Style rooms

Style rooms

Jan van der Vaart atelier

Jan van der Vaart, one of the Netherlands’ leading ceramicists, passed away in November 2000. He was a pioneer, an innovator and an influential teacher, but above all a gifted designer and creator of functional and autonomous ceramics. His work is immediately recognisable. Anyone who has to describe it uses terms like ‘sleek’, ‘geometric’, ‘architectural’. Among his best-known designs are the impressive tulip towers, a specific type of tulip vase that can be constructed from separate elements and be more than a metre tall.

Van der Vaart’s oeuvre consists partly of unica, one-off pieces turned or shaped by hand, and partly of multiples, objects cast in small editions. He started making these multiples in 1967, primarily motivated by the desire to make his work affordable for a wider audience. Ideally, he wanted the ceramic industry to export his vases, and for a short time it did: Tichelaar in Makkum did so for a few years in the late 1970s, as did Rosenthal in Germany in the 1980s. But most of the pieces were still made in his own studio.

A retrospective exhibition of Jan van der Vaart’s multiples was held at the Princessehof in 1997. The accompanying catalogue illustrates them all, underscoring his systematically approach: he used a geometric shape as a basis and by stacking, dividing, inverting, rearranging, carving or turning it, he constantly developed new forms. He conducted this exploration of form tirelessly for almost 50 years, first in his studio in Amsterdam, later in Oostwoud, and finally in Rotterdam.

Jan van der Vaart atelier in the Princessehof
Jan van der Vaart atelier in the Princessehof

After Van der Vaart died, his studio remained untouched for a few years. Some time later his three children decided it was time to give it purpose. Where better to do that than at the Princessehof, the Netherland’s national ceramics museum, which had presented their father’s last major solo exhibition? This offer came at the right time for the museum, as it aligned perfectly with the new presentation policy of paying more attention to the process of making ceramics. Moreover, the museum underwent a major renovation from 2003 and the studio could be seamlessly integrated into the new layout.

Moving the studio from Rotterdam to Leeuwarden was quite an undertaking. The museum’s core business is presenting exhibitions of finished ceramics. But this project involved ceramics in the making, vases in various stages of completion, and all the materials, tools and equipment needed to make ceramics: the raw materials for the clay, the metal oxides for the glazes, the clay mixer, the potter’s wheel, the moulds, the spray booth, the kiln and so on. This required a different approach.

Firstly, the whole studio – every cabinet, every shelf – was photographed from all angles in great detail: not in order to be able to reconstruct it exactly in the Princessehof, which was never the intention, but to document it for the future. Then everything was packed up. In particular, the unfired vases required the utmost caution: if grasped a little too tightly, they could shatter and fall to the floor in pieces. The removal lasted a full week, the construction of the studio in the museum somewhat longer.

The studio adds an extra dimension to the museum. Visitors can enter the space at any time and experience the literally earthy origins of the ceramics displayed in all the other rooms. A radio interview with Jan van der Vaart, recorded in 1997 on the occasion of his exhibition at the Princessehof, can be heard in the background.

Mother moulds

Mother moulds are needed to make the moulds for the multiples. These are solid plaster models of the vases and other objects Van der Vaart designed. He used a cutting machine to make the geometric elements from standard plaster cylinders from which he constructed a new model of vase. But sometimes he also used other materials and techniques to do this, such as round PVC tubes or the polystyrene foam spheres available in hobby shops. A surprising find in the studio was an empty shampoo bottle filled to the brim with plaster: no doubt Jan van der Vaart realised that he could cast inexpensive, perfect oval building elements using this bottle as a mould!


Karin Gaillard, former curator of European ceramics at the Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics

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