Peter Lane’s Clay Sculpture at the Salon of Art and Design

The finished wall sculpture surrounded by handmade ceramic furniture and objects, including a cobalt dividing screen, stoneware oval table and bronze glazed and Lane’s gilded Scholars Rock lamps.
Photo: Jeff Klapperich

“I was painting. I wasn’t very good, sort of self-taught,” Peter Lane says about his artistic life before ceramics. “Then I went with some friends to take a pottery class, kind of on a lark with a sense of irony: Oh, who takes pottery classes? Corny. And it was love at first sight. I went to a pottery class and never left.” That was back in 1994, and since then Lane has built his reputation making monumental ceramic installations. Interior designer William Georgis commissioned the first large piece in 2006, and Lane went on to make works for six of the Chanel stores designed by Peter Marino. In 2012, Chahan Minassian commissioned him to make the walls for the renovation of the pool room at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris.

Over the past few weeks, Lane and his team have been creating a new work for the immersive installation — at 32 feet wide and 10 feet high — he’ll be exhibiting at the Salon of Art and Design at the Park Avenue Armory, from November 11–15. Looking at the process pictures reminded me of a quote from Gabriele D’Annunzio: “All enchantment is madness induced with art.”

I spoke to Lane as he and his team were working on it in his 10,000-square-foot studio in Bushwick.

So what is the finished installation going to entail?
There will be ceramic screens that are semi-transparent, and a daybed and a low table so it will be a fully decorated room.

How did you come up with the idea?
Well, I’ve been making these walls for a long time, so when the Salon approached me to do this, it was an opportunity for me to expose what I do. Obviously it’s simpler if I showed some samples, but the only way to communicate the scale and magnitude of what we do is by showing the full piece at its full scale, because we do installations of this nature. Our typical work is of this quality and magnitude. This is by far not the biggest we’ve ever done.

Is this the biggest wall you’ve done?
No. The Hôtel de Crillon is about twice this size. We’ve done a lot of different projects all over the world in homes, and some of them are quite ambitious. But when I was approached by the Salon, I really thought I wanted to show the magnitude and quality of what I do, and also the scope of my practice, which is not just the ceramic walls. I also make decorative objects, tables, and lamps — even though the main focus of my work is these walls, there is a demand for these other decorative objects, and I enjoy making them very much. So I am also showing tables and lamps and light sculptures from my product line.

Most people think about ceramics as being smaller. What got you going bigger?
As soon as I had the opportunity to work on a larger scale, it just made so much sense. I made a small one in my studio, 30-by-40 inches, which I thought was huge at the time. And then when I figured out how to do it, I realized I could cover the whole house. I could do a façade, I could do a retaining wall by a swimming pool — it just naturally expanded the possibility of what I could do. The first architecturally scaled piece was a commission I made for Bill Georgis, and then I started working with Chahan in Paris, and he came to my studio and had an immediate vision: “Can you do this, this big?”

What’s the process of creating the walls with your team?
It’s the same team that has been doing this together for years, so everybody knows what they are doing and it’s really performative — almost like an event, because it’s clay and it’s a timing thing, and we have a process we work out. So we have the size of the piece, and we anchor a steel frame to the floor, and we have the clay prepared and then once you start, you can’t stop. There will be eight of us working on it together, and it’s this wonderful cooperative physical exercise, and we have to start on one end and work our way down to the other end. There are different styles to these walls, so they all have their own process. It’s really this fun, fun thing to do.

It’s made in pieces, I take it.
First, we put down the clay and then we establish the dimensions of the individual modules, or tiles, if you will — they weigh 150 pounds each. We have a special laser tool to cut them. Then we poke holes in it while it is still wet, so those become the screw holes, so the whole thing mounts to the wall with screws directly to the face. But all this texture simply obscures the fact that there are screw holes.

Building up the base layer of the sculpture with, from left to right, Ancil Farrell, Trevor King, Hazel Sunnarborg, Peter Lane, River Valadez, William Coggin.

Applying the second layer of the sculpture with, from left, Peter Lane, Ancil Farrell, Derek Weisberg, River Valadez, Hazel Sunnarborg. 

Cutting the modules with, from left, Derek Weisberg, Ancil Farrell, Trevor King.

Finished sculpture with cut guides.

Applying the first coat of glaze after the piece is made, segmented into modules, dried, and bisque fired, it is then glazed.

After a few coats of glaze, the modules are carefully loaded into the kiln to be fired for the second time.

The finished wall in the studio.

Photographs by Jeff Klapperich

It must take a large kiln to fire them.
I have the biggest gas kilns in New York City, so they stack sort of like books. Our lead time is about 16 weeks.

Tell me about the color of the glaze.
That is kind of black and bronze, how it looks finished. And I make work in a lot of different colors; I have a jade color that I love to do, and I have a creamy white. I have a range of six or seven colors that I love, but this is one of my favorites. Another project we did for a client looked like a lava field; it looked like a natural geological process. Some of the things I do are more floral or decorative. But I thought that this is going to be all black — I have a black carpet, a black ceiling. It’s going to be super-dramatic and have all of the richness of these different textures.

Do you have go-to collaborators for this particular project? 
Both Chapter & Verse, a fantastic carpentry shop, and Face Design & Fabrication, a metal shop that I have been working with, are really essential. I’m bringing them in on this to make it more of an interior.

Like a real room, not a shop?
Yes, a completely composed interior. The way for me to do that was not just to have my work but to have the work of these other colleagues. Chapter and Verse made these really spectacular ripped-cardboard low cabinets and uplights by my colleague Shizue Imai. Neal Thomas, who is an interior designer I have been working with a lot, has come through with this wall upholstery and custom daybed. It was Neal’s idea to hang some things on the wall itself. Stephen Antonson has a series he has been working on of these cardboard boxes he finds in the street and then he unfolds them and plasters them. I thought, Why don’t we silver-leaf them and collage them and make them like art objects? I think of them like tapestries, where you can use it decoratively like an art object but you can also hang another painting on top. Hae Won Sohn is an artist that I really like, and she is making these pleated aluminum object panel artworks that are going to be on the wall to give the sense that they are decorative objects and sculpture.

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