art, decor

SA’s ceramics scientist

Roxanne Kotze

Cape Town-based artist John Bauer’s name is synonymous with ceramics and innovation in South Africa. He had collections of his work appearing in multiple South African museums before he even turned 30, and he’s renowned around the world for his technical breakthroughs and developments in the field of porcelain. Most notably, he’s famed for resurrecting an ancient Sung Dynasty technique that allows images to be embossed on porcelain so that they rise out of the clay rather than being impressed into it. Similarly, he’s widely recognised for his focus on the theme of love and famously created a large series of numbered romance-themed bowls that together tell the story of his life when placed in order. Recently, this pottery guru joined forces with arguably the most renowned restaurateur in South Africa, Luke Dale-Roberts, to supply tableware for his new Cape Town-based restaurant Naturalis. We sat down with John to chat about this work, his creative process and much more.

Johna These earlier works of John's saw him preserve hand-knitted woolen hats in porcelain in a bowl-like form.

What inspired you to first go into pottery? At the age of 12 I was given a ball of clay by my extramural art teacher. She quickly realised my talent and enrolled me in after-school classes, so by day I was trapped in the drudgery of school and by night I made pots. I just loved the endless potential that a ball of clay held. You are renowned for your inventive techniques and ability to break boundaries in the porcelain world. Could you tell us more about how you pull this off? I have a knack for intuitively understanding complex chemistry, which allows me to engineer new materials that behave in very abstract ways. Such inventions usually follow on the tail of a problem I’ve been playing with in my mind. I do like creating beautiful porcelain objects, but because I’m a scientist and an inventor first, I thrive on creating new technologies and machines that allow us to be competitive and that are artworks in their own right.
The interior of John's Dioroid Porcelain bowls. The interior of John's Dioroid Porcelain bowls.

Could you give us an example of one of your cutting-edge developments? My latest breakthrough is what I call Dioroid Porcelain (the term hasn’t been coined yet as it is entirely new). Found objects are immortalised in the porcelain as an image using a responsive emulsion of chemicals that I devised while attempting to create bulletproof porcelain. It allows me to quickly and fairly accurately capture ghostly images – they’re halfway between an X-ray and a photograph – and the possible applications for industry are truly exciting. How do you come up with the ideas for your creations? By working ceaselessly and carelessly. I steep myself in my work by spending hours every day in my studio, and I listen to what the clay wants to do. I’m a slave to it. I never force it, I never argue. This allows room for ideas to emerge and for them to become brilliant. Sometimes, I land up with a masterpiece in my hands.
John4 The interior of a signature porcelain bowl made using Sung Dynasty techniques. The images and inscriptions narrate John's earliest story of love, that of his parents.

You’ve been quoted as saying, ‘I want everybody on the planet to have one of my bowls. My bowls change people’s lives for the better. My bowls have saved marriages.’ Could you tell us more about how your bowls have this magical quality? I write my philosophies on bowls and people choose them to express the things they’d never dare to whisper. For example, there was a widow whose husband died shortly after Christmas. He’d given her a bowl of mine as a present that year. This was the only gift he’d given her in their many years of marriage that clearly stated his love. You’ve been in the game for quite some time. How have you seen the ceramic landscape in South Africa change? South African buyers and collectors have been slow out of the starting blocks – in the past something had to make it big on the international stage before they saw its value – but there is a new generation of young and delightfully arrogant collectors who trust their own opinion. Collecting art has finally become a matter of heart. And it’s a great time to purchase South African ceramics. There are more professional potters here today than there has ever been, particularly in Cape Town, which is a world pottery centre. Our Cape ceramics used to be based on the Anglo-Oriental tradition, but there’s been a swing toward a more American-Canadian style of pottery, which is very expressive and individualistic. This shift blends well with our traditional African pottery, seen most notably in the work of Andile Dyalvane. He’s a great example of a tri-tradition potter, travelling to the East and the West before bringing it all back here to the melting pot of the South.
John5 John's work area with a Dioroid Porcelain bowl that's been chemically imprinted with the images of a cricket, a praying mantis and a lizard that John found in various places.

How did it first come about that you started ceramic work for Luke Dale-Roberts’s restaurants? A few years back at a Ceramics Southern Africa event, Luke selected three very unusual examples of my work with a depth of concentration on his face that I seldom see. And the rest is history. We work well together with a similarly obsessive but open-minded approach to creating that allows for freedom to innovate. It’s great to see that restaurateurs have realised that white plates depreciate in value but art becomes more valuable and adds value to the meal served on it. What inspired the look of the pieces you created for The Test Kitchen and for Naturalis? I try not to limit myself by designing with an end target or specific client in mind. Instead, it’s always a thrill seeing what works people choose. The works that Luke chose were influenced by my dominant theme – the noble hidden in the overlooked, the exquisite secreted in the banal – and images included a mielie cob, a sea urchin and other commonplace treasures that I elevated to the stature of art.
JohnTiles7 A panel of matchbox-sized porcelain tiles made using both Dioroid and Sung Dynasty techniques.

What are you working on right now and what can we look forward to from you in the future? Most recently I’ve been playing with how light emanates from within porcelain with porcelain windowpanes and large tile panels constructed from a series of smaller light-filtering matchbox-sized tiles. I invented the matchbox tile in response to people’s need to move money out of the country in the form of art (especially with the vulnerable rand). A shoebox filled with my matchbox tiles at R100 each represents a considerable sum of money that increases in value over time. As for the future, well, I’m not even sure what to expect from myself, but I look forward to working more closely with entrepreneurs and industrialists as I hope to sell my technology.
JohnTiles6 A close-up of Dioroid Porcelain matchbox tiles depicting Tchaikovsky, sea urchins, coins and other found objects.

You can view John’s work at Stellenbosch’s Dorp Street Gallery, the Kalk Bay Modern art gallery, the Cape Gallery and the South African Ceramics and Pottery Centre based at his studio in Cape Town. John also offers pottery classes every Friday between 10am and 12pm at his studio in Harfield Village (classes are fully booked until July 2016). Sign up at or via his Facebook page.