Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Producing Better Production: Den Danske Keramikfabrik

Glazing a piece by Claydies at Den Danske Keramikfabrik, image by Birgitte Røddik

I recently wrote a piece for the Irish Times about craft and cooperation in Danish design, looking at a number of different design collectives in Copenhagen and elsewhere. One that got a brief mention is Den Danske Keramikfabrik (DDKF), an initiative by 18 ceramicists and ceramics studios to bring ceramic factory production back to Denmark. I only wrote a small amount about it in the Irish Times, but it deserves much more than that, as it really is a cool project. So here goes...

Throwing at Den Danske Keramikfabrik, image by Birgitte Røddik

Medium- and large-scale ceramic production, like in a lot of countries, has all but left Denmark. There are little potteries and studios all over the country and a small factory in Copenhagen, near where I live, but that's about it. The country's most significant ceramic producer, Royal Copenhagen, moved almost all of its production to Thailand a few years ago; only its most prestigious range, Flora Danica, is still made in Denmark. And yet so many ceramicists could do with a place to take some or all of their production off their hands, so they can spend less time making and more time designing. Here's where DDKF comes in. Beginning production recently, it will produce work for its 18 owners and anyone else interested in having something produced in clay, whether its a small order or a large one. I recently spoke to Tina Marie Bentsen, a ceramicist based in Copenhagen and one of the factory's owners, about how the idea came about.

'Two years ago I was talking to a colleague here in Copenhagen and we were talking about how silly it is that we have to take our production and send it to Vietnam or China or Portugal. It's very hard to have time to be creative if you have to do all the things you have to do when you're the only person in your company - accounts, selling, promoting... You have to produce all your stuff yourself too, and in the end you can't keep up, you can't be creative and you can't develop new work. So I decided to bring a number of ceramicists together over a drink and directed the conversation towards opening a factory. We talked about it, and it turns out a number of us were thinking along the same lines.'

Casting at Den Danske Keramikfabrik, image by Birgitte Røddik

Then the long process of actually opening a factory, on Denmark's most easterly island, Bornholm, began. 'We had to find the right people around us, and that took some time. We contacted this older guy on Bornholm. I'd heard that he was talking about opening a factory, so I called him. He said, “No, if I was 40," - he's almost 70 - "I would do it, but instead I will help you do it. If you're going to do it, I'm going to help you.” So we started talking to a lot of people on Bornholm and we found this space, in Nexø, right on the east of the island. We've had a lot of help from Bornholm, actually. They've really encouraged us to come to their island, because they're really in need. In need of industry and business and the possibility of employment. There's this long history of ceramics being produced on Bornholm, too. So slowly it developed and it got more and more serious.'

Bornholm certainly does have a long history of producing ceramics, as well as glass. There are a number of studios, potteries and glass workshops on the island, as well as a branch of the Royal Danish Academy of Arts where students receive specialist training in glass and ceramics. It's also a real tourist hotspot, particularly in the summer, where people from around Scandinavia and Germany come to see rugged landscape, picturesque towns and talented craftspeople. But like any remote area, opportunities for employment aren't always in good supply, so anything that improves that is welcome, not least something that ties to the island's heritage and its tourism offering. So the island's job centre facilitated training for a group of 10 or so people to teach them the skills needed to work in the factory. Two of those have become employees of the factory (along with an experienced factory manager), while the others have been trained in the hope that once production begins, there are people ready to join the staff as the factory expands. The factory should also contribute to wider employment, in small but meaningful ways. Tina Marie gestures to a pile of crates in her studio: 'The guy coming to pick this stuff up and take it to the factory, he's from Bornholm. We should take it all the way and use the local people and services. I think it's very important that we support the community that we're going to be a part of.'

DDKF doesn't just boost industry and employment, it does so in a way that is safe and healthy, both for the workers themselves and for the environment in general. 'If you get your work produced in China, the thing about it is you wouldn't know how it's done. You hear horror stories about the workers sleeping under the tables and the dust and fumes. It's so nice to be sure that where you get your products from is an ok place where they think about the environment. Ceramics will always be one of the less eco-friendly forms of production, but we can do it in the best way possible. For example, Bornholm right now is 70% or 80% green energy, and they're working towards 100%, it's an island full of windmills. I know that I put a lot of CO2 out when I fire my work, but if I can do it in a more environmental, safe way, that's very important to me. To all of us.'

The factory floor in Den Danske Keramikfabrik

To Tina Marie, to the other owners of DDKF, and to a number of other designers I've spoken to here in Copenhagen recently, it's also important - and really urgent - to ensure that the craft skills Denmark once had, that contributed so much to the development of Danish design as we know it, are not lost forever. Many of the design classics we associate with Denmark were developed, though not by craftspeople, in very close collaboration with craftspeople, furniture makers and other skilled workers. Not only is it valuable to produce your work in cooperation with the people making it, making techniques can inform a great deal of design in a very positive way. 'Right now we're looking at a future where we sit in front of a computer instead of developing work from the material. My work should be developed from the material, from my hands. Not all work could be like that or should be like that, but a lot of work is material-bound and hand-bound. With some materials you can get the best from them when you touch them.'

Tina Marie also cautions that while sending production to China or other parts of the world might seem cost-effective now, this might not always be the case. 'So you can make a drawing on the computer and send it off to China and they're very good at producing it. But what happens when the prices in China go up and we want to take back our production? We've lost a lot of skills then, potentially, and that's terrible. There was a lot of know-how and skills that were in the hands of those workers in that factory and they're lost because they're old now. This is our last chance. Maybe we should try to find some of those “old” workers. We probably can't hire them because they are retired, but maybe we could get them to show us their techniques. And I imagine they would be proud to, don't you think?!'

I think they would be proud, and they would be happy to share their knowledge and skills to ensure they don't disappear. In fact I'm sure they - and many others - would share the enthusiasm I have for this initiative, to enable design and making to happen in a way that's good for the environment, good for designers themselves and good for a community. Den Danske Keramikfabrik hasn't just started producing ceramics, it has started producing better production.

The Den Danske Keramikfabrik logo
All images courtesy of DDKF