Anthony Harris and Gerhard Swart talk shop, lifestyle and all things china
words Colin O’Mara Davis photographs Angie Làzaro
In a world designed and formulated to the very threshold of wonder, it is easy to forget just what makes a home. And what a simple thing to forget. Bedazzled by interior architects, designers, decorators and landscapers, our homes have themselves become the selfsame lifestyle showrooms we seek to emulate with as much urgency as accuracy – secure in the knowledge that it’s all obtainable as long as it’s swipeable. But what of the intangible qualities of home comforts? The long and the short of it is, it’s easy to have a beautiful (even tasteful) home if you’ve got the dosh to bury it under. If you don’t, well, then you need skill. A lot like life. Ironic, isn’t it? Accepting that there are no absolutes when it comes to taste, there’s absolutely ubiquitous… and then there’s unique. This house is the latter.
Determined to showcase the art of ceramics as more than just corner-shop curiosities, the artists behind internationally acclaimed design house Ceramic Matters have been both mainstays of the Design Indabas and discerning interior design firms as well. Anthony Harris’ relationship with professional interiors began many years ago, albeit indirectly, by painting portrait commissions for doyen Lionel Levine’s hospitality projects. Gerhard Swart had a factory… or, by his own admission rather, two ladies working in a backyard, producing ceramic wares for large retail and homeware stores.
It was work, but by no fathomable stretch the kind one takes pride in.
Having been acquainted since varsity days, each artist had a keen awareness and admiration of the other’s creative output. By the time both eventually reached a critical career juncture, it was clearly understood that reassessment was in order.
Gerhard wanted to focus on specialised décor and one-off pieces, Anthony was keen to utilise his skills as a sculptor and printmaker – in creative collaboration they established a small studio. The collective gradually gained momentum and, no sooner had the business been registered, then they were crafting specialised trophies for every major sponsored event, from Vodacom to the Loeries.
ABOVE LEFT: Many of the design collective’s prototypes, surplus stock and one-off pieces are incorporated in the interior decoration.
ABOVE MIDDLE: Interior walls are painted putty grey to provide a neutral backdrop for Anthony’s colourful collection of objets.
ABOVE RIGHT:The bathroom features undersea motifs for a maritime shanty-chic theme.
By the early 2000s their work was becoming more personal and exclusive, but never any less sought-after. Drawing from Hellenic classicism, the creative works became infused with iconoclastic Pop culture references, whether in serial carbon copy or tattoo-inspired bas-relief carving.
‘We wanted to show the creative possibilities in ceramics,’ says Gerhard. ‘They can be so much more than just serving dishes.’
The hallmarks of the studio’s works are methodical artistry and material quality. Whether or not this distinction suggests a kind of auteurism proves an altogether contentious probe. ‘Signature?’ Gerhard asks, almost derisively. ‘Nothing is new any more. It’s only ever interpreted or presented in a different way. So why not use what’s there?’ The copy of the copy is the original, then. Though a decidedly post-modern stance, the thought is not without merit. ‘My house is the same,’ Anthony proffers. ‘It might seem extravagant at first, but take the patio seater for instance – its previous owners threw it out onto the pavement!’
ABOVE LEFT: The kitchen and veranda are used primarily as entertaining spaces. Because these areas have been modified to accommodate guests, the converted scullery is now a reading nook and offers extra seating.
ABOVE MIDDLE: The formal dining and living areas showcase an eclectic mix of Chinese and Indian artefacts and found objects along with signature items designed and manufactured by Ceramic Matters. The chimneybreast is finished in gold leaf to further enhance the interior’s ambiance of derelict opulence.
ABOVE RIGHT: More than an outdoor living space, the extended patio is a gallery of sorts, a tribute to both history and its respective works of cultural production.
Owing to the fact that we discard too easily – ‘Because we’re all so consumerist,’ he quickly interjects – Anthony has decided to contribute to the green movement by fixing and reusing whatever and whenever possible. ‘Look, the kiln uses electricity and that’s bad enough. You have to plough back where you can.’ Naturally, the rest of the house runs off gas. ‘I think, oddly enough, that that’s what working with ceramics teaches you,’ he continues. ‘It’s a hard process and it’s a slow process. And somewhere along the line you become aware of its permanence. Then you begin to recognise the responsibilities associated with it.’ Gerhard nods in agreement and then smiles wryly. ‘Well, smash it and it’s all over very quickly, but, ja, otherwise it’ll last for thousands and thousands of years.’
‘The house is a work in progress,’ says Anthony. ‘I just keep adding to it. But my parents’ first lounge suite is still in the living room. I think of it as timeless design.’ He points out only one of the many pieces that inform contemporary
design standards. From vintage needlepoint to Chinese porcelain, African idols to pulp pin-ups, the interior gives intimate, though lucid, insight to the artworks created by Ceramic Matters.
‘When I first moved in, there was a woodstove with a blocked chimney. I wanted to build a fireplace so the whole thing had to be cleared,’ Anthony explains. ‘Inside the flue, I found a newspaper dated January 1958.’ Especially taken with the adverts and
layout, he decided to wallpaper the entire bedroom with it. ‘It inspires me and I think it’s rather appropriate to make the house’s history part of it.’
The house itself is even recycled – Anthony
extended the veranda in order to accommodate extra floor space for entertaining, and he used salvaged timber from the interior.
‘He might have to add on some more soon,’ remarks Gerhard, dryly. ‘There’s only so much space for so much stuff.’
Most of the interior walls, painted Battleship grey, are adorned with ceramic medallions, sculptural sconces and burlesque trophies, often the prototypes or stock surplus from the studio.
ABOVE RIGHT: To emphasise the archway and symbolise transition, every square inch of the interior walls is clad with ritualistic artefacts collected the world over.
ABOVE LEFT: The Ceramic Matters Studio workspace. Here, the collective sculpt preliminary models in clay, make moulds and slip-cast the final pieces.
‘The Chinese believed that ceramic work represents the gift of life and that it was magical, because it’s made using all four elements,’ Gerhard says. ‘I think it’s magical because you never know how it’s going to come out. I guess it is a bit like giving life then.’
‘Art creates an environment and informs how it reads,’ add Anthony. ‘I find houses
intriguing because, while they provide a
comfortable space, you’re always wondering, what’s behind that next door?’
The synergistic experience of history and the arts is a credit to this house of clay; it’s a
latter-day boon to its owner, the likes of which
is rare, and only ever apparent when design in the home is considered, not dictated.
Ceramic Matters, 011-447-9688
ABOVE: For 10 years, Anthony unsuccessfully tried to purchase the entrance hall’s antique Indian porch swing, and his persistence finally paid off; the antiques dealer surprised him with the piece – as a gift.