Leaving a job with nothing else lined up takes courage. Faced with the daily tedium of dreary chores and unchallenging work, quitting can seem the only option. It can also be the shock that forces something new to blossom.
“I was working as a graphic designer and it was soul destroying doing corporate work,” says Vanessa Hogge, founder of Wallflower London. “So I left, thinking I would work as a freelancer. There was always a bag of clay around the house. One morning, I just started working with it and gradually the idea of decorative flowers for walls came out of the clay.”
We are sitting in Vanessa’s small terraced house in East London, sipping mint tea made from freshly picked leaves. Above the now redundant fireplace, ceramic flowers have sprouted from the crisp white walls. Domes of delicate, perfectly symmetrical petals hang alongside elegant mounds of pretty daisies and more showy clusters of voluminous blooms. Together they form a garden on the wall.
“I just start working with the clay and build each piece as it comes to me,” explains Vanessa. “I start with a disc tile, decorate the back, make the dome and fix that on. Then I start to make the petals. It becomes rhythmic and quite therapeutic making each petal and slowly growing the flower. I just do it organically; I don’t sketch it out first and I’m not looking for botanical accuracy.”
The clay has its limitations and a little careful balancing and propping is needed to hold things in place until the piece is ready to be fired in a small kiln in the kitchen. One of the early pieces sits on a shelf in the study/workshop. Made in earthenware it has a less refined finish but a striking blue colour. This early work has evolved into a smooth, crisp porcelain finish and a sophisticated palette of creams and blacks.
The gradual refinement of the work reflects Vanessa’s background as a ceramic artist. After graduating with a BA in Ceramics from Bristol University and an MA in Ceramics from the Royal College of Art, Vanessa set up a workshop making ceramic vases. She was spotted by Paul Smith and became a supplier of large decorative vases.
“It was enjoyable in the beginning, my work was selling all over the world, but over time it became repetitive and less challenging. Then the children came along and things fizzled out,” continues Vanessa.
In the years that followed, Vanessa raised her two children, and worked as a stylist for Homes & Gardens magazine, before moving on to become a graphic designer.
“Sometimes people think I sold out by getting a proper job, but it was all useful experience,” reflects Vanessa. “It is good to learn other skills and see the world from a different perspective.”
This perspective has led to a career full circle, Vanessa has returned to her ceramic roots, but this time on her own terms. The first collection of wallflowers was launched at Handmade Kew, an annual craft fair at Kew Gardens, that attracts artists and designers from around the world.
“You go to the fairs with such high expectations and worrying about selling all the stock, but of course it doesn’t happen like that,” says Vanessa. “I have sold some pieces at the fair, but more sales come afterwards. The fairs are a good way of getting exposure and meeting people.”
A year on, Vanessa is now looking forward to her second year with Handmade Kew. The show will be the launch pad for the new hydrangea bowl: an opulent porcelain bowl coated in an abundance of delicate flowers. The show coincides with her first collection for Vessel, a leading London gallery.
Porcelain gardens are starting to blossom in homes across the country.
“My mother and grandmother were fierce gardeners,” smiles Vanessa. “I grew up in Africa with these gorgeous plants and flowers. I haven’t followed directly in their footsteps, but the porcelain flowers are my way of keeping the tradition alive.”
Handmade at Kew runs from the 6th to 9th October.