Graphic designer and ceramicist Azem William is creating connections through clay work. Suriname-born, he studied in the Netherlands before settling in London – and his body of influences is as wide reaching as his experience. Informed by diverse art forms from Arts & Crafts design to ancient sculpture, his distinctive style of ceramic portraiture has shaped an exclusive collection for Liberty London, exploring the shifting relationship between artist and subject. Now, as his handcrafted designs land in-store, we caught up with the multimedia creative to talk ceramics and inspiring spaces.
What attracted you to ceramics?In my work as a designer I really enjoy playing with shapes and colour and exploring what I can do with different materials. Working in ceramics added a whole new dimension to that. Clay allows me to create any shape I can imagine and I can make work that looks different from every angle. The connection between imagination and creation is very direct - the ideas in my mind are connected directly to my hands that shape the clay.
Another aspect of working in clay that I really love is that everything my hands do to the clay becomes permanently recorded in the finished piece, and can be seen and felt as marks, carvings and shapes by anyone holding the piece in their hands. I see this as creating an emotional connection between myself and the other person. They can see the time and love that goes into each piece to share my ideas with them.
How did you learn your trade?I did a course in ceramics which sparked so many new ideas that I decided that it would be a shame not to continue using it as a way to express my creativity. I started working part-time in the ceramics studio to learn more about the technical side of working in ceramics and develop myself as a more rounded ceramist.Shop the edit
Where else do you look to for inspiration?I love being in nature and texture and shapes in nature are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me. I really love looking at people too. I often get caught staring at someone just because there is something about them that has captured my imagination. I get great inspiration from looking at how artists in ancient Greece and Rome captured the beauty and personality of people in art – especially in sculpture.
I'm really spoilt in London with the Victoria & Albert museum and the British Museum - both places I love to visit for inspiration.
Can you tell us about your creative process?I spend a lot of time thinking and sketching. Working on the pieces I created for Liberty, I make on average around 12-15 drawings of the person. I spend a lot of time looking closely at the flow of their hair and the very small details that give someone's face character and expression. Once I have a drawing I am happy with, I start working in clay. Working in ceramics is a fairly technical process and it is a good idea to consider the challenges of the process and the best way to go about making a piece.
You have a passion for the Arts & Crafts movement, where did this come from?The key things about the Arts & Crafts movement that really resonate with me are that there is real beauty in handmade, well-made things and that your home can be a work of art. I like the idea that things are made to last and give pleasure for a long time, and are bought by someone who wants to enjoy it for a long time. It feels like the opposite of the functional and disposable culture that I see a lot today.
You studied in the Netherlands, what were the highlights of your experience there?I really enjoy the quirky Dutch sense of humour and their progressive attitude. They seem not to be too afraid to make a bold statement or have fun making art. The Dutch landscape and architecture is also very beautiful, and of course cycling was the best way to enjoy it all!Shop the edit
What brought you to London?I got offered a job in London, which became the start of my career as a designer. I moved here and fell in love with the city. London is buzzing with creativity and the people are brimming with ideas.
Has it been challenging establishing yourself in the creative industry?I have never really thought about establishing myself. It has been a fairly fluid journey so far and I think there is still a long and exciting path ahead. Always asking yourself: How can I make this better? And keeping an open and curious mind really helps.Shop the edit
When did you move into this space?I think it is almost ten years ago now.
Are you influenced by your environment?Very much so. At home is where I do most of my creative thinking and playing with ideas, so I like to make it a peaceful and inspiring environment to live and work. I am lucky to live somewhere very quiet as I usually like to work in silence when I have to do any creative thinking. Though I do like a little bit of music once the making process starts. I am surrounded by books for inspiration and I have a lovely little garden where I like to sit with my sketchbook, paints and a pot of tea.
How do you go about curating your interior?I don't think I have a particular style that I stick with but I instinctively know what works and what doesn't. I am definitely more a maximalist than a minimalist. I find objects with a lot of detail very beautiful. I also love things that have a visible human connection, for example handmade items and works of art, or something old that's had a previous life in someone else's home.Shop the edit
What’s the story behind the pieces available exclusively at Liberty London?The pieces I've made for Liberty came from my love for the way ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed the human form in sculpture. They had an idealised vision of beauty, which became instantly recognisable in their art. Although the sculptures are made of hard materials like marble and bronze, the people portrayed have a certain tenderness to them, which makes them look very human. I have tried to capture this same tenderness in ceramics.
I make each of the pieces by hand from scratch and even multiples of the same design are different when you look at them up close. I create the portraits by carving into the clay. The carving alone takes about two to three hours per platter and four to five hours for the large platters.
Do you have a favourite?Each of the faces I've made has its own character and feeling to it. They're all so different that I can't really compare them or choose a favourite. I do think that they make a great story when I see them together. I can see an interesting dialogue happening even when I put two of them together. I find it very fascinating to watch other people choose their own favourite though. Very often there is one that they're drawn to instantly. An interesting thing about these pieces is that I often get told that they remind people of someone they know. Sometimes so much that they're convinced that it could be that person!
Shop the collection in The Interiors Emporium on 3.