Total terracotta: the earthiest thing on earth
have depth and texture, but that also have a clean-lined modernity. Terracotta’s part of that trend,” says Tom Housden, an architect who set up his own lighting company, Hand & Eye Studio, which makes modern terracotta lights. He’s a fan of the material because “it has colour and richness, but it’s not slick and perfect,” he says. “On our lights, you can see spots of irregularity, or where the clay has been wiped. Those tiny distortions are part of the charm.”
Hand & Eye Studio’s products include sensuously bulbous oversized pendants, some dipped in white glaze for a two-tone effect, and playful-looking capsule-shaped table lamps, with terracotta bases and glass tops. Its A-beam design is something different still, a slim, linear bar suspended on near-invisible wires with a diffused strip of LEDs running inside it. There are plenty of minimal-looking products on the market already, but they are usually metal, giving a rather cold, engineered image – not something most people would want at home even if they preferred a pared-back look. Making it in terracotta has added instant warmth and domesticity: the perfect combination of craft and modernity that Housden so loves.
There’s a feelgood, buy-British side to this story, too. Terracotta may call to mind sun-soakedProvence, Iberia or Central America, but it has a long history in the UK, with native clay going into our bricks, chimney pots, sewerpipes and garden planters. Housden works with a Nottinghamshire company that uses Etruria marl clay from Staffordshire. Most lampshades are slip cast, where liquid clay is poured into plaster moulds: moisture at the outer edge is absorbed into the plaster, and the rest of the liquid is poured out, leaving behind a thin skin.
It’s an old technique perfected over a long time, but that doesn’t make working with terracotta easy. “It misbehaves, and you don’t know why,” Housden says. “We could be making a light for a year, and it’s all fine, and then suddenly they all start to go a bit oval. Is it the position in the kiln, or a slightly different type of clay? Is the mould worn out? Is the atmosphere too dry, or too humid? As anyone working with pottery will tell you, it’s not an exact science.”
Riba’s House of the Year, Caring Wood in Kent, is dominated by building products in the rust-red of the local clay. Conceived as a modern take on an oast house, the exterior consists of a series of angular smaller buildings, clad in handmade clay tiles, surrounding a central communal space containing the main living areas. Inside, terracotta has been used for the flooring of this communal area, materially linking inside and out. Terracotta floor tiles surround a tranquil pool in a central courtyard, with walls clad in timber: both timber and terracotta have a broad range of shades to them, and these subtleties become the main decorative feature of the otherwise plain room.
Barcelona-based architects Arquitectura-G used terracotta tiles to almost surreal effect for a recent house renovation project, using it on every horizontal surface, from floors to kitchen worktops and bath surrounds, with nothing but white everywhere else. Shortlisted for an award by the Spanish tile industry, Tile of Spain, the historic house has the air of a sculpture that you can walk through.
Terracotta’s recent upward trajectory is not restricted to the material. As a colour – used for paint, textiles and accessories – this distinctive shade of burnt orange is adding a richness and depth to many interiors schemes. “It’s a very neutral colour to me,” says Sophie Ashby, an interior designer at Studio Ashby. “Within the spectrum of earth tones, it therefore forms the perfect basis on which to layer other colours. I like the complementary opposites of terracotta with ice-cool pale blues and greens.”
For Ashby, it’s personal. “Terracotta is the colour of earth for me. I grew up between Devon and South Africa, and ‘Devon clay’, as well the colour of the hot earth in the bushveld, has strong red, burnt orange tones. It also reminds me of holidays in Europe and sunny climates – I spend a lot of time in Portugal and it’s the colour of roof tiles, plant pots and paved streets.”
At One Crown Place, a new tower development on the City’s fringes, Ashby took inspiration from the modern architecture of the building, which has slim vertical fins of terracotta interrupting the gleaming glass walls. Rust colours are used as an accent on chairs and soft furnishings, with the same warm tones picked up in the timber furniture.
Hotel group Soho House has also used terracotta as an accent colour in the bedrooms at Kettner’s Townhouse, its latest opening in London, with rust-coloured velvet upholstery on the chairs and sofas, made even more sumptuous by thick fringing around their bases. “The scheme for the bedrooms is a bold use of pattern on pattern,” says Linda Boronkay, Soho House’s design director. “Orange, here used in a more subdued form as a terracotta, works against the blues and greys of the William Morris wallpaper, headboard upholstery and curtains. It adds a cosiness and warmth – qualities every bedroom should have.”
The colour is also turning up in chic Seventies and Eighties-inspired colour palettes. Instead of looking to complementary shades such as blues and greys, pair terracotta with other hot colours such as pink and peach, add brass lighting and some dark green marble accessories, and suddenly
Sophie Ashby’s design for One Crown Place, right; Summer Pecan 1, a shade by Dulux, below; terracotta tiles surrounded by white, bottom, in a scheme by Arquitectura-G