Interview: Bruce Rowe of Anchor Ceramics

Occupying a corner plot of the Pop & Scott Workshop in Northcote, Melbourne, Anchor Ceramics is the side craft of architect Bruce Rowe. By day, he can be found donning a carefully pressed collared shirt for his work at MAKE Architecture. But come weekends, he’s swathed in flannel, elbow deep in clay.

Melding his two practices, Bruce began creating ceramic wall tiles and terracotta lights for use in his architectural projects. He then ventured into planters to cloak the roots of the growing numbers of plants filling his dwellings. Using Australian-made clays and self-developed glazes, he upholds timelessness and traditional craftsmanship across his repertoire.

Can you please tell us a little about yourself, and your life with plants?
I’m an architect and a potter. I’m originally from Perth and now live in Melbourne with my wife Claire. My life revolves around designing and making: as an architect with MAKE Architecture and at Anchor Ceramics.

Growing up we had a traditional coastal suburban garden; a brick house in the middle of a quarter-acre block surrounded by lawn, with sandy garden beds for perennials at the edges. The expanse of lawn was broken up by brick paving, a barbecue and a handful of mature gum trees.

It was the trees I was most drawn to. When I climbed to the top, the biggest of these offered a quiet escape from the world below and a broad, distant perspective that reframed the relatively narrow viewpoint at ground level.

I was also fascinated with the spider plants that were growing in hanging baskets – yep, it was the late 1970s – and the way they multiplied.

This fascination with plants and nature has stayed with me. Whether it’s marvelling at the shapes or textures of native bushland, growing tomatoes, swimming in the ocean or walking amongst the big trees, my daily life is surrounded by and inspired by nature.

When and how did you first get started in ceramics?
Painting is part of my visual practice. I began making paintings in the 1990s and after nearly 20 years of making watercolours, they still inform the work I do as an architect – and now also the work I develop in the ceramics studio.

My paintings are grid based, and in late 2010 I began to think about the possibility of translating them into ceramic surfaces. After a chance meeting with a potter in early 2011, I enrolled in a ceramics night class and found myself sitting behind a wheel for the first time.

Can you describe those early days on the wheel?
Learning to throw on the wheel was initially clunky and unfamiliar, but early on this changed – I felt as if I was remembering a forgotten skill rather than learning a new one. The night classes were an essential grounding, and it eventually became clear that I needed to make ceramics a central part of my creative life. I purchased a wheel and not long after moved into a studio in the Pop & Scott Workshop. Anchor Ceramics has unfolded somewhat organically from there over the last two and a half years.

Anchor Ceramic pendant lights in the Pop & Scott showroom. Pop & Scott Feather Top Table, Stoneware by Amy Leeworthy, Pop & Scott drum stools, and hand carved and painted Stumpies. Rocky Side Board, Dream Weaver light shade, Luna Series Painting by Bobby Clark, Custom made stone counter by Den Holm.

How do your architectural and ceramics practices complement each other?
As an architect, I use drawings and models as a means of communicating the design of a building for others to build. The design process doesn’t stop when construction starts, and whilst I’m heavily involved in the physical making of the building, it is always in an indirect, hands-off fashion.

In the ceramics studio, I use a design process that is informed by my architectural knowledge. As such I make drawings and models to communicate design intent, but I am also the maker. There is a direct and physical connection between designing and making.

So for me, that is where the connection sits – in simple terms, the lessons learned in making are fed back into designing, and vice versa. Of course, in reality, it’s a feedback loop that is anything but simple; it’s subtle and indirect. It’s always there and will offer up unexpected ways to solve a problem when least expected.

Do you have design philosophies that you apply across your disciplines?
I don’t have a prescribed way of doing things. I’m motivated by quietness, light, material and beauty. It’s these qualities I aim to see authentically reflected in what I design and make.

Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
My process at Anchor is definitely grounded in my design background. Architecture has taught me the discipline of drawing, modeling, testing and resolving as much as possible before physically making anything. Each project is effectively a one-off, large-scale prototype.

Trying to figure out as much as possible beforehand is really the only way to manage the significant time and cost implications of making a building. You don’t get a second go at making the same building.

Ceramics, however, has taught me that whilst I can bring this kind of design thinking to the table, serendipity, intuition and faith are also just as important. You just have to trust that it’s going to work out.

Most pieces start with a drawing… the earliest drawings record those fleeting flashes of ideas that seem to arrive randomly and leave almost as quickly. I think with a pencil in my hand, and I have learned that I need to get the ideas out of my head and down on the page in order to bring them into the world.

How does nature inform your practice?
Nature will always be my greatest teacher. On a direct, surface level these lessons are about beauty, texture, form, colour, pattern and line. From a less tangible perspective, the lessons are quieter, but more powerful – cycle, timelessness and silence… the kind of grounded smallness you feel when you look at the horizon line across the ocean.

Do you find winter is a time to knuckle down in the studio or take a much-needed reprieve?
Winter is definitely a productive time. There’s always something quite satisfying about working away in a warm studio when it’s cold and wet outside.

What is your current relationship status with plants?
Across my adult life I’ve now made a couple of gardens, most of them from scratch. They’ve tended to be productive rather than purely ornamental – there is such a great thrill in cooking a meal with something you have grown with your owns hands. We currently live in small house on big property surrounded by elm and oak trees. The house wraps around an even smaller courtyard that is filled with ferns and mosses and a pond that has become the place to bathe for many of the local birds. It’s a special place that is a daily reminder of the changing seasons.

What’s next on the horizon for you?
It’s a busy time at Anchor currently, with the three streams of the business – lighting, outdoor and tiles – all growing rapidly. I’m really passionate about keeping the design and production of the things we make at Anchor in Australia. Too often we look offshore for a bigger return in the short term, ultimately at the expense of a whole swag of struggling industries in the longer term. Even within the context of a small business like Anchor, we have the capacity to employ and teach skills to young practitioners and to support other local businesses that have similar ideals.

There are also lots of new things in development. I’ve spent the last 25 years filling sketchbooks with drawings of ideas, so at least the next 25 years will be spent bringing these ideas into the world to share.