When Jim Olson was designing the Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art in Denver, he knew he had stiff architectural competition. Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, an outrageously angular structure down the road, is clad in shimmering titanium. The nearby Clyfford Still Museum by Brad Cloepfil has a taciturn façade of corrugated concrete. To stand out from these shades of grey, Olson embraced colour, cladding his low-slung building in a material more commonly associated with plant pots and roof tiles: terracotta.
Olson was drawing on the architecture of Seattle, where his firm, Olson Kundig, has its headquarters. In the 19th century terracotta became a popular material for elaborate façades because it delivered the same effects as carved stone but for a fraction of the price. In Seattle, though, it had extra appeal: a fired clay that cannot burn was especially attractive after most of the city was destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. In the 20th century, when architects turned to glass and steel, it fell out of fashion. Now designers, bored with modernism’s hard edges, are working with it again.
One of them is Chris Wolston, an artist from Brooklyn who makes terracotta furniture. Several years ago, he was in Medellín, Colombia, where he noticed that the builders responsible for the city’s old mud-brick homes left their fingerprints behind. He later applied that effect on a smaller scale, creating a series of terracotta chairs and stools with delightfully dimpled, lumpy surfaces. “There’s a playfulness to terracotta, which lends itself to coming up with new ideas and forms,” says Wolston.
Bari Ziperstein, a ceramicist in Los Angeles, was drawn to terracotta’s earthiness. For her series of planters, Futurist Primitive, she borrowed patterns from the pre-Colombian craft of South America and forms from brutalist architecture. Ziperstein loves terracotta’s unvarnished beauty. So does Eny Lee Parker, another Brooklyn-based designer. Her Ballard table has a glass top held up with hand-thrown terracotta jugs. It was the highlight of last year’s Sight Unseen Offsite, a design fair in New York. “I really love the idea that it’s from the ground,” she says. “It’s very romantic.”