London-based tile designer, Lubna Chowdhary, started her career as a conceptual ceramic artist, producing large installations of quasi-industrial forms which were a clear comment on the scale of waste generated by developed countries. However, as she became increasingly disillusioned by the indifference of gallery owners and the general public to her work, Lubna Chowdhary began to feel that she was actually starting to contribute to society’s waste rather than providing an effective artistic critique. “There is a real issue of unnecessary objects cluttering up our world, and my sculptural work was themed on the issue of mass consumption, but I increasingly began to realise that there I was, contributing to the same process.”
Always fascinated by the act of making things with her own hands, Lubna Chowdhary studied wood, metal and ceramics at Manchester Polytechnic and then followed up her BA with an MA at The Royal College of Art. “I specialised in ceramics, finding that there was an immediacy with clay I couldn’t find in other materials. I expect it is something to do with my Indian background. Sewing and cooking are expected skills among Indian women; a virtuous combination of duty and enjoyment.”
“After nine or ten years working as a sculptor, largely on my own, I got together with a friend who was a graphic designer with a view to changing direction. We initially conceived a range of plate designs, but this evolved into the idea of working with designers and architects on tile, where Ian’s graphics were enhanced by the visual and tactile qualities of glaze. We produced a portfolio of sample tiles, in essence collages of flat ceramics, and then set out to win some commissions. Naturally, one of the first people we approached was Sir Terence Conran, who liked what he saw, arranged a meeting and then commissioned us to produce a large mural, 6 metres by 1 metre, for the Alcazar Restaurant in Paris. We assembled this on a wooden base and, essentially, hung it like a painting. It looked really good and does to this day.”
However, as Lubna Chowdhary subsequently found, getting commissions is rarely this simple. “I realise now how lucky we were to get such a prestigious commission so soon. Most interior designers aren’t really that interested in longevity. There is such a fast churn in interior concepts for shops, restaurants, etc, that few can justify putting what is, to be fair, a luxury item in the budget. My partner, Ian, then got busy on his own graphics projects, so I settled down to producing my own range of tile designs, as well as completing a range of other commissions, such as the Itsu sushi restaurant in London and, more recently, an underpass in Hillingdon.
“I am still drawn to the idea that every tile that I make should be a unique hand-made item. I treat my tiles as an artwork that people can commission, but I have found that people find it very hard to visualise the finished tile. My portfolio of standard designs thus allows people to see the finished item before they buy, although every tile is still made by hand. This is important for me, otherwise my studio would just become a small factory. I’ve been approached by companies who would like to manufacture my designs in greater volume, but I believe that the true beauty of my tiles lies in the fact that they are all hand glazed.”
Of course, taking this purist approach, as Lubna Chowdhary realises, is a limiting factor. “I’ve still got to decide whether to keep on making every tile myself or to work with a sympathetic manufacturer. I currently compromise by buying in most of my biscuit and using industrial glazes alongside my own formulations. I show six ranges on my website – http://www.lubnachowdhary.co.uk – that I keep in stock, but few people want to buy tactile materials off a website.”
Of the six designs available ex-stock, Target is a 60 by 60mm bold circular design in four colourways: neutral, blue/green, multi-coloured and red/orange. Each tile is unique within its colour theme, with the glazes applied by hand in layers. Trust is a 100 by 100mm tile with a simplified floral pattern which uses an exuberant multi-coloured palette. Jack is a four tile panel, measuring 400 by 400mm, with a design inspired by the organic geometry of flowers, and mixes dark hues with rich reds.
Blaze is a moulded tile with a three-dimensional surface of concentric circles. The tiles are hand-glazed using a broad palette of glossy red glazes ranging from bright orange to cherry red. Each tile measures 100 by 100mm.
Noble uses two strong shapes, a cross and a circle, in both midnight blue and matador red on a 60 by 60mm tile.
Reverie is a border tile comprising cut strips of hand-glazed tiles in either blue/green or red/orange colourways. 150mm high, each piece is built up using strips of between 10mm and 30mm in width and retails for £200 per linear metre.
Hope is a patchwork effect tile in fresh blue and green colourways, creating endless permutations of colour. The tiles measure 60 by 60mm.
The final stock design is Echo, a 60 by 60mm tile that features glossy black circles on a matt creamy ground, and vice versa.
As every piece is handmade, Lubna Chowdhary’s prices (which start at £7 per tile) clearly restrict her potential for sales through retailers. Despite this, she is currently supplying one up-market European retailer, with stores in Brussels, Antwerp and Paris, with decorative pieces to enliven a particular range of Morroccan tiles and she is interesting in exploring similar arrangements with UK retailers who want to add value to designer ranges.
It is clear from Lubna Chowdhary’s work that she is a ceramicists with both a highly developed design sensibility and a real feel for glaze. The rich reds and oranges that characterise her work are unusually intense; the effect achieved by firing at low temperatures and carefully layering the glazes. Her most recent work, large stylised geometric pieces inspired by natural floral geometry, are painstaking achieved by covering each tile with a masking tape shield prior to glazing. “I suppose I would spray tiles if I had the facility and felt it would achieve the results I want. However, I really enjoy the practical element of tile making. It is this that keeps me creatively satisfied and I am much happier producing one-off design to commission than endless batches of similar designs.”
Exhibiting at shows like 100% Design, The Chelsea Craft Show and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair have brought private and corporate commissions from as far afield as the USA, while raising Lubna’s profile among the consumer press. However, although large commissions are few and far between, Lubna Chowdhary remains committed to the medium of tiles. “I like to think of my tiles as a type of artistic heirloom, but one with a practical application. Tile is a really flexible medium and I am always thinking up new designs and new techniques. I like the way simple geometric shapes work on a tile’s surface and how they can be augmented by the endless array of glaze colours and effects. There are not many fields which offer so much fresh inspiration every day.”
Using hand mixed glazes, each piece that is designed and produced by Lubna Chowdhary in her studio, is individual, which makes her work ideal for commissions. Theses have included the Alcazar restaurant in Paris, Itsu Sushi restaurant in London, Bradford’s Cartwright Hall, Coggan Crawford Architects, New York and several private installations. All her pieces combine traditional craft techniques with contemporary colour combinations, abstract motifs and graphic line.
Site specific works for domestic or commercial, interior or exterior spaces are undertaken following consultations to assess the client’s needs. Both compositions or tiles can be produced. The compositions feature numerous ceramic tiles in various sizes, designs and colours which together form a strong coherent image. Commissioned tiles are either selected by the client from a sample range or made to order to the client’s own design. As these are bespoke services, the size, colour and surface designs of the tiles can be tailored to meet most requirements. Tile samples, drawings, digital images of work in progress and fixing plans for tiling contractors can be provided. Compositions can also be fixed and finished onto wooden panels in the studio, to simplify installation on site.
This article first appeared in Tile UK, Spring 2003.