Earlier this year Nicola Rutt was shortlisted for The Architects’ Journal Emerging Woman Architect of The Year Award, but when she’s not leading a 15-strong team at one of Britain’s foremost architecture practices, Nicola gets her hands dirty throwing ceramics in Hoxton. We discovered how designing buildings compares with working in clay and learned how, for Nicola, the Modernist principles of function and proportion are a constant in both her architectural work and in her ceramics…
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m an architect, living in St Albans and working in Clerkenwell in central London. I have worked for Hawkins\Brown architects for 14 years and have been a Partner there for the last three years. I’m married to architect Seth Rutt, who shares a passion for architecture, photography and art among other things. I’ve been throwing pots under the tutelage of Nicola Tassie in Hoxton for over seven years and have never tired of it. I also have a passion for 20th-century architecture and I am a trustee of the Twentieth Century Society.
Did you have a very creative upbringing?
Yes, my parents encouraged me and my sister to draw, paint and make things. Both of them are creative. My grandad painted in oils and there were always paints of some kind lying around. I loved art at school and took every opportunity to go to galleries.
What’s the most challenging or exciting project you’ve worked on at Hawkins\Brown?
I’m currently working on the refurbishment of the press and broadcast centres at the Olympic Park. They are going to become part of a new digital community for tech industries as well as for artisans and makers. It’s called ‘Here East’. This project is both challenging and exciting – it includes a mix of uses from university to work space, retail, maker space and broadcast studios. We have also recently completed a lovely project for Drake’s, a British manufacturer of men’s accessories, which was a refurbishment of a 1930’s building in Hackney to provide workshops, offices and apartments.
How did you discover ceramics?
I did an Art A-level and half the course was ceramics. I really enjoyed working with clay but it took nearly 20 years for me to get back into it.
How do ceramics fit in with your dayjob?
The process of designing and delivering buildings is a slow one – most of our projects take at least three years from start to finish, and that’s the smaller ones. Pottery gives me an immediate creative outlet and is also very relaxing. When I’m throwing a pot I am very much in the moment. I do this once a week at Nicola’s studio – it’s my therapy! She has everything there and she’s a great teacher, so I wouldn’t want to leave. None of us do – she has a two-year waiting list!
Are there similarities between architecture and ceramics?
Yes. Tactile, modern, glossy, raw and never entirely predictable. Material, function, finish and proportion are crucial considerations when designing both pots and buildings.
Do you enjoy the physicality of working with clay?
Very much so. I love that pottery is elemental, using earth, water and fire. I enjoy getting my hands dirty after sitting at a computer all day. It’s also quite difficult to completely control clay as it has a memory. If you throw a pot in a certain way and then try to alter it, it tends to revert back to its original shape in the kiln.
You work in both stoneware and porcelain? How do they compare as materials?
Stoneware is grainier and more grey. It’s easier to build larger pieces in stoneware and I like it for its robustness. Porcelain is smoother and more temperamental to work with. It dries very quickly but you can make very fine pieces with it and I love the creamy white colour of the unglazed clay. It also allows the true colour of the glaze to come through and that’s why I often use duck-egg blue with porcelain.
Which ceramicists inspire you?
Nicola Tassie, Stuart Carey, Lucie Rie, Sian Patterson. I love the crazy Dutch stuff but I’d struggle to do that myself!
Where else do you look for inspiration?
Industrial structures (I’ve got a thing about cooling towers), fashion, landscape, food, graphics – anywhere really.
As a trustee of the Twentieth Century Society are there aspects of design or architecture you feel particularly passionate about?
I find the glamour of the Art Deco period very appealing and one of my favourite buildings is the Daily Express Building on Fleet Street. It’s a glossy black glass building with the most amazing deco entrance hall – all chrome and decorative shapes. My main passion is Brutalism, and I recommend a visit to the Unite D’habitation, a concrete residential block in Marseilles where they have converted one of the floors into a hotel so you can stay there.
How would you spend your perfect day?
I had a pretty perfect day last weekend. We were out in the garden in the sunshine with a group of friends and their children, eating lovely food and drinking Pimms.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Becoming an architect. I was shortlisted by The Architects’ Journal as an emerging woman architect of 2014 and that felt like a good achievement.
Great article with Nicola!
It’s always wonderful to see and hear of a very creative and successful woman working in such a challenging industry, but to find out that she can also turn out some gloriously classic pieces of pottery is a real joy.
I can totally relate to what she says about working with your hands if you are involved in other things for a profession – it’s grounding, personal takes you out of the day to day ‘thrum’ of life. I also share her passion for the Art Deco period – such an innovative design era!
Fabulous ceramics and really good article – thank you Folksy – hope to be joining you soon!
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