Chuchu – a Ceramic Renaissance
Taken from Curium Edition Two:
In the last five years, the number of people choosing handmade over mass-produced goods has grown dramatically. If anything has become obvious, it's that people want to know the origin of what they're buying and the processes behind how it has been manufactured. Society is once again migrating towards quality workmanship over a cheaper price tag, and making investments in long-term pieces over fad products. As a result of this revolution, the concept of artisanship is being revived, and one of the oldest creative mediums, ceramics, is experiencing something of a renaissance as more young creatives explore and experiment with the medium.
Sisters Lauren and Rebecca Chua are cutting their own path in this revival. Chuchu, their Sydney-based ceramics brand, started out as a passion project after the sisters took a pottery class at university. Using their campus' ceramic facilities, they started tinkering away, making jewellery and homewares, and it wasn't until friends start commissioning pieces that the sisters decided to look for a studio space to test their passion project out as a viable business.
In 2013, Lauren and Rebecca joined Claypool ceramic studio, a group of ceramic creatives sharing a workspace at Erskineville's Square One Studio. It's here that each Chuchu piece is crafted from start to finish.
Anyone familiar with ceramics will agree that the process is a far cry from the instant gratification of mass production. Individual pieces can take up to three weeks of throwing, firing and glazing before they can be used, and the medium itself can be unreliable. Rebecca says the biggest lesson she's learned as their production and brand has progressed is, "Don't get attached to anything until it comes out of the kiln." As is the way with most delicate mediums, the risk of something exploding in the kiln or breaking during its cooling period makes attachment to each piece a real occupational hazard.
Having a permanent studios pace has directly affected their work, not just in a business environment, but on a personal scale. "We spend most of our time either at home or in the studio," Rebecca says. "Our biggest inspiration is definitely the collective of artists at Claypool." The impact of their surroundings can be seen in the sisters' more experimental creations, which utilise various ceramic and glazing techniques when creating new pieces.
When visiting the studio, a number of these pieces sit on towering shelves, waiting to be fired. The most striking was a small, elongated platter with warped edges. Rebecca later referred to the piece as a 'thrown, thrown' platter because, in order to achieve the unique detailing, she first threw the platter on a wheel as she would with their other pieces, then — giving a new meaning to the term — literally 'threw' it at the ground. The result, like most Chuchu creations, was a pleasant surprise!
Other experiments were more intentional; a cat bowl (complete with its own cat ears) commissioned by a friend for one very lucky feline, a warped vase thrown upside down and then finished in a studio special glaze, and a set of spoons which were pinched instead of thrown, are among the stand-out pieces in the sisters' collections.
As well as experimenting with throwing techniques, Lauren and Rebecca have also been exploring different varieties of ceramics. Lauren loves porcelain, but while she's been busy enduring a British winter, Rebecca has taken to her preferred ceramic, stoneware. She says, "It's really nice to work with, it's sturdy, and you can throw it a bit thicker." Its durability is likely the reason most Chuchu pieces in their current collection are made from stoneware clay — it is one of the oldest mediums in ceramics (also seeing a revival as trend pieces in recent times) and has the benefit of not requiring glaze.
When they're not experimenting with their own ceramics, Chuchu love a collaboration. Working with other artists and creatives gives them an opportunity to get to know other artisans and gain traction for their own brand. Often, the limited-run collaborative pieces are subtly different editions of well-known and loved existing Chuchu pieces. For example, as part of a local brand collaboration, the sisters have been throwing small dimpled bowls in their style of their famous dimpled beaker. The twist? The interiors of the bowls are accented with a gentle spatter of black under glaze, in contrast to the lightness of the clay.
In the flesh, Chuchu pieces feel too beautiful to use. It's ironic, when you consider the sisters themselves admit to favouring function over form. That's not to say looks don't matter — Lauren and Rebecca have that part of their work down pat after a successful solo exhibition at Blacklisted Gallery in Surry Hills. Rather, they get a lot of satisfaction in seeing their work in action. As Rebecca puts it, "Seeing all our friends' homes decked out in Chuchu pieces, which they use daily, is enough to inspire us to continue creating."
Talking to Lauren and Rebecca, you get a real sense that they're very proud of their work — and why shouldn't they be? The pair have turned what began solely as a passion project into a sustainable business, and found a community of both like-minded creatives to work with and loyal customers who share their love of ceramics.
Where to from here? Chuchu are in talks to teach a workshop on ceramic jewellery-making, having gone from novices to skilled ceramicists. One step at a time, Chuchu is reviving ceramics for a new generation of artisans and a community becoming refocused on supporting local and investing in quality for the long term.