Form Follows Function

Eric Bonnin

Form Follows Function

  • Words Jacqueline Raposo
  • Photography Larissa Fatseas

Form Follows Function

Light pours from high windows into the vast commercial space that is Tribeca Potters, dancing through clay particles suspended in air.

Winding his way past the expansive view of the Manhattan skyline, beyond the communal work tables and four blazing kilns, Eric Bonnin lands at his station; pug mill and slab roller and throwing wheels guarded tight by high shelves teeming with his work, separating him from other artists and the hum of traffic below on 41st Avenue in Long Island City, Queens.

He sets classical music in his earbuds, or maybe French pop if he needs a rhythm – Christine and the Queens is a current favorite – and starts molding bread plates, glazing trays, and moving clay up and down on his wheel until it takes the shape of a bowl or a mug or a vase. He piles scraps of reusable material for the day to come, creates a production schedule for his next order, and keeps working away, quietly.

 


 

Form Follows Function
Form Follows Function

Bonnin doesn’t drink coffee. He needs his breath and hands steady. He speaks gently and low, tempering his thoughts to calm. Impatience, anger, or excessive energy could lead him to dry a piece too quickly in the sun, or open the kiln to find an unset glaze crackled from the fire. Ruin of an entire day’s labor.

“The clay is not responsible. You cannot rush work. You have to respect that your hands are your tools. And then, as much as you can, you try to do your best.”

 

Bonnin grew up in Evreux, a small city in Normandy, France, running through the woods with his two brothers and summering at the seashore, roasting whatever fish they caught over a beach wood fire. He studied decorative arts and worked in publicity for a large design company in Paris before moving to New York in 1994, believing the art scene there to be more energized and inspiring. Working with clay was then only a personal hobby that offset his time selling high-end vintage furniture to millionaires through Art Basel in Miami, London and Paris. When the financial crisis of 2008 found him out of a job, he gave himself a year to design a line of ceramics that could be his own: one from which he could make a living, and one that he would enjoy making every day, by hand, over and over again.

“When I was working on my line, I decided to throw simply and efficiently. I decided to work with only two glazes – black and white. Color can be very scary, and can also be trendy. So for me, staying in these kinds of muted colors helped me to realize that shape is more important, maybe, than anything else. The simplicity of the shape is what makes the product, and the function.”

He officially launched Eric Bonnin Ceramics in 2010 with the ethos that function comes first.

 

Form Follows Function

He throws plates in three sizes . “If you ask a child to draw a bowl, it would be that kind of shape, he says of his stackable Kam Ice Cream Bowls. His platters look like platters, his cups like cups, and his mugs are short, smooth, and rest comfortably in a palm.

“It’s because I’m lazy”, he jokes of why he doesn’t trim the bottom of most pieces. He self-deprecatingly attributes “not being the best potter” to why he uses an extruder for his tubular mug handles, rather than hand-pulling them. But jesting aside, Bonnin concedes that his work requires practical efficiency: he knows the limits of his physical body, he wants to enjoy the repetition of making pieces, and he reserves artistry for the detailed molding he does by hand.

Pinching together the sides of a short round bowl, a pitcher in the shape of a stout bird emerges when he delicately draws one end of the clay upward into a spout. Salt and pepper cellars get their exaggerated lips from a gentle pull, too. The rims of his large round serving bowls are pressed by the dexterity of his hands into oblong ovals. A platter’s corners might be angled off, or a few clay buttons added to a tall vase.

Slight variation and the fact that Bonnin’s are the only hands that touch them mean every single piece feels personal, and intimate. They have weight and warmth. Their colors inspire images of earth and sea, and their curves of trees and animals.

 

“I think there’s a balance of your past and what your life has been and what has influenced you, but it’s all a big package. Nature is really a big part of it, but also I enjoy the simplicity of the Vallauris movement, or the Scandinavian potters of the 60s, who were also very simple and had easy colors reflecting the sea and the horizon. And so all those came together.”

In the last six years, Bonnin has grown his business from a part-time venture to crafting full sets for restaurants, small stores, and private patrons, as well as exhibiting at fairs and tradeshows. In a complete split from his days as a publicist, when he would help artists build their personal brand in a very social world, Bonnin now shuns going into large stores or social events, preferring to keep quiet with his music and clay. Busy to the point of bursting at the seams, he only recently pared down his client lists so that he could take a day off and tend to his physical and emotional health. Because it’s the pleasurable reactions from the individuals who buy his work – who use his plates and cups morning after morning in their own homes – that resonate with him as a “gift from the universe.”

“The world is a big, big place. And there are so many people [in it]. You have to protect yourself. You have to decide what your limits are, what your needs are, what you’re really happy with, and what you’re not. You know, I don’t have a retirement plan; I don’t have any money ahead. But it’s fine. The moment is now, and I’m enjoying it. And tomorrow, we’ll see what happens.”

Bonnin knows there are limits to how far he can grow his business, being that he is one man and his two hands are the only ones that throw, trim, finish, and glaze every single piece. Despite his clipped client list, he is still so busy that he doesn’t have time to develop a new glaze or test an additional piece. Despite inquiry from large stores, he has no interest in creating molds to mass produce his pieces.

Even the attention it takes to throw a brand new piece when he sits down to throw for pleasure—to see it in his mind’s eye, to work one foot on the pedal and have the other leg balance his weight, to monitor the breath moving through his body, to focus his thoughts so that his hands carry out his commands and move the clay into the precise shape he envisions—takes time and energy that’s hard to come by when you’re a one-man show.

And so, instead of worrying about growing his business or making a vase a uniform copy of the one that came out of the kiln before it, he embraces what makes his work unique: the drip of a glaze, the slight variation in the lip of a bird vase, or even a tiny crack in a mug that he cannot sell and does not have the heart to throw away and, therefore, takes home and loves because it is, well, “perfect”, too. He considers himself a craftsman more than an artist; someone who works on perfecting a skill with purpose more than a soul yearning to express through art of any form. So he embraces coming into his studio, running down his production list, and the steps required for the line he crafts every day, by hand, over and over again.

 

Form Follows Function

“I wedge clay for 20 or 30 bowls, I sit down at the wheel, I put music on, and I just go. They’re imprinted in my body now, so I know where they’re going, I know the rhythm of the clay, and I know how far I can go with it. After that, my mind can wander. I don’t know where it wanders, or where it goes. I just… fly.”

Connect with Eric
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Shop Eric’s Collection Online
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March

Field notes: Eric’s incredible ceramics were discovered at a local design market, Field + Supply. Be sure to visit this fall!

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