The history of ceramics tells the story of a continuous hunt for perfection. Alchemists, craftsmen, and, later, chemists spent a thousand years striving for an ever silkier texture, a finer shape as well as greater translucency and durability. The return of Marco Polo from China in 1295 introduced porcelain, the most exquisite form of ceramics, to Europe and sparked a frantic race to reproduce the “white gold.” The?frenzied search ended four long centuries later, when a German alchemist named B?ttger, held hostage by his porcelain-addicted king, finally found the formula together with a colleague and started the production of porcelain in the town of Meissen. Then, with the help of twentieth-century scientists, ceramics were brought into the technological age. The material was used as a heat-resistant coat on the Space Shuttle, and helps power computers and technologies around the world via microchips—the core ingredient of which inspired the name of a certain valley outside of San Francisco.
It thus came as a slight surprise when Ivan Pericoli, one half of the duo behind the exquisite Parisian ceramics makers Astier de Villatte, explained that he and his partner Beno?t Astier de Villatte were not at all interested in perfection—at least not the kind of modern perfection we have grown accustomed to.
It was at the prestigious école des Beaux-Arts in Paris where the two designers met, studied, and developed a laissez faire-approach to design. Or, as Ivan sums it up, “how to keep your artwork alive and not kill it by doing too much.” He points out that in the nineteenth century, craftsmen—driven, in part, by the competition from mechanical production—became so skilled, that their handmade products could not be distinguished from machine-made wares. To Beno?t and Ivan, that represents a missed opportunity. “If you make something by hand, not only will you never get two pieces that are the same, but you also communicate the human being making it,” Beno?t explains. The uniqueness—or imperfection, by industrial standards—“communicates something about life and the life of the object itself.”
There’s no trace of an assembly line at Astier de Villatte’s ceramics workshop, where their whimsical, colorless ceramics are made, not produced. Each piece of tableware—dishes eschew perfect circles for the artfully wobbly, and tea pots appear delightfully off-kilter—is entirely handcrafted by a single artisan at Astier de Villatte’s workshop (one imagines Adam Smith, the high priest of classical economics, turning in his cold Scottish grave in the face of such willful French disregard for the division of labor). But it does not end there. “Astier de Villatte,” says Ivan, with a certain pride, “started as economic nonsense.” Against the advice of everyone around them, Beno?t and Ivan insisted on opening their workshop in the heart of Paris instead of the less expensive hinterlands outside the capital, abroad, or even in France’s traditional ceramics centers, Limoges and Rouen. It had to be Paris; the city is fundamental to their process and a slightly fantastical source of inspiration, says Ivan. “Paris is very much a city of novels and cinema, a part of Paris is a dream and not really reality. It’s like a set, the perfect set to create many different things.”
The pair spends every day in the workshop (unless they happen to be at the gorgeous chalet of the late painter Balthus, more on that in the video later), located near Quartier Asiatique and just four metro stops away from their original Astier store on Rue Saint Honoré. Here, under bright, warm lights, over 16 artisans practice their craft—most are from Tibet, where they studied in Buddhist monasteries before taking up ceramics. Ivan and Beno?t are self described Tibetophiles (you’ll notice incense holders among their collections) and over time, they and the craftsmen have become family. Together, they mold local clay into the most exquisite shapes using an old technique called estampage, before air-drying the pieces. Next, the dried product is fired in the kiln, followed by an application of Astier’s signature white glaze, and up to three more rounds of firing.
Astier de Villatte’s charm has much to do with the clay they use; it’s one Beno?t and Ivan encountered in art school and it’s traditionally used for sculpture rather than ceramics, leading to a slightly rougher finish. Why, you ask? The obvious answer: because it’s beautiful. “We want to make beautiful things that could fit into a still life,” Ivan explains, “instead of focusing too much on practicality.”
And that’s exactly what they have done. Head to one of two Parisian boutiques or to Manhattan’s (John Derian shops)?to see for yourself. You’ll find rows and rows of gorgeous, almost sculptural white tableware next to more colorful artifacts, often the result of collaborations from the likes of Patch NYC and Lou Doillon. Among countless other curiosities, you’ll find a booklet of their personal guide to Paris, the city which is at the heart of it all: “The purpose,” says Ivan, “is to create a kind of perfect world, a kind of perfect Paris, which never existed. You see, it’s a kind of fantasy.” Turns out, it’s about a bit of perfection after all.