FLIGHTS OF IMAGINATION
The west London home-cum-studio of artist Bouke de Vries makes for the perfect gallery for his creative refashionings of antique ceramics and vintage objects.
By Chloe Grimshaw. Photographs by Mark Luscombe-Whyte
When the Dutch ceramic artist Bouke de Vries first came across the 1920s end-of-terrace he now calls home it looked rather unpromising – particularly as cars hurtle down the west London road it sits on – but from the moment de Vries stepped inside, he ‘just knew it was the one’. Double-height spaces and huge windows meant that it was saturated with light, while walls had been knocked through and ceiling heights raised to create large open-plan rooms, with the expansive feel of a loft.
Considering that he only began working as a ceramic artist six years ago, following on from a career in pottery restoration and early beginnings in fashion working with the likes of John Galliano, Zandra Rhodes and Stephen Jones, de Vries cheer- fully admits that he’s ‘not doing too badly’. Recent collaborations with Grayson Perry and rave reviews in The New York Times mean that de Vries’s work is now coveted by private collectors and museums around the world; his epic table piece War & Pieces, made from fragments of 19th-century porcelain, plastic, sugar, gilded brass and mixed media, has been compared to the Chapman brothers’ elaborate tableaux.
The pace at which he decorated the apartment he shares with his partner, the British jewelry designer Miles Chapman, into a gallery-like space was similarly swift: within three weeks of moving into their new home in November 2012, the couple had unpacked their collection of ceramics, arranged their mainly vintage furniture and hung all their pictures. But they had renovated extensively prior to that, replacing the exposed metal staircase that linked the two doors, revamping the kitchen units, adding a laundry area in the capacious bathroom and carving out four bedrooms where previously there had been only two. The huge garden was lled with overgrown sycamore trees, but as it was over 120ft long, de Vries felt con dent that there would be space to build his new ceramics studio.
‘I love that I go outside and there are physical bar- riers between work and home,’ he says, as we stroll towards his studio. ‘It’s the perfect set-up; if I want a tea break, I just come back into the house.’ His rst collaboration with Perry was The West eld Vase in 2009, to celebrate the opening of the vast shopping centre around the corner from de Vries’s home in Shepherd’s Bush. Perry arrived at de Vries’s previous studio with a vase embellished with a map of the site, which he gleefully smashed up before de Vries put it back together using gold lacquer – echoing an ancient Japanese tradition of highlighting cracks in gold leaf. More recently they worked together on The (Chris) Huhne Vase for Grayson Perry’s Icons series at the National Portrait Gallery.
De Vries is currently creating an installation for the National Trust, which will be unveiled at Croome Court, the former home of the 6th Earl of Coventry, next month. Croome was the rst landscape design and major architectural project by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, whose 300th anni- versary celebrations take place in the summer.
De Vries’s studio is full of damaged treasures, from discarded Korean celadon ceramics to a collection of Portuguese painted porcelain from the 17th and 18th centuries – acquired, through an intermediary, from a convent. He carefully removes the glue hold- ing the broken fragments together, then muses on how to transform them. ‘I usually buy things that are beautiful and then I leave them to tell me what they should be,’ he explains. Many of these ceramics and sculptures are regarded as valueless if they are chipped or damaged, despite being hundreds of years old; de Vries believes he can give them ‘a new life and a new narrative’ by transforming them.
Outside his studio de Vries has created an homage to the late French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, based on a bedroom installation she built with walls of heavy wooden doors that seemed to hint at men- ace beyond or even within the room. In contrast, walking past a row of 20 or so white doors to reach the garden seems to hint at endless possibilities and also serves as a high-concept garden fence.
‘It was really cheap to put together as none of the doors cost more than £2,’ says de Vries. ‘We’ve found a use for the original front door too, although it’s at the side of the house now.’ Typical of the artist’s approach to recycling and reinvention.
ABOUT Bouke de Vries
Born in Utrecht, The Netherlands, Bouke de Vries studied at the Design Academy Eindhoven, and Central St Martin’s, London. After working with John Galliano, Stephen Jones and Zandra Rhodes, he switched careers and studied ceramics conservation and restoration at West Dean College. Every day in his practice as a private conservator he was faced with issues and contradictions around perfection and worth:
'The Venus de Milo' is venerated despite losing her arms, but when a Meissen muse loses a finger she is rendered virtually worthless.’
Using his skills as a restorer (c.f. Ron Mueck’s model-maker skills), his ‘exploded’ artworks reclaim broken pots after their accidental trauma. He has called it ‘the beauty of destruction’. Instead of reconstructing them, he deconstructs them. Instead of hiding the evidence of this most dramatic episode in the life of a ceramic object, he emphasises their new status, instilling new virtues, new values, and moving their stories forward.
The more contemplative works echo the 17th- and 18th-century still-life paintings of his Dutch heritage, especially the flower paintings of the Golden Age, a tradition in which his hometown of Utretch was steeped (de Heem, van Alst, van Huysum inter alia), with their implied decay. By incorporating contemporary items a new vocabulary of symbolism evolves.
These ‘dead natures’ – natures morts – give everyday household objects, a plate, a milk jug, a teapot, a modern poignancy that refers back to the vanitas and momento mori paintings of that period. An installation in de Vries’s London house is arranged in the manner of Daniel Marot with white Delft domestic pottery rescued in fragments from 17th- and 18th-century rubbish tips, now dug up and partially pieced together. Among them are two small artists’ paint pots with the pigment still in them, as possibly once used by – who knows? – Vermeer or Rembrandt.