Edmund de Waal studio, London

Detail and serenity characterise the studio of an artist who majors in intricacy

De Waal’s pottery space, hidden in the mezzanine above the glazing area.
De Waal’s pottery space, hidden in the mezzanine above the glazing area. · Credit: Helene Binet

You can imagine that it would be hard to design the working studio and library of an internationally famous ceramic artist who is also an acclaimed author. Add to that the theme of his bestselling book- the 264 Japanese tiny hand-carved netsuke that he inherited from his uncle  – suggesting obsession with the tiniest of details, and you might build a picture of a perfect storm of unreasonable client demands. 

But it’s a challenge that DSDHA seemed happy to take on, or else it was a case of ‘better the devil you know’, as the firm had worked on artist Edmund de Waal’s first studio in Tulse Hill 10 years before. Here, at his new studio in West Norwood, the firm was charged again with designing a working pottery and kiln, as well as creating a generous gallery-type space where de Waal could experiment with his ceramic installations, and a library and study space for his writing. Two former light industrial units, a warehouse and a two storey office, have been connected to form de Waal’s new studio, with the idea of retaining the character of the existing buildings while inserting new floors and cutting through others to create spatial complexity for the studio’s various activities.

The lower level studies area looking east.
The lower level studies area looking east. · Credit: Helene Binet

In line with the Japanese pottery that so inspires de Waal, the architect has stripped everything back to its core elements. Walls have been reduced to brick and mortar and whitewashed. Similarly, the roof soffit, its purlins hidden, has been reduced to a simple planar form, by default revealing the delicacy of its fine steel trusses. Fluorescent lights set in clear Perspex tubes run in line, tautly stretched across the space; while at the staircase a black steel flat of a handrail projects from the wall to draw you to the upper levels. Counterpointing this tabula rasa of whiteness, a highly polished but dark poured concrete floor picks up on the north light that pours in from above through translucent frosted rooflights. 

DSDHA had to work at different scales here. Gallery spaces are voluminous, while firing areas meet the space criteria that kilns demand, and up on a small mezzanine overlooking the glazing area right under the roof, a little hidden in the shadows, sits a potter’s wheel. Perched alongside his simple wooden stool, it reminds you of a stall in a Japanese onsen bath house – de Waal’s ‘intimate area’. Quite how all this production-line order sits with the intrinsically messy nature of the craft perhaps evokes the work of the artist himself. But I am most intrigued by the glass covered vitrine set into the floor of the entrance hall, within which de Waal’s stick thin vessels sit like broken vertebrae revealed in an archaeological dig. A memento mori – it’s a gentle reminder that we are all mere porcelain. •

The entrance hall with the ceramic vitrine set into the concrete floor.
The entrance hall with the ceramic vitrine set into the concrete floor. · Credit: Helene Binet

Credits

Client: Edmund de Waal

Architect: DSDHA

Structural engineer: Price & Myers

Services engineer: Skelly & Couch

Quantity surveyor: Stockdale

Contractor: BRAC Contracts 

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