One of the newer additions to the Goodhood Life Store, Studio Arhoj was originally founded in Tokyo in 2006 before relocating to the harbour district of Copenhagen, where it resides today. Studio Arhoj creates unique and affordable objects that explore the relationship between Scandinavian simplicity and traditional Japanese culture. Whilst in Copenhagen we paid a visit to the studio to talk with founder, Anders, about inspiration, the manufacturing process and the future of ceramics.
Can you tell us a bit about Studio Arhoj and how it started?
Sure. I used to be a graphic designer, which I still am, and I worked for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation for seven years. I wanted to do something different so I quit my job and moved to Japan to study Japanese. I'd never been to Japan but I was sure I was going to find something new there, and when I went there it just totally transformed me as a designer. I walked around for months on the street just in pure happiness. There are some nice aspects that match Scandinavian culture really well. You don’t have to decorate every surface or cover products in plastic and colours. Both the Japanese and the Scandinavians like to see the raw, honest materials like fur and rock and marble and wood.
When I came back after a year I just wanted to do something along these thoughts so I started a design studio mostly doing illustration and packaging design and branding, but always trying to merge these two cultures. Then, three years ago I met a ceramicist and we decided to do some fun things together, and the first day, by accident, we created the Ghosts, Penholders and lava people, just by playing around in the studio.
Then, two years ago, we took our studio to Formland, the biggest design fair in Denmark, and the owner of Hay asked if she could order one hundred Ghosts for their store. We were like "Sure!" Two years later and here we are.
What does Studio Arhoj mean? What does ‘Arhoj’ mean?
That’s my name!
You said it was quite a random discovery, producing the ghosts etc. on the first day, where does inspiration for your other products come from?
People always say ‘everything’ when they get asked that question. But I think I get inspiration from just sitting down and focusing, and drawing. Trying not to think about actually producing something; jI basically just work until an idea pops into my head. I’m a really big fan of old children's television shows, I’ve just read the entire Wind in the Willows, and I’m watching the entire ’84 stop motion series. It’s super scary! It's very dark and creepy. I love weird television shows like Daria from MTV in the 1990's as well. Comics and cartoons that are in this weird field between being a grown up and being a child, I think that’s really inspiring.
How long does it take to make a Ghost for instance?
A Ghost takes about one and a half months. We buy the clay from different stockists, we get some clay all the way from England actually. Clay is a cheap material but when you transport it across the world it gets really expensive. So first you knead the clay, like bread, and then you throw the ghost out of the entire lump on the pottery wheel. Normally, from ten kilos we get fifty Ghosts. The first day you throw them, then the next day when it’s dried to a leather hard state, you wipe it off with a sponge, make the edges round, and you stamp it with the year. Every year I distribute new stamps to all potters so we are up to date. Because it's low fire clay, its really important to dry it really slowly otherwise it cracks. We dry for two to three weeks and in a moist area preferably. Once it is dry you bisque fire it, which is the first fire; around 900 degrees. Then it is ready for glazing. We then glaze them, with a mixture of different glazes, just by dipping or spraying. The ones that have the glaze dripping is where we have used two different glazes and one of them is flussing; it has a lower melting point and melts faster than other minerals.
That’s always the fun part, especially after you've glazed everything, fired the kiln for two days and then open to see the results of all your work. Because we do a lot of experiments in our kilns we don’t just mass-produce, every time we open after a fire it’s a surprise. Sometimes a really bad surprise - but you’ve gotta try out things!
Glaze is actually super technical; you have to be very very educated in minerals, chemicals and melting points. As a designer, I don’t claim to be such an expert, I just try mixing ready-made glaze and putting colours in, dilute it and experiment like oil colours or also make something from scratch using minerals and oxides. We don’t really take it so seriously. Many times, you know, things go wrong – sometimes it can be beautiful and sometimes it’s just sharp like glass and broken off so we can't use it. We just had fifteen pen holders destroyed by a new glaze we tried on some Ghosts. We always try to maximise the space in the kiln, so in between Pen holders we put the smaller Ghosts, and this new glaze exploded over everything. When we’ve glazed it and it's dried we usually dry it for two or three days, because you don’t want water inside the kiln. We then fire them and it takes another two to three days and cool them down again. Glaze is essentially glass, and as we know you can’t just throw hot water onto glass, it will explode, so it has to be cooled down really slowly. Then we apply the eyes, which are screen printed in big sheets with ceramic glaze, by hand. They dry again for one day and we put them in the kiln once more for three days. So it’s a very long process - a total of 3 kiln fires.
Do you think your process relies on happy accidents?
Sometimes. But we also document every process now, so if I hire a new employee at some point they can go look up how long you dip this glaze etc. If you glaze something for two seconds too long, it runs in the fire afterwards and can destroy an entire kiln plate.
So you have to have some kind of control, but we still try to experiment every day, because it’s never fun if it’s the same, you need this kind of surprise element in your work. Even though you do need to produce a lot and do it steadily to be able to afford to keep this whole machine going and pay your employees and the bills. We are looking for a bigger space now, so we can have more potters and more kilns, because the delivery time when a store orders something is currently nine to ten weeks and that is not fun for anyone! We need to be able to scale up, to supply the demand. But at the same time stay small and local because that's what makes our studio special, I think.
Just looking into your office there, the board games and the books, is that part of your inspiration as well?
Yes, most of the stuff is my production. I’ve done lots of books and product packaging in the past, kid’s products and stuff like that. Some people don’t surround themselves with stuff they’ve done, but I like to keep it all around for company.
What do you think the future holds for craft and ceramics in Denmark?
It’s a complicated question because, I think in some ways I’m afraid it’s a fashion, something people are really interested in right now but what if it goes away again like it did in the 70’s? A whole part of England where there was a big stoneware industry closed down in the late 70’s/ early 80's and it happened here as well in Denmark. But on the other hand I think it’s always interesting to have something that is hand made - to touch and feel a product that has not come out of a machine as long as you can afford it, and that’s the juxtaposition. Because on one hand people want something that’s really hand made and crafted, but they don’t really want to pay for it. I have a small stockist in Texas, and people don’t have as much as money in that area as London for example, so even though their customers love my pieces they don’t really have the money to pay for them. That’s why I’m afraid at some point that the mass production will catch on and try to mimic this aesthetic. Then it will all die off because people are over seeing this crafty stuff everywhere, and suddenly everyone wants metals and super hardcore simple Bauhaus stuff. I can already see it in the horizon, in some stores. That's why I hope that all these trends can exist together. As a self-employed designer I'm just interested in: 1) Keeping the business alive, and 2) being able to freely do the stuff that pops up in my head without having to ask someone if they can approve. As long as those two things exist then hopefully I can go with the flow of what happens, and my design studio can be doing a lot of other stuff other than ceramics that can keep us doing relevant stuff that doesn't look like everyone else's things. Right now we’re doing glass products and wood products such as wooden containers, inspired by Japanese tea jars. So it's not just clay.
You mentioned the synergy between Scandinavia and Japan, what do you think that is?
If you look at Italian design and Danish design for example, you can definitely see the difference, even though Italy is part of Europe and not very far from Denmark, you often see a very different approach to design (strictly speaking): a certain need to cover everything in a decorative manner, they can never just do a simple cup. It seems there is often a love for having to put seven colours on it, a little flower, a little foot and a stamp and it’s just too much in most Scandinavian eyes. Southern European is often very maximalist and intense. You know, cool in a way, but if you look at Danish designers, they have always tried to cut and narrow down and throw everything unnecessary decor away, which is something you also observe in Japanese design. You don’t see this in England either actually. If you go to an English home, you see lots decorated surfaces, little flowers on the wallpaper and porcelain vases and a little teacup and curtains with cute little patterns on. It’s more traditional and less stark, minimal or raw. I think it's because Denmark is pressed together between Middle Europe and the more nature focused countries of Sweden and Norway, so we’re in this area where we like to surround ourselves with things that have a connection with nature, colder climates, clean lines and less frivolous adventures in form and colour. It’s the same with Japan. From old times they have celebrated the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic: an approach where you express humbleness through decoration and home building. So if there’s a fault in a cup or you serve a soup in a handmade uneven bowl, it makes it even more perfect in itself. It reflects the fact that it's made by hand by a human being, not a rich emperor. A Wabi-Sabi table setting consists of many different bowls, cups and plates – nothing goes together, which is to symbolise the humbleness of being poor and it’s the Japanese, or actually ancient Buddhist, way of staying grounded, focused and simple. It’s quite the opposite of many Western countries where you can have a matching tea set for sixteen people with gold deco, meant to show that you are well off and can afford expensive, shiny, perfect things.
Have you had any bad accidents [with the process]?
Everyday, haha. Just yesterday I dropped three of my Orbs on the floor because I was rolling too fast with the wagons and it tipped over. We don’t have enough space here. But yeah, no injuries, no deaths - yet! (laughing); extreme ceramics! I’ve seen a kiln of maybe eight hundred exploded Ghosts, you open it up and everything looks like dust, basically.
It's interesting looking at the Ghosts and I guess it’s quite Japanese as well that everything has got a consciousness. It’s like you are giving these bits of ceramic a personality and a life. Do you approach it like that?
Definitely. I’m very interested and inspired by the Shinto religion in Japan. There are two religions; the Buddhist religion, which you usually use for celebrations and death, and the Shinto religion, which is like the everyday religion. They manage to have two religions side by side in society. The Shinto religion is the very old nature one, believing that everything is alive, so a rock or a tree has a spirit. I think that is really beautiful and not totally off point. I mean, you walk around in nature and you feel the life evolving around you. I just think that even though things don’t have eyes, they have a soul. So when we develop these products, we sort of play with that idea, that even though it’s just an inanimate object it can still have a soul. As soon as you put eyes on, people get it. In the production process of the Ghosts, when we come to the stage were we apply the eyes we always try to find something on each little Ghost that makes it unique or interesting, like a bubble where the mouth could be or a hat. I think that this aesthetic and production process where you can get something unique but still affordable, is definitely a small hole we found in the market and which I am thankful for.