Cultured Magazine

June/July 2015

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122 CULTURED BORN TO KILN A banker's passion for pottery is fired up while working in Asia, so he decided to switch careers. BY STEPHEN TREFFINGER "Making ceramics is both physically consuming and therapeutic." —Clay Cunningham There's something poetic about a guy named Clay ending up in the ceramics business, particularly one who believes pottery is capable of nothing less than reinforcing our humanity. "Having a beautiful, handmade ceramic plate or cup to interact with in our daily lives is a very powerful thing," says Clay Cunningham, founder of Spin Ceramics USA. "It forces us to slow down and take notice of experiences—our morning coffee, a meal with a friend—that we might usually overlook." Cunningham was fascinated with ceramics from an early age. He learned the process of hand building as a teenager in Abilene, Texas and later, at Texas A&M, he would spend time in the student center basement throwing pots on a wheel. "Making ceramics is a very tactile experience, both physically consuming and therapeutic." He first encountered Spin in Shanghai, where he lived while working for J. P. Morgan. During that time, he became a fan and avid collector of ceramic art. When he returned to New York in 2012, he found himself looking for a change in his life, and thought of the idea to bring the brand to the U.S. (He and a small group of investment partners convinced the company to open its first shop outside of Asia.) Cunningham found a space on Crosby Street in SoHo that was perfect to show off the wares, and the showroom is now decorated with weathered gray bricks from the old city in Shanghai, some hundreds of years old. In Spin's history, there have been 800 different designs, of which 400 have been retired over time; roughly 30 new pieces are released each year. The SoHo branch has approximately 300 available at any given time. Many of Spin's designers graduated from the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, the discipline's top under-grad and graduate program in China. Their porcelain is made with material from the nearby Kaolin Mountain, where the area has a tradition of ceramic production going back thousands of years. "The same techniques are used in the small, family owned and operated factories—except now they work by electric light instead of candles." Spin's pieces are all "high fired," more durable than those fired to a lower temperature. They also employ gas kilns, which react with the clay and glazes in such a way as to achieve some truly special colors. The "underglaze red," for example, needs a precise amount of heat and time to properly develop. Too much or too little and the piece is ruined; they throw out about 60 percent of what is fired. The Zisha clay they use for teapots is quite rare, found only in Yixing. It is typically rich red or brown, but also occurs in various other earth tones. It is left unglazed, so it is slightly porous, allowing the pots to absorb the tea's flavors. In this way, the taste of the tea evolves over time. A special set of 12 Zisha tea cups are completely handmade without the use of molds or a potter's wheel— only paddles and other basic hand-shaping tools. Cunningham definitely practices what he preaches, and continues to enjoy using the products as much as selling them. "Having an excuse to sit down and relax with a pot of tea affords one the opportunity to pay attention to what is important: relationships, beauty and life."

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