To celebrate Steve Harrison’s limited-edition collection of travelling tea sets in collaboration with Globe-Trotter, the salt-fire potter will be presenting a new exhibition at Globe-Trotter’s Mayfair store this December, which documents his 30-year love affair with tea
How did you end up working with Globe-Trotter?
I was looking to make a travelling tea set and was initially planning to work with a different luxury trunk maker. Then one day I was talking to my friend who lives in Hereford and he mentioned Globe-Trotter, which is based in Hoddesdon. I spoke to James [Fisher, Globe-Trotter business development director] and went in for a meeting and he offered to lend me a vanity case. He took me around the factory and I thought: ‘If anyone is going to do this, this is perfect’. The factory is amazing and they were giving me this opportunity to be part of it. Any time I wanted I could just drive up there. I also made the decision to stop doing everything myself, because I always make things myself. So we travelled around with the vanity case and that really helped to work out what was important. When they produced the prototype I was overwhelmed by it.
Would you say you have a compulsion to make things?
It’s a necessity because sometimes I can’t get what I want. It started with not having the money but now it seems that nobody can really match [what I want] either. It’s just the detail that comes from construction; you’ve got an aesthetic born out of utility.
What’s the most challenging thing you make?
A teapot is the most complicated, it’s got many components. You have to try and make a quirk of it and give it animation, but it must function too.
Have you always been drawn to things that you could use?
Yes, always functional. There’s something about functionality – a painting might move you but a cup can move you equally and it’s practical. There is just some other element – a tactile thing, an experience – and I love the little ceremonies associated with tea.
Could you explain a little about the salt-fire process?
Basically, when you introduce common salt into the kiln at a high temperature it forms a glaze. It’s a very random thing, you think you’re in control but you’re not. It’s completely dangerous. There are very few people who do it, it’s expensive because you destroy the kiln. I’m on my fourth and they cost about £30k. It’s madness, but I like it!
Where do you sell your work?
I used to sell in galleries and then I realised that they are just interested in commerce, and that’s not really what drives me. I fought for years trying to find my way and then I gave up on everything apart from Sonya Park [founder of luxury Japanese atelier Arts & Science]. She has this approach with my work where she wanted to look at the collection as a whole in a sort of fashion-related way.
Did she discover you?
Yeah, it’s a funny story because she phoned me up from Japan and as soon as she said she was based over there I said, ‘Oh forget that, but if you’re in London give us a ring’. About three weeks later she called me up and said: ‘It’s Sonya Park, I’m in Kensington, how do I get to you?’ She ended up buying some work and it just took off.
When it comes to travel, what have you yet to tick off your bucket list?
I would like to go to Korea. Sonya has given me an opportunity because she’s half Korean, so I’d like to go with her. I would also like to go to China because of the history with ceramics. And there’s always more of Italy to explore too.
Is there a place you go back to again and again?
I suppose Tokyo, I’ve been four times now and I love it.
What do you never leave the house without?
I always bring a sketchbook, pen and pencil and a book.
What was the last book you read on the road?
An Essay on Typography by Eric Gill, which my wife’s sister sent to me from America.
How do you kill time on long-haul flights?
Take a book and a sketchbook and try to sleep. I might try the odd film, but a book is much better really. When the lights go down it’s quite a nice time just to think. If you can adjust your mind and not get too worked up then you can just be calm and use that time to think and make notes.
Do you collect souvenirs when you’re abroad?
Not really, though sometimes I get gifts from other potters. I bought a few lacquer bowls on my last trip to Japan and then the only other things I would buy are brushes or pens for work. I buy things that are useful but I wouldn’t necessarily buy a souvenir. I like to think I’m more minimalist. Although I make constantly and I keep a lot of pots in the loft, in the kitchen we just have what we need. Everything has a function.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve had abroad?
I stayed in a traditional Japanese inn with Sonya and for breakfast there was a fish on my plate and an egg and some rice. The fish was freshly caught, raw, and there was a pickle and I thought it was a hard boiled egg, then realised it was raw. You crack the egg, add a bit of soy sauce, whisk the egg, then put that on the rice and then eat the fish. That always sticks in my mind.
What about your most memorable sunset?
Coincidentally it was in Whitstable with the Globe-Trotter vanity case. I had that air of extraordinary excitement; I’d just been to see Globe-Trotter and had come away with this case. My wife Julia’s friend has a house right on the beach. We drove down and it was looking like a lovely evening, so instead of going straight to the house, I collected some wood and we lit a fire on the beach, boiled the water and made tea. Julia took a picture of the sun and it was magical, I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was a moment in time we’ll never forget.
Steve Harrison produces salt-fired functional pottery in his studios in London and Wales.
‘Steve Harrison: Travelling with Tea – From the Pit to the Palace’ is on display at the Globe-Trotter flagship Mayfair store from Monday 3rd December-Saturday 8th December 2018.