I’ve been struck by how much more collaborative creating ceramics can be than what is typically practiced in the United States. In the U.S., individual artists execute the entire production process (from sourcing clay, turning or handbuilding clay into forms, decorating those forms, glazing and firing the final piece(s)). In many parts of the world that work is divided up between several people. Ardmore Design, based in South Africa, provides an example.
Fee Halsted, founder of Ardmore Design, grew up in Zimbabwe and studied painting at university in South Africa. She also worked in ceramics. After school, Fee was teaching art in Durban and lost her job. “I was angry,” she recalls, “I want to teach people, and if I can’t teach privileged white people then I’m going to help people who don’t have opportunity.”
Fee started a ceramics studio in 1985 and shortly thereafter started working with Bonnie Nshalinshali, her maid’s 18-year old daughter, who joined the studio as a ceramics apprentice. That collaboration ultimately led to founding Ardmore Design, a full-fledged ceramics studio in South Africa that has blossomed into an international business venture.
I found this “transformational story” fascinating, on both an individual and social level. Individually, Fee transformed her activities from those of an art teacher and individual ceramicist to the creative director of a large-scale production operation. Fee has provided job and creative opportunities to 80+ workers, each of whom has transformed from an inexperienced student into a highly skilled person doing one or more parts of the the overall ceramic production of Ardmore Design’s offerings.
I contacted Fee Halsted and her son Jon Berning about the origins and transformation of Ardmore Design. Here is a summary of our exchange.
JW: How did Fee and Bonnie Nshalinshali originally collaborate on ceramics produced at the studio?
FH: I would come up with the concept and story of subject matter, and Bonnie would execute the theme as per her own idea on that theme. Fee would encourage her own naïve interpretation of the idea and express it in her own way.
JW: As additional women joined Ardmore studio, how did work styles evolve?
FH: Everyone creatively interprets the same subject matter. Our blue print is never a one fits all, each piece is unique. In the beginning the new artists followed Bonnie’s style but not wanting them to execute poor versions of Bonnies’ work I encouraged them to hand coil functional works and have some creative freedom in which they could express their talent.
JW: Did each woman do her own ceramic work or did the women collaborate on pieces?
FH: In the earlier days we started with makers and painters, and each women chose if they preferred to mould a work in clay and some preferred to paint with underglazes, which resulted in more works becoming glazed. Women creating work together meant, we could produce works quicker and more efficiently.
Highly skilled, talented artists have always created the story-telling works.
Sculptures and art pieces of the smaller sizes and from our newer painters make up the bread and butter for more of our functional and popular items.
70 % of Ardmore’s’ income is made up of smaller hand crafted items and this income enables the opportunity for the larger fine art works that take longer to create. These Masterworks are harder to sell yet they give Ardmore clout and fine art status.
JW: Fundamentally, how did Ardmore studio originally function? Did Fee train and bring together various ceramic artists and allow each of them to pursue their own, independent artistic direction?
FH: Correct. In the beginning women from Bonnie’s family and friends joined the studio, but as the years went by artists joined from Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Malawi which gave a myriad of culture to our artworks too. I have always given ideas to the artists to work with and in turn they also come up with their own interpretations off an original idea. They are also often inspired by another artists work in the studio. We are a collective of artists that share Ideas and skills, we bounce off one another.
JW: Was Fee’s role more tilted toward the business & marketing side of running a commercial studio?
FH: I am still overseeing the running off the business but I have handed over the reins to my son Jonathan and daughter Megan. My eldest daughter Catherine is involved in marketing and design work. My main job role is creative director. I like to think I am the creative energy behind the artists and I aim to excite and stimulate the artists and encourage them.I crit art and design daily and keep the creative spirit up. It is all about caring feeding that creating energy.
JW: Did that change over time?
JB: Not really. I just had to give up my own art as finding ideas best suited for 80 artists is a full time job. I research images and try to develop recognizable styles best suited for each individual’s talent.
JW: Looking at the history of work produced at Ardmore studio, I detect a transition from original “naive” tone to more “refined and sophisticated” products beginning in the early- to mid-2000s. Can you tell me more about that transition?
This is an accurate observation. In the early days the women were untrained in their clay hand craft and as most had had little education. It was because of this that their work was naïve, but as the artists became more proficient with clay their art developed and became more realistic. In sculpting the work became more refined and realistic as men joined the studio. Additionally artists from other parts of Lesotho and Zimbabwe joined and they came skilled and trained in art and clay work and this set off a higher standard of art excellence. One should always aim for excellence!
JW: Around 2013, Ardmore started expanding into other design areas such as textiles & furnishings. What prompted that development?
FH: I had always been interested in the British art craft movement of de Morgan and Morris and had my own exhibition titled with De Morgan in Mind. This took place back in the 80’s at the Elisabeth Gordon gallery in Durban. I was teaching at the Durban Teck at the time.
After my son Jonathan completed University in Stellenbosch, I asked him if he would like to join me in starting a new business, and we started the journey together. In 2010 We were awarded the Share Growth Challenge grant, and this sparked Jon and I to start Ardmore Design which was the homeware side of the business. This part of the business has continued to be a success and is ever growing.
JW: As these new product lines developed, resulting in commercial success, has the organization and functioning of the studio changed? (The “look” of Ardmore products looks quite coordinated – as a brand and a “look.” I’m interested in how things have changed and evolved over the years.)
Ardmore ceramics and design has always been about the art and keeping thing fresh and in tune with current times. The ceramics and design of Ardmore are close in style because the designs originate off the one of kind ceramics and are always unique. They are hand drawn by our artists and then scanned and worked into step and repeat designs for fabric and then sent abroad. Our marketing and launches are all interlinked by theme so therefore results in a co-ordinated look.
We are the Ardmore group and have amalgamated the ceramics and home items under the Ardmore umbrella name. It is our African designs with animal and plant motifs and glorious colours that make us recognizably Ardmore in style.
JW: Looking at several of the “Collectors Items” on your website, it seems that there is quite a bit of collaboration going on. One artist may create the form, for example, and another will paint that form. Is this work still done at Ardmore in a collaborative studio setting, or do various artists work from their own home and coordinate their own collaboration?
JB: Yes, we see ourselves as a team, Ceramics and graphic design involve many processes and each step takes more than one person’s involvement. Our motto is “we are because of others” and we value each and every one of our artists. This also pertains to the skillful kiln operators who do the glazing, as well as our international printers and CMT (cut, make, trim) team. Our sales team are also artists themselves as well as our packing team. The success of any business is the passionate leaders who keep the flags flying and carry huge responsibility.
JW: What are your plans for the future?
JB: Our main focus for Ardmore is to build the company into a luxury South African business that celebrates our artists and designers. We want to have stores within stores around South Africa, and we have recently opened two beautiful Ardmore flagship stores. These being in Caversham KZN Midlands as well as in Dunkeld in Johannesburg. A new Ardmore wall paper collection will be launching shortly with UK company Cole & Son, and this winter we will launch a new outdoor fabric range. For this range we are also collaborating with another South African family business Melville and Moon.
A more detailed history of the firm can be found on Ardmore-Design’s website here and in this 2016 article about the development of the company’s distinct brand.
A list of current Ardmore artists, along with biographic information, is available here.
Another article illustrating a division of labor in the ceramics world, this time in India, can be found here.