As Polly Liu sees it, her stoneware ceramics are a collaboration between her and the material. “Clay moves in a really unusual way,” she says. “It’s a conversation. It is not about manipulating it to line up with my design – I have to hear what the clay has to say.” Her tableware is a marriage of the material’s natural characteristics and Polly’s artistic instincts, and each piece carries a unique personality. “I try to give them a character. So one of the mugs is taller and slim, and then the other one is shorter and chubby. And the smallest creamer is so tiny, it's like a newborn.”

There is a sense of humour in the way Polly talks about her work, and in the work itself. Her ‘chubby’ mugs, which are made by hand using a traditional slab-building technique, feature thick, plump handles and lean at a slight angle as if preparing to take flight. This aesthetic didn’t take shape overnight. After completing a multidisciplinary design master’s at Goldsmiths University, Polly started experimenting with ceramics as a continuation of her research topic. Her original style was quite elaborate, and she has learned to streamline the designs over time. “I’ve definitely become more minimalistic,” she reflects. “Some of the additions and changes I used to make seem redundant to me now, so I’ve cut out the unnecessary parts to keep it simple.”

She has also since incorporated the Japanese Nerikomi technique into her practice. The method, which originated in Egypt and gained popularity in 1970s Japan, involves slicing and stacking different coloured clay and allowing natural patterns to emerge. It meshes seamlessly with Polly’s craft philosophy. “I came to Nerikomi because I wanted to highlight the texture of the material. We miss a lot by covering its beauty up.” The plates and platters she has crafted for TOAST feature this striking effect, realised in contrasting white, buff and black stoneware clays and finished with a glossy clear glaze.

Polly’s reasons for focusing on tableware are as refreshing as her musings on the beauty of clay. Unlike sculpture, ceramic table pieces are functional, and items which fall under this category are often taken for granted.They're so ordinary, they're just sitting there waiting for us to use.” She sees her work as a “manifesto” to show that practical objects can convey a concept or a feeling.For me, everyday life is the most important and overlooked experience.” While her ceramics are pleasing to the eye, they are not made to sit on a shelf. Polly holds up her own mug, which she uses daily. “It's really weird, but it feels like we have a good relationship,” she laughs. “I think we know each other really well.”

She compares this detached attitude to tableware to how society undervalues nature, and she builds regular walks into her routine to maintain a connection to the outdoors. “It's such a simple and effective way to rest my mind, and London's a beautiful city to take a walk through.” Her days in her Peckham studio are long and slow, and her working schedule is decided by the clay, in a way. The time it takes to dry varies with the seasons. In summer, she is at risk of leaving it too long and cracks appearing; when the drying lags, the whole process of firing and glazing the ceramics is delayed.

But she has gradually found a rhythm that suits her, starting the day with a coffee in the studio and ending it in the early evening. Polly works in a shared space called The Kiln Rooms, so she is surrounded by other makers all day. We have a really rich community here,” she says. “Everybody comes from different places. Everybody's work is very different. It's nice to look at other people's practice and their way of making.” She hopes that participating in the TOAST New Makers programme will introduce her to more like-minded people who recognise the importance of craft – and who know the struggles craftspeople face. “It’s not an easy career, being a maker,” Polly admits. “We have a lot of challenges, so it’s great to have this wonderful platform to support us.”

Discover our New Makers 2024 collection.

Words Bébhinn Campbell.

Photography by Safia Shakarchi.

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