Ceramicist and textile designer Klaus Jurgen Schmidt has been living in Athens for seven years: “she’s complex and exhausting—truly stunning,” he says about the city. Schmidt finds an “incompleteness, unresolved closures to multiple pasts, a lot of contradictions,” in Athens where he creates vessels that pull from the past while hinting at the very present, to the tactility of making, shaping the clay with his hands and firing the soft sculpture in his kiln.
Schmidt’s Panos (2022)—one of the drops offered on Concept in collaboration with SIZED—is a vessel with a tall voluptuous body, adorned with spiky bulges, akin to rose thorns. They complicate the earthenware’s velvety smoothness with their sharp bursts but also add an element of mystery to Schmidt’s process.
We talked with Schmidt about his Greek life, the timelessness of the clay, and the beauty of sharp horns.
The story of clay is the story of humanity. How do you approach the immaterial aspect of clay in your work?
Its absolutely primal, and perfect. I’m aware of layered, indeterminate histories as composites—of millennia, meanderings of substances in the evolution of each clay. I’m obsessively consumed, handling the clay bodies.
Tell us about your relationship with Greece, both in an everyday level and as a site of exploration and self-searching?
I recovered here from substance abuse, in a very solitary way in the year before and then during the pandemic which I believe would have taken a lot longer to finally reckon with elsewhere. It was during this time that I began making the neo-rhytons. My work with ceramics and also fashion textiles evolve in convergent ways, as both outcomes alight away from Greece, contrasting my past in London and Milan. I repeatedly discover how having no local influences from current fashion or design per se is informing a pretty isolated, yet searching and instinctual body of work.
What is your day-to-day experience of Athens like and how does that differ from your work in Kerameikos?
I live and work in modern Kerameikos, the old Athenian neighborhood which is built above the classical Kerameikos. The entire ‘suburban’ area is situated just outside of what once were the ancient city walls where outcast classical potters worked alongside graves lining the roads to Elefsina and Piraeus. Dotted around my neighborhood are recent and not so recent sectioned off and demolished blocks where digs were scheduled to happen in this untidy coincidental, odd, and unprotected way. The entire area is essentially built above important unearthed archaeological remains. The largest mass grave from plague-stricken antique Athens was discovered a few blocks away. I enter the larger formal sites regularly for forms of research but to me there is always the matter-of-fact of the immediate sub terrain, the now-then connection feels very present to me.
I am curious about your understanding of timelessness as a designer, especially in relationship to contemporary pottery and clay.
I’m pushing technicality in as much as is possible with coil builds and embellishment but perhaps my isolation and constant reckoning with the past of my location anchors the work in an aesthetic fundamentality.
Panos could have been thousands of years old but the spikes give away the contemporary finish. How do you play with this notion of time in design?
It is less about design and more a metaphysical exploration through past reckoning married to recovery. Panos’s spikes are stunted horns that should have grown into curling goat-horn handles which reappear on other pieces, but in this case were cut-short. If time is measured in beginnings and ends, I’m borrowing from ephemeral experiences and confirming them in abstract symbolic ways. There are multiple time frames being considered.
Vessels are bodies, and I can even dare to say they’re queer bodies. They play with use and duality—they defy productivity but hinting a form of function through their orifice. Tell us your vessels as queer bodies.
Panos is at once a portrait of a person I knew from the past, and a Pan-like figure, conjured in a maternal way of radical empathy and concern, a mother’s child but a divine homosexual invention, a miniature walled-in sanctuary. I’m interested in connecting sparse facts known to us as modern outsiders with imagined outcomes, mythology and new theories from the philosophies in creating these trans organics. Mining from historical Greece and my own experiences assumes a certain queerness in and of itself.
What about pottery itself: throwing clay to the wheel, coiling, forming the surface. How is your experience of the tactility of the process?
I use coil and plastic sculpting techniques, without mechanisms. I am guided by the substance and process rather than it being architecturally planned out with a rigid outcome. I source from memory for subject matter and have a general idea of shape and size, but the process and sensory connection to the material becomes too transfixing to fully control. There is an intimate and intuitive understanding of boundaries, weights, humidities, balances, but there is a sort of violence and argument between myself and the piece where at certain points the piece refuses me, wants to collapse at its limits, and so I usually abdicate to the clay, the clay eventually becomes the dominant partner in this relationship.
Do you see pottery as a form of storytelling, especially as a designer invested in the antiquity?
Tell us your Archimedean approach to design—is it about pursuing a system as much as assuming the chance element?
There is a pursuit of a spiritual application of arithmetic theory. There is a comforting stability in this notion that things change and changes repeat and at once remain the same as they evolve in cycles. Physical coiling from a locus point of initiation symbolizes cyclical and repetitive aspects of recovery processes. Surely everything, everywhere is spiraling toward or away from itself.
How is your relationship to the cyber space, both as a designer in terms of the future of virtual architectural but as a researcher of the ancient?
The Beazley Archive houses hundreds of thousands of mostly Athenian ceramic pieces and fragments in such a way that a single shattered ceramic vessel dislocated and at large can be reconstructed through the database. I believe it is the oldest online archive of it’s kind. Painstaking work by obsessed historians has evolved in to a mechanism performing really powerful acts of preservation and reconstitution. Fully accessible everywhere, it’s generous archeology done right.
Finally, how do you approach Concept in your process—where does it come into play and what does Concept determine for the next step?
When our dialogue began, my immediate thoughts centered around conservation potential. I’m obviously very concerned with archeological preservation. I’m interested in what new virtualities could do for archeology and archiving in advance of technological advancements as new facts. NFTs could start to solve real issues with displaced antiquities. The trade-offs are potentially world-changing. Imagine trading an edition of the entire Athenian Acropolis for the reconstitution of the physical Parthenon Marbles. Struggling antiquities departments could start to turn profits, allowing for more evolved field work. Mouthwatering…
I love the idea that with Concept, a future neo-rhyton could be fully digitized—were they to suffer a shattering demise, there is the possibility to clone its digital to physical DNA. A fundamentally delicate ceramic—one already playing with notions of demise and rebirth—made digitally immortal, which adds a cyber-spiritual handle to an already multi-versal vessel.