Interview with Mark Hill - Author of Fat Lava: West German Ceramics of the 1960s & 70s
Mark Hill is a well-known face for antiques enthusiasts, appearing as an expert across a range of TV programmes including the BBC's Antiques Roadshow. In 2006 Mark helped light a fire under the market for West German ceramics with his book that accompanied an exhibition of the same name. In this interview we discovered what first attracted Mark to West German pottery and asked about his favourite factories. We also found out what Mark has in his own collection and got his advice for living with fragile ceramics and a cat!
Can we start off by asking why you got into West German pottery and what prompted you to write a book?
Well partly because it was all I could afford! People often have misconceptions about people working in the art world and think that they make a vast sum of money by sitting around all day browsing the internet and selling something for a £25,000 profit! Well, there are dealers who do that, but they're a very tiny part of the market and most people aren’t paid like that.
At the time I was working at Sotheby's, and certainly wasn’t earning a great deal of money, and these pieces seemed ignored and I felt rather sorry for them. I thought they were very representative of a period and were also visually interesting and well made so I just started buying the ones I liked. I could also afford them!
I then met Graham Cooley who had very similar thoughts, but also had a huge collection built up over years. We realized that it was something we both loved and that we should do something about it. Graham was keen on putting on an exhibition and he wanted a publication to go along with it and I was working in publishing by that time, so it just naturally happened.
The cover of Mark Hill's book featuring a Ceramano vase
And the exhibition and book really were a kind of a turning point and had a big impact on the market as a whole?
There had been publications before, including a book by Horst Makus and collectors were starting to talk about it online. But I think the book and exhibition definitely were a turning point. The exhibition effectively said “We're taking these things out of the charity shop, and putting them in an art space”. That made people really reappraise these objects and the book then backed that up with knowledge and information.
As collectors, we tend to like information. We want to know which piece is rarer, who designed each pattern or why a colour was used. If there's no narrative it's a much harder thing to collect and ‘grow’ in. Graham and I worked with the objects themselves, and that was a very important part of the process, particularly finding pieces with labels on that could be accurately identified. We also spoke to other collectors, particularly Petra and Patrick Folkersma who were dealers and collectors in Cologne.
These days we share and talk online and there's social media but in 2006 it was a lot harder and an important thing to remember is that this information was nowhere else – particularly online - beforehand. Once a book is out the information spreads all over the internet and people forget where it came from originally.
So yes, I think the exhibition and the book together completely changed the market. My partner's German and when I would go over to visit his mother after the book came out I would go into shops and see things marked up as ‘Fat Lava’, which really made me laugh. I went to one shop in 2007 in Berlin, just after the book had been published and a dealer came up to me and said – “Oh there are these crazy guys in England and they did a book and an exhibition and it changed the market and now everybody wants this stuff!”.
Scheurich vases with a variety of 'Fat Lava' glazes. Photo by Kecia Hval Zullo
We sell a lot through Instagram and a lot of our customers aren't really Fat Lava collectors, but instead just love the way it looks.
The antiques market as a whole has changed a lot. I've been in the business for 21 years and when I started it was arguably much more of an academic, connoisseur, and collector driven market.
Now we've seen the meteoric rise of decorative antiques, where an object doesn’t need to be academically interesting or have a great backstory, if it just looks good. It could be a worn Victorian chair, generally worth very little today, But if it’s been worn in the right way, it just sparks something and fits the current fashion.
It's great that people are coming to Fat Lava and buying it just because they like it. It’s the only reason to buy anything! Maybe they buy one or maybe they buy three and that's absolutely fine. So Fat Lava represents what has happened on a wider scale. If you want to delve deeper and find out facts and information, you can. But if you don't and just want to appreciate it as something you like, that’s also great.
And what would you say to those kinds of buyers about what makes the history of West German ceramics special?
I think they really capture a moment in time and design. That moment had a very strong end in the 1980s when the look really went out of fashion and these objects were even hated and thrown away. My partner's mother remembered them the first time around in Germany and used to laugh at me for buying them and would say “You have this posh job and do things on telly and you're buying this rubbish?!” She found it quite funny.
Obviously fashions come and they go. But Fat Lava really changed the way that people look at ceramics. The whole idea of having something that looks like somebody poured a pot of glaze over the top of it and then did it again with a different colour, really freed things up. We had seen it to some extent in the Art Deco period, with pieces like Shelly’s drip ware, and in studio pottery, but we hadn’t seen it on a larger scale like that. This was the first time that it was mass market and you could buy it cheaply.
It's also a moment in time in terms of technique and production. Many of the glazes that were used cannot be repeated today as they contain chemicals or metals like selenium and uranium that can't be used now for health and safety reasons. Over the years I've had people emailing me saying “Can you tell me more about the glaze recipes because I'm a potter and I want to repeat them?” But I'm not a glaze technician so sadly I don't know! I had a very interesting email conversation with the late Emmanuel Cooper who was a very important British studio potter. He reviewed the book and found it fascinating from a technical perspective, so it’s great that even today Fat Lava inspires and generates interest amongst contemporary potters.
A collection of Otto Keramik vases. Photo by Kecia Hval Zullo
Do you ever see Fat Lava on the Antiques Roadshow?
We do see Fat Lava on the Antique Roadshow. But when we have an event we can have up to five thousand visitors and there are only however many slots on each broadcast so it’s only a tiny proportion that ever gets televised. If an undiscovered Picasso painting comes in and its up against a piece of Fat Lava, then the Fat Lava might not be chosen for filming!
Also, because of the Internet, lots of people tend to know what they've got. Fat Lava buyers are primarily a younger market, people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and they're pretty net-savvy so they know where to find information on what they have. Many just want confirmation and an opinion as regards to value.
You have mentioned in the past that you collect Bonsai trees, but we notice there are no plant pots in your book at all, which is obviously disappointing for us given what we specialise in!
Well I usually have flowers in my house, but I don't really have plants because I travel so often that they would die! I also like the fact that with vases, you can have different shapes. With something like the famous Roth guitar vase you have a very interesting shape along with the interesting glaze and pattern. With a plant pot you can't have a tall thin one or a crazy shaped one because then it can’t perform the function that it’s intended for. But what I would say is they do offer a lot of pattern for your pound because they've got a nice wide, flat surface which displays glaze combinations and patterns very well. Another good thing about them is that if you want collect a larger number you can store them easily by putting them inside each other with a little bit of bubble wrap in between.
What is your own Fat Lava collection like?
In general today I tend to buy the most unusual pieces, so I focus on really quirky glazes and very odd combinations. Things that your mother would almost certainly hate!
One of my great mistakes was not buying Roth Keramik guitar vasess before we did the exhibition and published the book. Although Fat Lava was mass produced we know now there are many more pieces in certain colours and glazes than in others. But at the time I stupidly presumed that they would always be relatively affordable and by the time I realised that they were actually much rarer, the price had risen dramatically! So unfortunately I've only got one Roth guitar in jazzy purple.
A collection of Roth Keramik vases including the famous 'guitar' vase. Photo by Kecia Hval Zullo
Do you have a favourite factory?
I love Roth Keramik and Ceramano. I'm also a great fan of original Otto and some of the Ruscha designs as well. I go from liking the more formal designs of the 1950s and early 1960s to suddenly preferring the crazy, bubbly poured-paint sort of glazes. It really depends what mood I'm in. When I see something I like and can afford, if it’s bonkers enough then I'll buy it. Right now I love miniatures – boiled-down pots of pleasure!
We're currently working with Otto Keramik to produce some new plant pot designs and we’ve discussed before how important it is that people can recognise when these were produced.
I think it's critical that they should be marked indelibly in some way. Throughout my professional life there have been occasions when a design has been reproduced, faked or directly copied, perhaps in different colours or in different glazes, and the problem is that not everybody knows how to distinguish them from originals. As soon as people start asking the question it creates a scare in the market. Confidence, and prices, then drop. Even the vendor might not know themselves, so it is absolutely critical that they are clearly marked because it makes the market transparent and retains the trust. Also, think of what happens in 30 years time, or more. How will people know?
We have just started living with a cat and saw that you also have a cat and wanted to ask if you have any tips for living with cats alongside ceramics?!
Mark: Well we're actually very lucky as our cat is incredibly small, light and agile and, touch wood, she hasn't knocked anything over yet! My tip would be blu-tack or museum fix that can help with that one careless flick of a tail! Museum Fix is very similar to blue tack and is wonderful because it's transparent so you can't even see it. But just remember that you used it when you attempt to lift a piece up…
A Carstens Ankara vase. Photo by Kecia Hval Zullo
Finally, what are you up to at the moment and where can people find out more?
Currently I'm starting to build the second ‘Design At Home’ auction of modern and contemporary designs in partnership with Dawsons Auctioneers. That will be held in June 2018 and will contain some really interesting bits of continental pottery as well as some great Fat Lava pieces. The first auction, in December, 2017 was a great success. Roth did very well. We also had some Carstens ‘Ankara’ which I'm a great fan of. It's a wonderful, very high quality pattern and design.
I'm also doing a lot of lectures with The Arts Society and interestingly they are primarily groups of retired people and they remember these things from the first time around, so getting their reaction is always interesting!
Mark Hill’s book Fat Lava: West German Ceramics of the 1960s-70s is currently in its fourth edition and can be bought from his website at markhillpublishing.com