza and presented the resulting designs in a former palazzo during Milan’s Design Week in an exhibition called FROM-TO.
Wood was initially attracted to Lineasette’s artisanal methods, its “sort of ’60s aesthetic,” and, in particular, its special matte, coarse glaze. Lineasette’s typical rough color coating makes use of an engobe, a combination of metallic oxides, sands, and clay that adds a layer of depth to each piece. “It looks almost like a dusty velvet—it’s very architectural in feeling.”
She spent time researching and working at Lineasette’s headquarters, design lab, and showroom in Marostica (near Vicenza), in a Postmodern building designed by Aldo Loss. “It’s beautiful, with these strong architectural columns and hardcore metalwork; I’d love to live in this building.” It was there that she encountered the Spagnolo nativity set as well as Lineasette co-founder Giuseppe Bucco, “a wonderful older man with a very clear vision of what he wants to make. He has these amazing hands, his whole body’s a bit stooped from years in the clay...I just sort of fell in love all at once.”
In coordination with Bucco and the rest of the Lineasette team, Wood began by “observing, then sketching, first in my notepad and then physically sketching with the wet clay they cast for me” from the original, Spagnolo arc mold. ”I just literally chopped [the clay] with a cheese wire and then poked holes and had a play to decide which shapes made the best conversation given Lineasette’s ceramics, and which made the nicest conversations as a group together.” Wood describes the process as “quite fluid.” There was “a lot of back and forth,” she says, “between observing and sketching and shaping the clay, mocking up and calculating, and then assessing what works both visually and practically.” Then her designs were molded, cast, polished, and coated, before being fired at up to 1200℃.
Bucco himself, now retired, recounts, “Working together with Bethan was a very interesting and useful experience. While she came up with brilliantly novel ideas, I think what I enjoyed most was her ability to adapt to our design style and still lead us to actual innovation.” That collaborative element is key for Wood. “I love the opportunity to work with people or companies that have a strong point of view,” she says. “I just love creating dialogues through the particular words or perspectives each of us offers.”
She goes on, “I first came across this approach when I was invited to [another, earlier Gamper-curated] residency in Venice, and it’s something that’s always worked so well for me. I’ve gained great projects from having these types of conversations with artisans, like the work I’ve done with Pietro Viero [an Italian craftsman with whom Wood created, among other items, a Pyrex chandelier, still in production today and available through famed Milan gallery Nilufar]. We’ve been working together now for over 10 years, and I try every year to develop a new piece with him, or to blow some other forms, or buy some different types of Pyrex and together have a play. I’ve seen his family grow up. I really cherish that relationship, and how much he teaches me about his material.”
And so she continues to look for those opportunities to connect and grow. “That sort of dialogue has become something that I search for and enjoy—and am grateful to be able to do. It’s not always straightforward, and it doesn't always work, but I enjoy trying to find a way to make something together, to come to an outcome I couldn’t have reached without the input of [another] person, without realizing that they way they think or do is better than what I’d had in mind—and then you reset everything based on this new information. When you’re learning from different people with very set experiences, it can make you a much better designer.”
“And vice versa. You’ll come to something that they know inside-out, back-to-front, but because you don’t know it so well, you may question it or [identify] something that they haven’t seemed to question, and again it gives them something completely new to play or experiment with that they wouldn’t have gotten without that conversation.”
She adds: “Sometimes it starts with noticing a particular technique, or perhaps someone is a bit of a character, and you think, I’d like to spend some time hanging out and picking that brain.”
And so she stays open to the give and take. “It draws you back in. It makes you better. You never know where you might end up.” ◆
Bethan Laura Wood’s work is represented by Nilufar
Rainbow is available in the Design Miami/ Shop.