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In Conversation: Inside the mind of Amy Frankie Smith, Flux Surface

Words: Polly

Photos:  Flux Surface

“It is the most plastic of materials in its raw state, suffering itself to be shaped, with marvellous readiness, into every conceivable delicacy and variety of form and movement, yet when once fired, these forms and delicacies become everlasting; these movements and rhythms of the ornamentation preserve with the persistence every poetic and airy nothing that the creative imagination has imparted to them” Louis Sullivan c1890

Tell us a little about your creative journey?

Landing a job in industry straight from an arts degree was pretty rare in ceramics, but turned out to be amazing and formative for me. Based in a workshop with a small, young team making architectural ceramics for restoration projects, I handled tonnes of clay and got involved in most of the processes.

One of the biggest jobs we had was remaking the 1m square column for the Bluebird Cafe in Chelsea, London (that had been accidentally knocked over and needed full replacement). I specified the glaze booth and learned how to spray glaze (pictured above), as it was the first glazing project for the company. It was fun and challenging and just fab to be working with clay every day. I loved my colleagues and the job really didn’t feel like work most days. I learnt a lot and mostly that working hands on in a workshop with my material was definitely for me!

You spent 8 weeks in the USA as part of your Winston Churchill Fellowship, how did this opportunity come about and how did the experience influence your work? 

I am so proud and grateful to have been awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship (@wcmtuk). I was studying my Masters in Historic Environment Conservation with Birmingham University, at Ironbridge, and was deciding what my dissertation should focus on. A wonderful tutor on the course suggested I apply and I just went for it. This opportunity really fine tuned my specialism. I spent 8 weeks visiting key locations, companies and individuals in the USA to learn more about their approaches to architectural ceramics, for conservation vs new build, compared with what we do here in the UK.  This work joined up my practical ceramics work with my architectural interest and was the seed for my long term vision. I’m really excited to work with porcelain in interiors and one day within the fabric of the building, perhaps, to use translucency in architecture to make spaces that are inspirational and beautiful to occupy.

Your designs have a purity and elegance to them, who, or what inspires you? 

Thank you, I try to allow the material speak for itself. The way porcelain diffuses light is so beautiful and lends itself wonderfully to lighting. I am very material led in how I design and work, but I do take inspiration from all sorts of places too!  The forms and the essence of my work is really from the beach outside my studio – the movement of the waves, the smooth surfaces of the pebbles, even the wind and the sound of the sea gets into my studio. Aesthetically I am drawn to quite dynamic and expressive forms, I love huge landscapes. I spent a summer in Wisconsin, USA in my 20’s and the shapes in the fields still resonate with me. I take a lot of photos of motorways and bridges and pylons! The monoliths of our modern world. That’s the sculptural expression in me. Perhaps that’s the engineers in my family, also running through me.

I love architecture, so a few designers and architects and particularly how they work have inspired me. How Louis Sullivan sculpted for architecture was so unique and his vision and passion for what he believed possible is incredible (above Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in NY). I love Zaha Hadid’s aesthetic and specifically her drawings and background work, its beautiful on its own and fascinating how she turns these ideas into buildings.

Porcelain is usually associated with dinnerware, when did you realise it’s translucent qualities would suit lighting? 

I was making more expressive large sculptural pieces in white stoneware when I kind of happened across porcelain clay and was mesmerised by its incredible translucency when lit. I realised that by using porcelain I could carve and sculpt with light. I like being challenged by the material (porcelain is difficult as a clay to work with) I respond to working within the parameters of lighting and light sculpture, but pushing the edges of what can be done with the material, technically.

The more I work with interiors I realise how attractive porcelain’s diffused light is for homes and to live around. I keep the forms simple to allow the natural qualities of the material to shine. (above: Rising Tide – illuminated kitchen installation).

Which do you enjoy most, design stage or making. How long does each part of the process take? 

I’m quite a disciplined person, so I really like the production stages, working to fulfill orders and to produce efficiently is really satisfying (and at times disappointing as porcelain is a challenging clay to work with I expect a level of loss in the firings). I’d say that’s my favourite stage, studio, jeans, radio on and hands in clay, making-to-order for days at a time. And the best bit is producing pieces that will be loved for a lifetime and enjoyed daily. 

But I’m an artist at heart so I keep my sketchbook close and love the raw creative early stages bit. It’s a bit scary too, that unknown beginning bit where an idea could go in any direction, which is I guess part of the thrill, trying to find the solution that really ticks. And perhaps why I love porcelain too, as it keeps me on my toes!

Lighting is rather technical so the functionality of the piece ie. how it will sit on the wall or where the power goes etc, is really important. I have learned from experience to progress the aesthetic alongside the technical as the two won’t come together effectively at the end and you end up with a compromised form otherwise. There’s usually a light bulb or two next to my bag of clay and nuts and bolts on my computer desk! People are often surprised that my steel rule and set square are my favourite and most commonly used tools.


Any stand out project or client to date?

I’ve found myself working in collaboration with interior designers recently. I really love combining expertise to create something new that is spot on for the environment its conceived for. 

The Pebble light (above) was co-created in this way. I worked really closely with US interior designers, Basic Projects (@basic_projects). They wanted to use porcelain lights for their new restaurant design but couldn’t find a fixture that worked. Kate is so great to work with, she has really clear design ideas and is super enthusiastic. Her vision for the space, alongside an idea I was working on at my bench were the starting point. We worked the brief together and off I went. Here’s the project in Dezeen.

Working in this bespoke way for lighting allows the designer to specify their precise needs, the size, scale or simple proportion that they need, type of light or the actual bulb and the result is totally unique lighting for that function. I really encourage designers to come to me if they have an idea or can’t find something that they are looking for and we can create something beautiful together.

Working alone can be isolating, where do you go for a human fix?

I’ve found connecting with like minds via networking groups fun and inspirational. I feel rather lucky to have connected to a wonderful group of women in business, through the The Design Trust (@thedesigntrust) and their yearly planner. We meet up monthly as the South East Accountability Group, to share goals, ideas, advice and generally cheer each other on. I feel like I found my tribe!

Also, DecorCafe (@decorcafenet) recently launched a Brighton group with a fab calendar of events and I’ve met some super people there. I’m hoping I can attend a couple more before the end of the year! I’m also lucky to have a couple of friends locally working in connected industries; Interior designer and mum friend @claretophaminteriors and conservator and clever sculptor @stuccatora who are fantastic to catch up with over a coffee, although not as often as I would like!

Your dream project/opportunity would be…? 

I’m enjoying working on custom work, so my dream project would be a large site specific installation, working with the architect and lighting consultants for a new space. The piece would be sculptural and flowing and would be lit for a striking shadow play across the walls and translucency, but it would also be beautiful and subtly translucent in natural light too. Can you picture it? I’ve got lots of ideas on this, so I’m thinking of making domestic scale art mobiles (until the dream commissioner finds me).

What are you reading / watching right now?

We’ve been watching Mars on Netflix. It’s partly real life interviews from Nasa and Elon Musk etc, but then dramatised and set in 2033 as we try to terraform mars. It keeps my husbands nerdy side happy, whilst satisfying my need for escapism too!

What was your very first job? 

I worked in a Chandlery in the Midlands as a Saturday girl when I was a school. I loved sailing and it was very specialist. We used to joke as it’s very much a landlocked town, that we were equidistant to any sea!

Your guilty pleasure?

This is a bit geeky too, but I fell in love with learning the guitar over the summer! I’m a bit obsessive about it and pick it up for 5 or 10 minutes fingerstyle practice whenever I can. I inherited a beautiful vintage archtop. I think it’s changed my life and I hope I will play forever (eventually getting good?) So I am booking all sorts of live gigs for ‘research’ and to swoon at guitars whenever I can.

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