There are few paradoxes more beautiful than the eye catching creations of Gregory Bonasera and Anthony Raymond of Porcelain Bear. We caught up with the Melbourne design duo reimagining a traditional craft to produce stunning contemporary designs, talking about the role of technology in ceramics, hand-making in Melbourne, and just how you go about creating AK47 replicas in 24-karat gold-coated porcelain …
Porcelain demands the patience, precision and skill of its artisan. The slightest bit of water can alter its consistency and often determine the difference between an exquisite object or simply a muddled heap of clay and it takes a true master of the craft to elicit the delicate beauty and strength of high quality porcelain. It is an art of precision, and nobody understands what drives a person to devote decades to working with such a temperamental substance better than Melbourne designers and ceramicists Gregory Bonasera and Anthony Raymond.
“Finished porcelain is seductively beautiful. It’s the highest quality material in the world of domestic ceramics” explains Bonasera, “it’s fired to around 1300 degrees Celsius, which makes it extremely hard and durable whereas lower quality ceramic materials such as earthenware are porous and chalky, making them less durable”. But durability isn’t the only calling card of quality workmanship, “good porcelain will ring like a bell when you flick it – it’s a sound we never tire of hearing,” explains Bonasera, “within the family of porcelain are bone china, stoneware and various refined white porcelains. Some of these bodies offer translucency, others, opacity. We use the variation most appropriate for the design and its purpose.”
We met Bonasera and Raymond in their Melbourne design studio, decked out with state-of-the-art technology, but their love of porcelain began long before they first opened their studio doors. “I don’t really know when I started to love the medium, I always have,” admits Bonasera, “my parents recognised my affinity with clay at a very early age and bought me a battery operated toy plastic potter’s wheel when I was around ten years old. I had a love/hate relationship with it; I loved to use it but it wasn’t very functional and it frustrated me. I resorted to hand building with clay as I had done before the toy wheel. When I was eleven or twelve they bought me a real potter’s wheel and I became quite proficient at wheel thrown ceramics.”
It is a rare thing to translate a childhood passion directly into an adult career, but this it seems was Bonasera’s destiny. After completing a BA in Ceramic Design at Monash University, Bonasera worked with lighting and furniture made from slip cast porcelain, kiln cast glass and steel, adding technology based design and production to his repertoire as he honed his craft. But it is perhaps the fruit of a chance meeting with Anthony Raymond at an exhibition opening that has come to define his practise.
“When I started spending time with Gregory in his studio, I became fascinated by the very traditional methods he specialised in and the possibilities these methods and materials presented.” Raymond recalls. “We discussed the possibility of me just helping out and this was when I started to get an insight into these techniques. There was immediacy to this very hands-on method – I loved this. It was design, science, and chemistry, intuition all combined to create objects, which were beautiful, creative and dignified. You could design something either by drawing with pen and paper and/or modelling something in 3D using computer software, disciplines Gregory and I had in common,” he explains.
Anthony Raymond too has long held an interest in “everything design”, but it was clay that truly reignited his passion for beautiful objects. Undertaking a BA in Industrial Design further fuelled his passion for product and furniture design, “I found work easily in the fields of graphic design and website design so I chose to freelance in those areas. After meeting Gregory I really started to yearn to return to designing actual objects,” says Raymond,
“The amazing transformation that clay takes on through its journey from the ground to finished, refined and beautiful porcelain fascinated me. What intrigued me more so was Gregory’s passion and drive when it came to this medium – it was inspiring,” says Raymond, “Working with Gregory and porcelain, I have found myself, my confidence, and my drive to excel as a specialist in this discipline.”
“As we developed as a business entity and Anthony’s other work commitments were gradually cut back until we were both working full-time in porcelain, working under my name seemed less appropriate,” explains Bonasera. “We tried the name ‘Porcelain Bear’ for a little while, just to see how people took to it and it was received very well, people loved it. The Porcelain Bear moniker fitted us as a duo, also on several levels: the analogy to porcelain and the qualities it represented for the image of the business”. Like porcelain, the bear is white and represents dignity, beauty, strength, robustness but also fragility. As a mascot for business, the bear symbolises determination, resilience, courage and pride.
“Porcelain Bear is about being courageous and bold, like our mascot,” Bonasera reveals. “It’s not about blindly following or churning out clones, looking for the next trend or jumping on bandwagons. We’re both very active creative thinkers, as well as being technically proficient and lovers of a challenge – we get bored with the mundane and the predictable. Porcelain Bear is also about contributing the unexpected, about having an intimate and intuitive grasp of the qualities and the limitations of our medium and, with this in mind, harnessing its strengths by working within them”.
Indeed, like the bear itself, Bonasera and Raymond work with courage and creativity, combining time-honoured traditional method with state-of-the-art technology to create pieces that marry the values of a 300-year-old craft with wholly a contemporary design direction. The result is a throughly unique collection of porcelain furniture, lighting and homewards that undercuts that any expectations of the fussy, out-dated designs once associated with ceramics. But how exactly does a micro-studio of two go about reinventing such a traditional craft already loaded with preconceptions from consumers and artists alike? The answer, with painstaking precision and uncompromising attention to detail.
“We draw, we workshop ideas, we are sounding boards, editors and reviewers of each other’s designs and concepts,” explains Bonasera. “We use pen and paper, computer aided design and 3D printing to refine our concepts and to create original patterns from which our moulds are made by hand. Our porcelain is cast by hand into these moulds, finished by hand, fired and glazed in-house. We’re inspired by the possibilities that our medium presents through its limitations, inherent beauty and integrity” he adds.
Now synonymous with beauty and refined craftsmanship, the Metro series epitomises Porcelain Bear’s affinity for chic, original and highly functional design. Featuring porcelain-tiled columns in three size variations, these pieces can be effortlessly transformed into various formats, plinths, side tables and seating, as well as columns. Working with a skilled team of seven artisans, the pair combine an eclectic range of materials, including metal and marble, with porcelain to produce one-of-a-kind hybrid creations in-house. Doing so enables Bonasera and Raymond to keep a close eyen the small, intimate details that are often overlooked by machines and large-scale manufacturers.
“We have much greater control of the quality and finish,” enthuses Bonasera, ”we also offer a degree of customisation to interior designers and architects where we can do unique finishes and glazes for them or modifications to our existing range. Our lead times are kept comparatively short and manageable by making in-house”.
Yet despite working in close quarters, Porcelain Bear is no stranger to collaborating creatively with artists, interior designers, architects, both here in Australia and abroad, regularly producing customised, bespoke works for designers and architects searching for innovative design solutions. Recently, the pair collaborated with Smalls Bar and Fiona Lynch Office, producing the lighting as well as the main feature of the space, the porcelain-clad bar façade and top. Another notable collaboration was with international fine art ceramicist, Penny Byrne, to produce 12 AK47 replicas in 24-karat gold-coated porcelain.
“It was a very challenging commission, we had to model the AK47 in 3D from scratch and 3D print the components from which eighteen separate moulds were made. The guns were assembled individually from the components produced in these moulds, firing and glazing was extremely challenging but the results were magnificent. We also collaborate regularly by producing a range of lighting and functional wares forAustralian furniture manufacturer, Jardan”
Seamlessly interweaving technology and traditional porcelain making techniques, without compromising on quality design and materials, Bonasera and Raymond have proved themselves as a formidable creative partnership that shows no sign of slowing. According to the pair, much of their success stems from a healthy dose of creativity, imagination and experimentation, as well as working with like-minded, passionate people. “It’s the most important aspect of what we do; we are experimenters and, as a result, designers. Not only on a personal level where, as designers, we need to challenge ourselves, we also need to offer something original, that’s the essence of design.
“There are some really innovative things happening in the Australian, specifically the Melbourne design scene, which are attracting both local and international recognition. We’re excited to be recognised as contributors to this movement. The ability to exercise our creativity, to see a concept from initial ideas and rough sketches on napkins in restaurants all the way through to a completed, resolved,designed object. Seeing these items become components within the spaces they’ve been created for is the icing on the cake.”