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Curious clay: against the odds, Lladro's latest project endows the traditional ceramics maker with street cred. Jaime Hayon tells Spencer Bailey why it's poised to change how we think about porcelain.

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Can porcelain figurines be cool in the 21st century? That was the question Spanish designer Jaime Hayon asked when taking on his third project as a consultant for Lladro, the Valencia-based ceramics company founded nearly 60 years ago. Looking to street art and Japanese anime--fields never before associated with high-fired clay--Hayon found inspiration and two willing collaborators: California-based artist Tim Biskup, a rising talent known for experimenting with whimsical, psychedelic imagery, and Tokyo-based Devilrobots, a five-person design collective whose street-style characters have gained an underground following worldwide. The result is The Guest, a series of limited-edition characters available in six versions and two sizes. (Only 250 of each large version were made.) Marrying Lladro's high-quality, intricate craftsmanship with an aesthetic most commonly associated with materials like vinyl and plastic, the venture is an unprecedented departure from tradition for the brand. Hayon, who's been working with Lladro since 2006, explains how the project came about and why it's bound, like much of his work, to shake up expectations.

You're known for drawing a line between art and industry:. In what ways does The Guest exemplify that?

The project started from the idea of bringing something that's very styled, something that's very much an action figure, into another platform--a platform that's much more artistic. Basically, the idea was to fuse street culture with porcelain. Tim Biskup and Devilrobots had never worked in porcelain, and there were difficulties in making that happen. Almost everything had to be handmade. The blurring of lines with this project started from there: the fact that something that's typically massproduced in vinyl or plastic could be made in porcelain, with multiple people intervening in each piece. This is the first time something like this has been done, so we're teaching the porcelain world that it's possible to bring this sort of culture into it.

Your work is so wide-ranging--furniture, art installations, interiors, sculpture. Is The Guest a piece of furniture, art, sculpture, or a mixture of it all?

It's the perfect fusion. Companies like Lladro, which have a more classical background, when it comes to street culture, they've always said: "This is not for us." The Guest opens that door. For me, this is the perfect project. It's something that has to do with formality. It has a lot of colors. A lot of graphic design is involved. The people who have been involved in creating these pieces have worked them out in a very artistic way. Normally, we would see this type of figure as something more related to toys or something more related to Japanese vinyl figures. With porcelain, though, it's very different, very delicate. When you hold it in your hands, you value it.

Why did you choose Tim and Devilrobots?

I chose them because they're iconic. Anyone following this type of street-culture art would definitely know Tim and Devilrobots. Shinichiro--he's one of the guys in Devllrobots--is such a talented guy. He draws incredibly well. I've also been following Tim, and I'm a fan of his as well. He's on the edge of street-culture art, and his work is growing a lot in Europe. Tim, Devilrobots, and I have the opportunity to show how what we can do with porcelain is completely different in the 21st century. I mean, who would've said that Lladro could paint a skull? People say, "They only make flowers, they only make really cute things." Here Lladro painted a skull, something a little more aggressive, a little more punk. And why not?

What was it like working with your collaborators?

The process was great because they're open-minded people. I asked them to use canvas and see what they could do with it. But the shape of it I made myself. There was a lot of back and forth to see what the real possibilities were. It was like making a Chinese Ming vase, but on a modern figure. We had to do it by hand, one by one, and we had to trace every texture of it. What they discovered is that there's so much opportunity with this material. Porcelain, in comparison to everything--plastic, whatever--is completely alive, and working with it and discussing it is very different. This is the beginning of a conversation on how to bring modern graphics and modern art into classical porcelain.

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What, exactly, is the rocess of creating The Guest?

Twenty-five to thirty people might touch the piece before it's put in a box. At the beginning, we play with the clay and give it the shape we want. From there, the shapes start to come alive. Then we make a plaster mold, which is sanded to create the model. When we have the model, the piece is divided into between eight and ten different molds. The hands come in one way, the legs come in another way, the head in another way, the mask in another way. Each individual piece goes from liquid to solid. Then all the pieces are put together like Legos. You just glue them together with porcelain. You put the ears, the mask, everything together until the piece is ready. You let it dry, and then you take it to be painted by between eight and ten people who pass the piece from one to the other. Little brushes, big brushes-that's how it goes. When each piece comes out of the oven, it goes to quality control. They check all the details, and then whatever's wrong that goes into the oven again. After that, if there's a bubble or a trace of something wrong, the piece gets discarded. It's a really long process. You start from zero, and it ends up being a piece that's composed by hand. Lladro is probably one of the only companies that can make pieces like this today.

You brought a street aesthetic into this project. Did that take convincing for a more traditional company like Lladro?

Obviously, it took me a long time to get them onboard with this. It's risky, it's different, and people don't want to be risky today, especially with how the economy is. But Lladro is getting more courageous, and there have been some projects in the past few years that have been changing the way we look at the company. You might have 70 percent of the company saying, "You're nuts! There's no way we're doing this!" For me, there's only one way, and that's to risk. This is the pleasure I get: to try making something different and to confront myself with what porcelain can be today and what this company can be. I learn from these risks, and Lladro learns from the whole craziness. Everything is a learning curve.

Everything takes time. Everything is a risk. Without that risk, we're not alive.

Who do you imagine the character you've created to be?

It's not a person. It's not a boy. It's not a man. It can be seen as different things. Lladro is a company that makes realistic figures, but I told them I just want The Guest to be everything, because I want people to see it as a symbol. If you look at the one by Devilrobots, it's kind of psychedelic and crazy, with these guys running all over. If you see the one I've made, there are a lot of graphics involved, and there's a whole story depending on how you look at it. The same thing happens with Tim's. His character looks a little more Japanese--a sort of hero. The perception we get from each one is very different. The figure morphs into what people want it to be. It's a hybrid object of desire.

What's the purpose of this hybrid object?

We're bringing something very modern and very cool into a world that hasn't evolved much in the last 300 years. We're bringing fresh air to something that needs to be fresh. We've taken a tradition that has a lot of history, and we're maintaining this tradition in our modern culture. Commercially, you never know what's going to happen. But I know we're learning, and we're learning a lot. A lot of roads are starting.

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You've been involved with Lladro for a while. What's it like working with the company?

My job is to bring new energy and try to focus on what we can do in the future. Nobody would have thought that Lladro would have had an exhibition at Colette or at Rossana Orlandi--in these beautiful, super trendy, modern, cool spaces. But that's what's happened. Things are happening in the proper way. The job's being done right.

How would you say The Guest corn ares to our revious Lladro projects, Fantasy and Re-Deco?

When we did Re-Deco, we just took the old pieces and made them different in color, in technique, and they became new. Fantasy was much more radical, because it questioned how we make porcelain figurines and what these pieces mean. The Guest brings us onto a different planet and creates a space that's very random and very fantastic. The pieces show a completely different angle: contemporary graphics, the borders between art and design and collectable items. Every project we do has a sort of cultural question mark on how we look at porcelain today. With my work in general--this is very important--no matter what I do, it has to be related to how we question and challenge what we're working on. That's why I work well with Lladro. I'm challenged by what they're doing. And it's fun. That's the point of this profession. If it's not fun, then why do it?

To rethink how we perceive things--is that what you like to do most?

That's part of it. One of the things I've been doing in the last few years has been questioning how we evolve and confront whatever's problematic. Companies aren't always sure what to do, and I try to look for ways for them to move forward. I say, "Let's question this. What have you never done?" In general, I've realized that my work cannot only be a commercial piece, or a less commercial piece, or a gallery piece. I'm realizing that I'm quite responsible for the conservation of very important crafts that are happening around the world. I work with different companies worldwide, and the link between them is that they're each able to make things in very unique ways with very unique techniques. I'm conserving those techniques by just using them. This is a really important philosophy. I'm not a plastic-fantastic dude. I'm almost never doing plastic stuff. I'm using what I call museum materials--those that you find in the Met, such as crystal, glass, Pyrex, or ceramics--that have been around for centuries.

In our opinion, how has our desicion evolved since launching your studio 10 years ago? Where do you see it now?

My design is just going nuts, and each day I'm having more fun. I don't care about how well I'm known or how many works I've done. I just care about reshaping the design world. I'm just learning by doing every day. That's what makes things fresh. Each time I'm starting from zero. I'm curious. This is why it ends up well, and this is why it's fun, because it's never the same, it's always like a new challenge. From lighting design, to interiors, to creating things in Japan, to making sketch projects, to making a Camper shop, to making a shoe--I've done so many different things. Every single one has something very passionate about it: its details, its finishing, the way I challenge things. Every morning I'm like, "Holy shit, man, here's another thing I have to think of." People think that there's nothing to do, but I'm telling you, there are loads of things to do, because there are loads of things to question.
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Author:Bailey, Spencer
Publication:Surface
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Feb 1, 2012
Words:1975
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