‘Locality gives art,’ wrote the rural poet Robert Frost, whose words really come through when you’re holding a whimsical white milk jug or a deliciously chunky latte bowl made by ceramicist Mick Haigh. Haigh grew up in an old suburb just south of the easy-rolling postcolonial city of Durban, on South Africa’s leafy subtropical East Coast.
‘There was real sense of wildness there – with big yards and corrugated iron houses and nature and plants all around us,’ he says. He studied fine art for two years in the late Eighties at what was then the Durban Art School, and then gave up his studies to pursue botany and horticulture and join the family’s landscaping and nursery business. It is these twin loves – making things and being immersed in nature – that continue to fuel his inventiveness as a ceramicist.
In 1994, he and his wife, Sally – a botanical artist – moved inland from Durban to the outpost of Fort Nottingham in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands ‘to be in a more natural environment’. They live with their two boys in a small village of 12 houses surrounded by wild grassland, based on the English commonage system, and he works in a wattle-and-daub shed with a tin roof and 200 square metres of floor space opening out on two large verandahs. The sides of his studio are open to the elements so ‘the weather blows in and out – open and wild’.
The kiln room is the only space that is blocked in for dryness and in it he runs six kilns producing as many as 9 000 pieces in a busy year. ‘These days though, I’m choosing to make less and focus on specific things I make myself,’ he says.
He first took to ceramics after watching a wood-burn firing at an arts festival in the rustic mountain town of Hogsback in the Eastern Cape (the inspiration behind the landscape in JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings). ‘I was totally drawn in by the fire and the alchemy of the three-day process that converts the work inside into the most incredible ceramics,’ he says. Nick and Sally spent three years high up in the misty forests apprenticing with a wood-burn potter called Anton van der Merwe.
They started experimenting – building ground kilns and upright kilns fired on black wattle wood. ‘We’re really into the process – exploring what makes materials look the way they look,’ he says, explaining that they started out making quite rarefied wood-fired pots, before moving to earthenware ceramics, which are more functional and user-friendly. They wanted to humanize their pieces and make things that were intentionally ‘not perfect’. The idea was to make things that hold feeling, that create an atmosphere around them.
The result was a range of ceramics that is ‘simultaneously romantic, historical and thoroughly contemporary.’ Their range of wine goblets, champagne flutes and candlestick holders inspired by the elegant classicism of Baccarat crystal was a revelation that instantly captured the imagination of design lovers at Cape Town’s Design Indaba in 2009.
The pieces were picked up by Dutch design guru Li Edelkoort and exhibited around Europe as part of a group show called Folk Futures, while design scouts Trevyn and Julian McGowan helped them to build an international market, retailing through The Conran Shop and Anthropologie in the UK and America, and Tractor Home in Australia. Their latest range, for West Elm in the US, is a series of delightfully irregular latte bowls in eight off-beat rural colours. Bright and earthy at once, the bowls are based on ancient Chinese faceted tea bowls, and are made so that the drinker’s fingers fit snugly into the facets.
Meanwhile, back in wooded Nottingham Road they’ve kept the home fires burning with an enchantingly retro café and shop, called Bloom, where travellers and locals appreciate their ceramic creations over eggs Benedict and generous lattes served in Mick Haigh’s signature bowls.
To learn more please visit: www.michaelhaigh.co.za.