Ceramics are usually seen as functional, or on an intimate domestic scale. But there is a parallel tradition of architectural ceramics, dating back as far as Mesopotamia; famously the Ishtar Gate to the Inner City of Babylonia, and the beautiful Islamic tile tradition, adorning mosques and sacred buildings throughout the Islamic world.
This tradition has always fascinated me, so I felt lucky when I had a commission from the American tile retailer Ann Sacks to develop a 3-dimensional art tile. Before that, I used to make free standing sculptures, soft-looking undulating pillow forms, hand built from slabs of clay. The forms and the painterly surface (I trained as a painter) are inspired by the mountainous landscape and lakes of my native Austria, as well as Austrian painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Prompted by that first commission to develop my expertise in this area, I now specialise in architectural ceramics for all sorts of settings, both private and corporate - for what are described as ‘feature walls’ in hotel foyers and spa areas, and in private houses.
The largest and most exciting task so far was the commission for the cabin artwork for all 2,000 cabins of P&O Cruise ship Britannia. At almost a quarter of a mile long, and 143,000 tons, it is the largest of their six ships, and the flagship of the fleet.
I was approached by their art consultant and agreed to deliver a design for tile panels for the cabins; it was all new to me and incredibly exciting. Their mood board gave me a good idea of how to tailor my designs to the style and aesthetics of the cabin interiors, and I was thrilled to be invited to go on a site visit to the shipyard in Italy to view the model cabin and to see its interior in real life. It was an incredible experience.
Together with a group of representatives of the interior design company in charge of the ship interiors I was guided along a labyrinth of corridors to reach the site of model cabins, through this huge construction site filled with cranes and noises of heavy machinery.
I soon would have lost my way on my own. It made me aware of the sheer scale of the operation and the logistics involved building a ship on such a large scale, and I felt both intimidated and privileged to be part of it. I delivered the design for a triptych, 3 related wall pieces, 30 x 30 cm each, with a wavy surface and an abstract design inspired by imaginary views through a window onto the architecture of the ship and the sea. The cabins I had seen were mostly quite small and the interior cabins did not have any windows at all, so I wanted my designs to remind passengers of their surroundings, and to contribute to a sense of space.
The design was site specific, handmade and hand painted with a matte and textured surface, and was well received both by the art consultant and P&O. Now came the daunting task of producing 6000 pieces cost effectively, within the budget allocated, and on time. I had about a year but I needed to find a way of reproducing the handmade characteristics, surface and colour scheme of the design on a large scale. A search for producers in Stoke on Trent produced some results; but using common ceramic techniques for mass production, e.g. slip casting and ceramic transfers, proved to be unsatisfactory. The glazes were too glossy and mechanical and did not have the soft texture and appearance of the hand painted surface. P&O also considered the ceramic pieces to be too fragile and impractical for the ship environment and rejected the proposal.
This crucial moment might have meant the death of the project, but P&O really wanted to find a way to go ahead. The art consultant suggested realising the design in Jesmonite, a mixture of plaster and resin widely used as an alternative material, imitating natural surfaces in garden and architectural sculpture. A company specialising in Jesmonite produced samples and the results were accepted by P&O as Jesmonite has a matt surface matching closely enough the soft pastel colours of the original design. Finally 6000 pieces of my design were produced and installed; the Britannia launched in 2015.
The sheer scale of this commission was overwhelming and fascinating at the same time, and though successive commissions have been on a smaller scale, each one has represented new challenges, both technical and aesthetic. It taught me so much. I now work on a much greater variety of surfaces, from hand-painted to glazed matt and high-gloss surfaces; combining flat and 3D tiles; using ceramic printing techniques; and using gold and platinum enamels.
The combination of matt and high gloss works specially well on the sculptural tiles; the light ripples over the undulating surfaces, echoing light reflected off water, (very suitable for cruise ships and spas!), true to the inspiration I have always found in water patterns, reflection and landscape.
Although my latest commission has been in land-locked Austria, for the Hilton Hotel in Vienna, I found a way to stay faithful to my vision. The 200 x 120 cm framed wall sculpture, created for the Executive Lounge, is entirely hand painted in shades of blue with accents in gold enamel, referencing the Vienna Secessionists, and the waves and colours of the Blue Danube.