The Influence of Tradition: Ken Eastman and the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company

As far as museum retail spaces go, it is hard to find a better one anywhere in the world than London’s Victoria & Albert museum shop. For anyone who visits this outstanding arts institution and its fantastic treasure trove of intelligently curated and stylishly displayed art and design collections, it is always hard to leave without paying a visit to its shop. Not only is it exceedingly user-friendly and elegantly laid-out, but it also sells contains objects that are simultaneously beautiful and educational. As an example, on a recent visit to the V&A’s shop, The Style Examiner discovered the work of the very talented ceramic artist Ken Eastman and his pieces for the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company.

This range of ceramics, one of the newest by Eastman, was launched in Paris, New York and London in 2009 and is already featured in the permanent collection of the V&A. Eastman’s partnership with Royal Crown Derby is an exciting one that sees traditional materials reworked into contemporary design to extremely successful results. As proof of its accomplishment, in November 2009, the collaboration received the Industry Award at the First British Ceramic Biennial.

Founded in 1750, the Royal Crown Derby manufacturing company was granted permission to use the title ‘Royal’ by Queen Victoria in 1890, when it was appointed ‘Manufacturers of porcelain to Her Majesty’. The present factory was established in 1878 and today its 200 employees produce some of the most collectable and highest quality English fine bone china in the world. The partnership with Eastman takes this manufacturing heritage successfully and elegantly into the twenty-first century in the shapes of objects inspired by the tradition of fine bone china patterns. At the same time, the pieces produced for the collection allow a reshaping of the conventional perception and usage of ceramics.

Ken Eastman is no stranger to having his work justly recognised by the world of design. Born in 1960 in Hertfordshire, UK, he studied at Edinburgh College of Art and at the Royal College of Art, London. He has exhibited widely internationally and has won many prestigious awards in the field of the ceramic arts, including the ‘Premio Faenza’ (Italy) in 1995, the ‘Gold Medal’ at the World Ceramic Exposition 2001 Korea and the ‘President De la Generalitat Valencia’ at the 5th Biennale International De Ceramica, Manises (Spain). In 1999 he was awarded the Arts Foundation Fellowship in Ceramics. In addition to his studio work, Eastman has lectured and taught in many colleges and universities throughout the UK and is currently Academic Research Lecturer at Glasgow School of Art, Scotland. He was also elected as a member of the International Academy of Ceramics in 2003. In addition to being part of the V&A design archive, his work is held in numerous public collections including the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (USA), Musee des Arts Decoratifs de Montreal (Canada), Shepparton Art Gallery, Victoria (Australia), Museum Boijmans van Beunigen, Rotterdam (The Netherlands), Landesmuseum, Stuttgart (Germany), and the Museu de Ceramica de Manises, Valencia (Spain).

Eastman’s work is very much based on the notion of organic fluidity of the object and the material that generates it by its own design and usage. His pieces for Royal Crown Derby make viewers and users of each artefact think and feel ceramics in a new light by perceiving and questioning the familiar dimensions of the design process through design shapes based on abstract distortions of the inanimate and traditional ornate object. In many ways, this highly successful partnership between Ken Eastman and the Royal Crown Derby benefits both partners to great extents. The traditional and colourful patterns from the company’s archives, inspired by Medieval and Baroque drawings, inform and enliven Eastman’s traditionally monochromatic pieces, while the gloss of china also marks a departure from his opaque, organic shapes. At the same time, the artist allows for conventional materials and a centenary brand to be rediscovered by a new generation of design lovers. The result is an alluring collection of sophisticated design pieces available to see and purchase at the V&A. If one didn’t have enough reasons to explore the museum’s shop, this collection alone would certainly be reason enough.