The gallery owner who took a ceramics course – and joined the sculpture club
In an old button factory just north of Old London Street, Nicola Tassie is building a wall. “It will be a dry stone wall of glazed pots,” she says from her spacious, bright studio, located at the top of three messy flights of stairs inside the Standpoint artist studio complex. The space has been home to Tassie’s artisan stoneware pottery practice for 30 years and there’s evidence of its evolution in every corner: shelves overflow with jugs and vases; on one wall is a mural twist of a sculpture; and his oven is filled with two shapely shapes waiting to be stacked on top of each other in one of his Totem sculptures, which can reach 2m or more in height. At the center of the room is a meandering wall of individual, interlocking ceramic elements – some smooth and pebble-like, others more pot-like. The piece is his most complex to date at around 2m long and over 1m high, and is intended for group exhibition at Cross Lane Projects in the Cumbrian town of Kendal.
Also in the exhibition – alongside ceramics by contemporary artist Gavin Turk, ceramic sculptor Lawson Oyekan and workshop potter William Plumptre – are two Totems and a circle of stones on the ground. “There’s a vertical-horizontal thing going on,” Tassie says of the work, as she descends two flights of stairs to a second, more sparse studio, where she holds ceramics classes twice a week. The newest recruit in her class of nine is Rowena Morgan-Cox, former managing director of The Fine Art Society gallery, who last year launched her own design brand, Palefire (named after Nabokov’s novel) , with a simple but striking style. lighting range.
Morgan-Cox first met Tassie at 8 Holland Street, the London art and design boutique she helped launch in 2018. “I’m a big fan of Nicola Tassie. So when I found out she was taking classes, I told her I was excited,” she says, adding that she started as soon as a space opened up in 2019. interested in ceramics by selling them to the Fine Art Society, but I had also started to think that I would like to do something creative myself,” she recalls. “At first it was such a humbling experience. I was so horrible!
Was Morgan-Cox as bad as she claims? “No. But then…” Tassie pauses and smiles. “Most people in my class have been coming for years and doing their own thing. I had become an incredibly lazy teacher, then Rowena came along – she has an idea so wide of what she wants to do and she’s just tried a lot of different things. I envy that playfulness: it doesn’t have to go anywhere, it’s for its own enjoyment. I live vicariously through my students.
Tassie holds one of Morgan-Cox’s creations: a ceramic collage of curved cut-out shapes glazed in marbled indigo blue, burnt orange and lemon yellow, referencing American artist Frank Stella. The pair is also inspired by Omega Workshops, the design arm of the Bloomsbury Group founded in 1913 which applied its painterly aesthetic to plates and fabrics, candlesticks and chests of drawers.
“I did a lot of painted images on my early pottery pieces, which were very much in the style of the Omega workshops,” says Tassie, who initially trained as a painter. “I had a paint studio in an old funeral home with a group of friends in what was then an incredibly abandoned Hoxton.” Deciding to take evening classes in ceramics took her in a new direction, and today she makes wheel-thrown wares, making limited-edition jugs and lamp stands for Margaret Howell’s stores, while expanding his increasingly sculptural repertoire. Fans of his work include director Sam Mendes and art dealer and collector Manuela Wirth. “I approach my work through painting and fine art, and because Rowena has a very knowledgeable artistic background, we speak a common language,” adds Tassie.
Morgan-Cox studied art history before taking a position at the Fine Art Society in 2012. to sell both,” she says of the gallery, which dates back to 1876. “In fact, I focused more and more on design over time and sold a lot of crazy, historical stuff. When the Fine Art Society gallery’s new space launched in a Georgian townhouse in Soho in 2020, it was able to express this in its inaugural exhibition, which featured paintings by Whistler and Walter Sickert alongside a service by Christopher Dresser and a modernist glass. armchair by artist Denham MacLaren on a huge pictorial Omega Workshops rug (reproduced by specialist Christopher Farr). The colors of the cover have been echoed in a contemporary inclusion: a trio of Tassie Totem sculptures.
“This exhibition was the culmination of my studies at the Fine Art Society in blurring the boundaries of fine and decorative art,” says Morgan-Cox, who also introduced painterly elements into his Palefire lighting. Its hand-painted Parasol table lamp, for example, comes in two designs: a pungent citrine pattern and a green-hued snake pattern. “The decoration is 100% from the Omega workshops,” says Morgan-Cox, “but I was also inspired by paintings by Fontana, furniture by Gio Ponti and a British Victorian designer named Charles Bevan who made very decorative neo-Gothic painted furniture. This is something that Nicola and I share – we both make lamps that play with the concept of art objects and functional design. We create sculptures and lighting in one but, of course, the result is very different.
One of the main differences between Tassie and Morgan-Cox is that the Palefire lamps are not made from ceramic but from recycled paper pulp, made in small batches in a family workshop in Barcelona, then hand painted in its Brixton studio. “When I started, I thought patterned surfaces would be something liked on Instagram but no one would ever buy them. But people buy them,” she says with genuine surprise. “People are more bolder than I thought.”
Morgan-Cox based the design of her first collection on a modular system of five shapes which, she says, “isn’t totally different from how Nicola’s Totem shapes evolved by stacking pieces on top of each other”. Its new range, launched this month, shows an additional synergy between the work of the two women: in addition to conical wall lamps and a domed table lamp – drawing on the five original shapes – there is a floor lamp composed of “several stacks on top of each other”. in a totem form,” says Morgan-Cox. “It certainly speaks to Nicola’s work, but also to Brancusi’s.”
While Palefire’s pieces are sold online (via her own website and new interiors site Glassette), Tassie’s work is featured by 8 Holland Street and Margaret Howell in London and Hostler Burrows Galleries in the US , which makes the couple think.
“One of my fantastic future projects is to create a kind of physical environment for my work,” thinks Morgan-Cox of a possible collaboration with his friend and mentor. Tassie nods. “It would be great – a sort of gallery space with a domestic focus, and mixing sculpture and painting with furniture and lighting,” she says, noting that interest in the decorative arts is gaining ground. “So now is the time, Rowena,” laughed Tassie. “Let’s do it.”
palefirestudio.com. Tassie’s work is at Cross Lane Projects, Kendal LA9 5LB until June 25; crosslaneprojects.com