2013 Essay | The Unexpected Lessons Taught by Nordic Ceramics

2013 Essay | The Unexpected Lessons Taught by Nordic Ceramics

The Unexpected Lessons Taught by Nordic Ceramics

By Ian Wilson


Ulla Procope
Ruska plate and cup design, 1960


Gutte Eriksen
Large Charger

How a single dinner plate from the famous Flora Danica series produced by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory came to be in a colonial household in Africa, I do not know, and now have no way of knowing. Always referred to as “the Danish plate” it was stored separately from the rough-and tumble stacks of the everyday crockery and was reserved for the sole use of my fearsomely autocratic grandmother on her rare visits to our dining-table. Thus it acquired an aura of singularity and distinction, not only by virtue of the beautiful botanical image of an unfamiliar plant with an intriguing root system winding its way to the edge of the plate like a miniature river with many tributaries, but also by association with far-away, unknown Europe, the world of my mother’s childhood. This was the first piece of Nordic ceramics to imprint itself on my awareness, and as I grow older, this relationship has become stronger and more meaningful, often in wholly unexpected ways.

If part of the lesson delivered via the Flora Danica plate was related to understanding hierarchy and power in the family structure, namely, that the best was reserved for the tyrannical matriarch, the next stage in my education through Scandinavian ceramics was considerably more pleasurable. Many of my friends during the university years were architectural students and graduates, and it was at their tables that I met the “Ruska” series designed for the Finnish firm of Arabia by Ulla Procopé (1921-1968). So different to that delicate, refined example of botanical art on a porcelain canvas, this was immensely robust ware. How solid and reliable is the jug, which I bought at that time, how substantial its cylindrical shape is, like the trunk of a young tree, and how varied are the colours to be found within the many browns of its glaze. Yet there is a sophistication to its straightforward functionality, and it, too, has botanical links, for the name “Ruska” refers to the changing colours of the leaves for which the autumn landscape of Lapland, in northern Finland is famous.

Jan-Kaare Myklebust
Pilgrim Bottles, 2013


The Arabia company has always been known for the quality of the designers it employed, and interestingly – in the light of the influence which Scandinavia has exerted in many areas of the applied arts – this practice has been commented upon by Kaj Franck (1911-1988), who became art director of the firm in 1950: “Instead of living on the designer’s name ... mass-produced utilitarian and ornamental articles should exist on their own merits.”1 These are insightful words that deserve to be pondered.

It was while working in Africa that I encountered a further aspect of how the influence of Nordic ceramics could be expressed. In a craft shop in the capital city, I bought a large lidded ceramic casserole that came from a project in which Scandinavian craftspeople were working alongside local potters with the intention of expanding their skills and widening the market appeal of their goods. Whether my much-used, much-loved, much-travelled pot was the product of African or European hands – or even possibly both – I cannot tell, but the aesthetic from which it emerged is certainly not that of the country in which it was thrown. Could there have been an admirer of the wood-fired stoneware of a potter such as Svend Bayer – who was himself born in Africa to Danish parents – amongst those associated with this project? Although the shelves of this outlet held many examples of clay artefacts whose provenance was unmistakeably southern African, my purchase awakened me to the potential dangers of cultural imperialism or colonization of a country’s craft practices.


Dorte Visby
Track in a Circle
saggafired ceramic
15.75 inches high

Years passed, travels in Scandinavia were undertaken and further ceramic experiences were gathered. In the home of Norwegian friends coffee was drunk from white cups with somewhat whimsical figurative decorations in blue. Possibly the products of the Stavanger flint factory, they certainly sat comfortably in the hand, but never challenged my love affair with the stalwart “Ruska” mugs. In Copenhagen every morsel of an extremely refined dinner was served in, and eaten off, Flora Danica, which not only re-enforced and reaffirmed the connotations of elegance and sophistication surrounding this tableware, but also went some way towards assuaging the remembered rancour regarding its prohibited status in my childhood home.

Later, my relationship with the applied arts was to become not only passionate, but also professional. Thus, it was as a journalist that I attended Collect, held annually in London and where a significant event in my involvement with the ceramics of these northern lands, took place. It was a small, lidded, raku-fired jar by the late Inger Rokkjaer (1934-2008) that was the object of delight and revelation. Photographs of her work had not prepared me for the ravishing dark glaze, only just this side of black, and I ran to retrieve my camera from the friend who had briefly borrowed it, but returned only to find the jar sold and wrapped.

This incident marked the commencement of a more profound relationship with these ceramics, especially those from Denmark, and I was fortunate to be commissioned to write an article about Rokkjaer’s oeuvre. This was an exciting project, dampened only by the death of the artist before there was an opportunity to interview her in person.

Vibeke Stubbe Teglbjaerg
Vulcanic Forms, 2013, 11 inches in diameter


Among current practitioners is Dorte Visby, a Jutlander whose work lies in the tradition of Rokkjaer and that of another grande dame of Danish ceramics, Gutte Eriksen (1918-2008) who had been one of Rokkjaer’s teachers at the Academy of Fine Arts in Aarhus. In her studio practice Visby is able to achieve striking effects with vessels that sometimes undergo bisque, then saggar and, finally, raku firings. In addition, she is also active in the sphere of large, ceramic installations for public spaces, such as the external wall-piece for the building where fish is auctioned in Hirtshals harbour which exemplifies how a sparseness of form can be rich in visual and conceptual allusions. Vibeke Stubbe Teglbjaerg creates bowls and large platters with glazes that range from the serene to the thrilling, and surfaces which can convey not only the fierce, fractured beauty of fissured geological structures, but also evoke images of volcanic violence.

Characteristics that emerge when considering these ceramics, must include the importance of the natural world as a source of inspiration. This response is encountered in the delicate and botanically accurate depictions of Flora Danica; in Stubbe Teglbjaerg’s employing the skills and tools of the engraver to express the reactions elicited by rocks and corals and trees, and the “layering” she finds in landscapes all over the world; and in the inspiration which Visby discovers in the sea and its many colours.


Ninna Goetzsche
Monumental Bottle Forms, 2013,
porcelain with yellow glaze, various sizes

There is also a current of unpretentious functionalism characterising much of the work considered in this essay – and it should be borne in mind how this is manifested in the tradition of quality in small things. An excellent example is the Arbetarservis (Workers’ Service) designed by Wilhelm Káge (1889-1960) in 1917 for the Gustavsborg factory which elicits the following comment from Edmund de Waal: “Unsurprisingly, with its unimpeachable aura of the functional and vernacular, its reduction of the extraneous in form and decoration, the service made its appeal to the critics rather than to the workers.”2

Interestingly, the Finnish artist Pekka Paikkari in the ‘Protection’ panels includes bark-like stoneware strips and terracotta coloured bricks, thus effecting a conjunction of the world of natural processes and that of factory production – two of the topics discussed in this essay – and creating a wall sculpture where clays from different domains have become compressed into one historical slice, rather reminiscent of an archaeological palimpsest.

As this essay began with an historical reference to porcelain, perhaps it is appropriate to conclude with two contemporary artists working in that same medium – Ninna Gøtzsche and Jan Káre Myklebust. The former often accompanies images of her work with thought-provoking texts, so that Ukultiveret (Uncultured), a series of cork-stoppered bottles with deep gougings and incisions provokes a list of synonyms: “Crude. Rough. Rude”; however, it ends with the telling line “But with a nice, yellow glaze.” How very true those concluding words are for it is in the gullies and ledges of these surfaces – rough-hewn like an ancient monument – that the molten honey glaze gathers. The subtle individual alterations which modify the shared generic silhouette of a group of smooth white jars encourage the eye and the mind to contemplate difference within similarity, and in so doing, achieve a better appreciation of the unity of the group and the unique stature of its members. Julian Stair says of Myklebust, his assistant for several years, that “he throws porcelain pots that have a monumental quality ... and visceral weightiness.” The “thick chiselled rims”3 to his low bowls are characteristic of his oeuvre, and these carved forms often feature a tender, lyrical, pale green glaze which extends the cool ambience of the areas of white porcelain. Another strand in this corpus are the vessels where shades of matte terracotta contrast with the luscious gleaming, black circles that they surround.

Jan-Kaare Myklebust
Large white porcelain bowl with chiseled rim
and serene celadon well, 2013, 12 inches in


Perforce, and sadly so, there are many omissions in this article, not only of potters whose work is influential far beyond the borders of these northern lands, but also of topics such as the importance of architecture and of Viking history to many of these ceramicists. Although David Whiting, the eminent writer on the applied arts – in a small book accompanying an exhibition held by Galleri Norby, Copenhagen, to co-incide with Rokkjaer’s 70th birthday – insightfully links her oeuvre to her country of birth and residence: “These objects are ... inherently Danish ...”, one should not forget that the borders between these lands are permeable rather than rigid. Without apology, a further comment from the same text is cited, a statement that is especially worthy of careful consideration because of its perceptive inclusiveness – “ ... her [Rokkjaer’s] pots are confidently Scandinavian in their economy.”4 Whiting’s lines are a fitting conclusion for an essay which is intended to express deep gratitude not only for the myriad sensuous delights, but also for the pleasures of expanded awareness taught by these Nordic artists and their artefacts.


Ian Wilson is a writer with a special interest in the applied arts and design. Born in Africa, he has taught English language and literature at universities in England, Ethiopia, Botswana, Malawi and Qatar and has worked in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia. In 1997 he won the Crafts Council Silver Jubilee prize for critical writing and his articles have been translated into many languages.

Published in conjunction with Cultural Connections CC Gallery presentation at SOFA CHICAGO 2013.  Cultural Connections CC Gallery is a first-time SOFA CHICAGO exhibitor specializing in Nordic Ceramic Arts. 

Ulf Hárd af Segerstad, Modern Finnish Design (1969) London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, p 39.

2 Edmund de Waal, 20th Century Ceramics (2003) London: Thames and Hudson, p 66.

3 Julian Stair, Text in a booklet on the work of Jan Kåre Myklebust, supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

4 David Whiting, Introduction to Inger Rokkjaer – Lágkrukker (2004), Gylling: Narayana Press.

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