Clod & Pebble: A Maker’s Story
March 29, 2016 Philippa

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Chris Viviani is the talented maker behind the brilliant Clod & Pebble, producing kitchen and tableware that is striking in its simplicity and that enhances and celebrates the raw materials and processes used in its making. Chris is based in Ayrshire, Scotland and specialises in two mediums; wood and clay. We caught up with Chris to find out how he began making, what it is about the two materials he finds so special and who and what provides the inspiration for his simple, yet beautiful, hand-crafted pieces.

Clod & Pebble is a very interesting name and is very evocative of the natural materials you use in your work. How did you come up with it?

I can’t take any credit for it. Clod & Pebble is a name taken from the William Blake poem, ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.

Love seeketh not Itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care;
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet;
But a Pebble of the brook,
Warbled out these metres meet:

Love seeketh only self to please,
To bind another to Its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite

The poem itself is about two opposing views of love; the optimistic soft clod of clay and the pessimistic hard pebble. I’m not sure if I’m more clod or more pebble but the name resonated with me and, more literally, the clod and pebble tied in with my method of making and finishing my early ceramic pots. They were made from clay, then burnished with a shiny pebble – the clay would go from a matte grey to looking more like polished concrete. This process is one of the oldest forms of ceramic decoration and is simple and beautiful.

How did you first start working with clay and wood? What made you choose these crafts above any others?

I remember enjoying Craft and Design lessons at school. I had this teacher, Mr Jack, and he was a real inspiration to me growing up because he could create something out of nothing. He was quite an eccentric man, stern yet funny and he loved making things. You’d see him on his way into school in the morning and you’d never know what vehicle he’d be driving. Some days it was this amazing 1940’s black 2-seater soft-top Bentley (he bought it for £1 in a bad state and restored it to pristine condition), or a Sinclair C5 (that 3-wheeled plastic electric car/bike from the 80’s), or something in between. Craft and Design class was my first introduction to properly turning a design into reality using wood lathes, metal lathes and other power tools.

Growing up on a farm, the opportunity was always there to experiment and make things. There would be tools dotted about, scrap wood and old farm equipment. I’d spend most of my time outside and I’d end up making garden furniture and trying my hand at wood carving.

I ended up going to Edinburgh College of Art and studied sculpture. When I was there I used lots of different materials and learned lots of techniques. Unfortunately the ceramics department closed down when I was in 1st year so I never got a chance to play around with clay when I was there; something I always wanted to try.

After my sculpture degree I took a break from art and design and for a while I made games. I spent around 4 years in game development and 3D modelling. While it was fun for the most part, I couldn’t imagine myself doing it forever and I found myself craving making tangible things with my hands again.

That’s when I decided to try out ceramics. I started by buying a bag of clay then hand-building pots in the flat that my girlfriend and I rented in Edinburgh. Nothing grand, just a few pots. I would then load up a bag with the pots and take it to my parent’s farm in Ayrshire to fire in a pit filled with wood.

It was a bit of an insane journey really because most of the pieces would break on the way! Although the beauty of clay is, you can just rehydrate the clay, so nothing is really wasted. At that stage I was just really enjoying the process of making again, so I wasn’t precious about the breakages.

To collect wood for firing the pots, I would go on walks around the woods at my parent’s farm. I had done so many times growing up, but never really looked at the trees to see what type they were. I knew we had Douglas fir and Scots Pine because they’re easy to spot, but there were other trees I wasn’t so sure of. I bought a book on how to identify British trees and found that there was lots of White Oak, Beech and Silver Birch. On these initial walks I saw a few had fallen and were in a state of decay.

There was a small beech tree that had recently fallen and hadn’t yet started to decompose so I cut it up to see what I could salvage. From that piece of wood I carved my first spoons and knives. The wood had some beautiful, intense black spalting through it and it made some really striking pieces. From there I decided to keep looking for wood to salvage. Most of my wooden pieces still come from scouting around the woods in this way and seeing if there’s anything I can use.

To me the wood and clay work are closely intertwined and relate strongly to one another. One medium comes from below the ground and the other above it. I try and take these elements from the ground and give them pride of place on your table by creating something that has a permanence, simplicity and beauty.

Do you have a preferred medium?

Some days I prefer doing clay work, some days I prefer wood.

My mood changes quite a bit between the two. When the weathers nice it’s really great to work with clay. Work can be fully dry within a day of sitting outside and then you can fill the kiln and pop it on.

You can really get a lot done in the summer months, well I say ‘months’ but in Scotland you normally get around two weeks of nice weather… spread over 3 months.

When it’s cold though, clay work is really tough.

Your hands are getting constantly wet and dry and your skin takes a beating. That’s when it’s not so fun. When it’s colder and wetter outside the clay work can take a week or more to be dry enough to bisque fire. This winter, for instance, I had a lot of orders to get through and was working flat out over the Christmas period. The temperature where I was working was around zero degrees and I had to fill a bucket with boiling water to use when throwing the clay. Within half an hour the water would be stone cold. Everything can get pretty miserable, pretty fast when your cold, wet and have deadlines. It can feel like everything is against you, but when nice work comes out of it with happy clients, that’s what makes it worthwhile.

Wood work on the other hand is pretty easy no matter what the weather’s doing outside. You just focus on what’s in front of you and can have a couple of really nice finished pieces by the end of the day. I love my lathe, it’s probably one of the best additions to my workshop. Making bowls, candlesticks and rolling pins and that sort of thing is really enjoyable. Recently I have been buying in some seasoned exotic hard woods, like Padauk and Black Walnut. They are absolutely beautiful to work with and take on a really lovely finish.

Some days the malleability of clay and the time it takes to move from a lump of clay to a glazed, finished piece can frustrate me a bit; that’s when it’s really nice having the option to switch to wood and you can get a finished piece in a fraction of the time. It’s really nice having that option.

Tell us a bit about your work space and how it is set-up to suit you.

My work space is still evolving, I think I might be around a year away from it being the way that I’d like it.

I make my ceramics in a stable that is exposed to the elements, there are shelves on all the walls that hold work at various stages of completion. I made some sturdy tables so that I can wedge clay and I have a small glaze station. There are lots of plastic buckets full of clay to be recycled and dried out for reuse. My kick wheel sits near the door of the stable so I get a good deal of natural light coming in when I’m working.

I do my wood-work out of a more sheltered stable; I have workbenches against two walls with a mounted band saw and my lathe in the centre of the room. I need to do some more work to that space, like keeping a space for wood to dry out, putting up some more shelves to hold finished work and a space to keep and store my chisels and axes and that sort of thing.

Eventually I think I would like to build a good sized shed where I can make clay-work, maybe have a small wood-burning stove to heat it and make it comfortable. If I could get something sorted before next winter I’d be thrilled because I don’t fancy going through what I went through last winter again. I’d also like to make that space big enough so that it could fit three electric wheels, so I could maybe hold some classes.

You have mentioned before that you love cooking and food and a lot of the pieces you make are either kitchen or tableware. How has your love of cooking translated into the choices you make in your work and the pieces you create?

I cook all the time and I think one of the nicest sights is when you see a homemade meal on a handmade plate. It just looks brilliant and really appealing. I had a dinner party with a few friends and we had lemon tart with raspberry coulis for dessert served on some of my own stoneware plates with an oatmeal coloured glaze.

Visually it popped, looked really appealing and very wholesome. Of course, the tart would have tasted the same on a bog standard, mass-produced Ikea plate, but the experience wouldn’t have been the same and it wouldn’t have looked as inviting or as memorable.

I think that’s the difference between what I am trying to do and what mass- produced dinnerware does. Mass-produced items are something for the food to be on, and get the meal over with. The food doesn’t feel special and the experience isn’t special. Because all my products are handmade on a kick wheel, all of the pieces are a bit different, and have a living rhythm to them, which has an effect on your dining experience.

In April/May, I am planning on making some new dinnerware ranges and photographing them with some of my favourite meals. I’ll then display my recipes alongside the dinnerware when it goes on sale.

What advice would you give to people just starting out or interested in making?

I’d say just do it. I started out very small-scale and just experimenting with a bag of clay in my kitchen. You don’t need to go big straight away, just enjoy the process and let it grow from there.

No matter which craft you’re interested in there will be people holding classes somewhere near you, so you could book yourself a place and get some hands-on experience and see if it’s a good fit for you.

Are there any craftsmen or designers who have particularly inspired or influenced you or your work?

There are loads! I love Instagram over all social media platforms. I use it to show-off pieces that are works in progress and I use it to connect to other makers that I love. There are so many people out there making amazing things in loads of different fields and I take inspiration from them daily.

Other than that there are people I do tend to come back to for ceramic inspiration, like Shiro Tsujimura and Anne Mette Hjortshøj, and I really like Nick Offerman’s wood shop. I don’t make furniture but if I did I’d probably be making something similar to what his team does.

What is your favourite artwork?

I don’t really have a favourite piece but I love the photography of William Eggleston and the designs of Ettore Sottsass.

What is your favourite piece of design?

This is a really tough question! I can tell whatever answer I say here I’m going to think of a better one later. I think petrol Zippo lighters are a great design. I have a small collection of Zippos and there’s just something simple about them. They’re windproof, simple, robust and have a satisfying *click* *snap* sound when you open and close them.

What style of home décor do you find the most exciting at the moment and what style have you used in your own home? 

I’ve never had to think about décor before, never having my own place. When renting you can’t really decorate how you would want to. Even putting a pin in the wall isn’t allowed. That’s why I’m really excited about owning my own place, I’ll be able to explore and experiment with styles.

The only room in my dream house I can visualise is my kitchen. It would have lots of natural light, with easy access to a garden with a veg plot outside, a thick wooden table, Belfast sink with polished concrete worktops, wooden floor boards and white walls. I watch a lot of cookery programmes and I have always loved the way the kitchens in Nigel Slaters shows look. They’re like a workshop crossed with a kitchen. Sort of wholesome utilitarian. Everything is very simple and clean; lots of natural light, open- faced cupboards, thick wooden table-tops with metal frames, handmade dinnerware, natural fibres and a visual link from outside to inside. Semi industrial, robust yet elegant.

Please can you share one image with us that you currently find inspirational for your work?

At the moment I am obsessed with Korean Moon Jars. I am planning on creating some when the weather gets a bit nicer. These large round vessels are traditionally made from porcelain and were/are used for storing rice, soy sauce, alcohol and sometimes displaying flowers. They have such a simple and gentle form and I just think they are beautiful.


Images of Chris in his workshop by Kimberley Brand Photography



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