In conversation with ceramic artist Sarah Nedovic

Writer Tiffany Jade visits ceramic artist Sarah Nedovic in her studio. At the time of visiting, the studio is in a state of flux. Change is a constant and the new space has allowed Sarah to find the confidence to push for something different.

Stepping into ceramic artist Sarah Nedovic's studio, the olfactory engagement is what hits me first. That primal, crisp, mineral smell so specific to clay that fosters a sense of familiarity alongside one of anticipation for what will be created.

What was once a gym has been painted white and converted into a light-drenched ceramic studio with a wall of glazing running the entire facade, coaxing the spill of sunshine into each room with programming arranged in a linear fashion.

Sarah shows me her Monument design, her most recent design for an exhibition titled Villages held during this years Melbourne Design Week. Like much of Sarah’s evolution over the past 4 years, Monument was only ever intended as a 25 module piece for the exhibition, however it has grown a life of its own with commissions already.

Sarah’s ceramic lamps are coveted by the likes of Dior and Banda Property, gaining global recognition which has pushed her work into a new iteration seamlessly balancing creative intuition and commercial enterprise.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

Tiffany Jade (TJ) : Did I read that you have a textile background? How did you shift into ceramics?

Sarah Nedovic (SN): I studied Textile Design at RMIT and then worked as a textile designer, freelancing from my mid-twenties for 10 years with a few different brands like Witchery, Myer and Viktoria and Woods. I knew I didn’t want to work in fashion once I had kids though. The environment just really isn’t family friendly. It’s long hours, you have to be constantly on. Then, not long before falling pregnant with my first, my mother-in-law gave me a couple of lamps that she’d seen in a hotel in the UK. They had sculptural heads stacked one on top of the other and I was taken by how different they were from a design perspective. So I randomly started making lamps. I made a female body, stacked with objects made from all different materials including clay which I initially hated! I hand built, experimented with resin, lost wax, plaster. It was purely a hobby. Something with no pressure attached and no expectations.

I ended up doing a life sculpture course which taught me about the different clays and that led me onto a more sculptural path.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

TJ: It’s hard to force creativity. You can to a degree because that is what comes of briefs and commissions. When you’re coming up with new designs, do you need space around that to create? I mean, you started out with no pressure, zero expectations and now you are at a point where you are getting briefs. It’s the total opposite to where you began…

SN: I actually find it easier to work from a brief. The tighter the brief, the more freedom I have so it becomes about how far I can push myself within those constraints.

TJ: True. The constraint become almost like a safety net.

SN: Yes! And I never switch off. I have a very active, creative mind. I have folders and notepads and drawings so when someone comes in with a brief I never really start from scratch. I’ll often remember something I’ve seen before and sketched maybe a year or two ago. I’m never creating something entirely new. I feel like I have a strong sense of my own style, my ID so it’s already all in there.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

TJ: Do you contain everything in your head? How do you record your thoughts and inspirations?

SN: I used to draw everything. So now, in terms of how I design, I sketch the design for the stem of the lamps using freehand shapes in my notebooks. Then I draw it to scale and cut it out which is a bit like pattern making. Then I attach the 2D cut outs to the stem and work on harmony and balance to finalise the composition.

TJ: That’s beautifully coming back to the fundamentals of art and design isn’t it? The basics of symmetry, scale, balance, all of those principles that cut across all mediums.

SN: Yeah. And I’m only now realising how much architecture actually has an impact on what I’m designing too.

TJ: Totally! You think about people like Ettore Sottsass, Eileen Gray, all those iconic designers who moved between disciplines — architecture, furniture design, graphic design — because they saw the connecting threads between them. How they are all bound by basic principles. I think sometimes we get lost in overcomplicating things.

SN: Yeah, trying to put yourself in a box. I think it definitely comes back to basic design principles. Even though I went into fashion, if I could speak to my 18-year-old self I would tell her to do architecture. I feel like those principles are very much in line with what I do now.The way lines are precise continuations either side of the lamp stem, the way angles are connected. I’ve got notepads at home with literally thousands of sketches that are inspired by repetitive mark making and then refined by the principles of design. I’m addicted to it.

I recently started bringing in more people to help me with things all the other things like refining processes, clay reclaim, firing schedules, making in-house glazes so we don’t need to work with commercial ones. We’ve also just created all new packaging. We think about what the box looks like, how we are reducing plastics, all those things about the customer experience we can control.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

TJ: Speaking of control, how do you maintain the studio’s brand ID? How do you turn down commissions that might not align?

SN: I only take on work where we can maintain creative direction. Sometimes people enquire about having a version of something that they have seen made in a different way and I have to just say sorry, it’s not something we can help with. After 4 years, we’ve only just reached a point of being able to do that. It was really the recent Villages exhibition that put be back on the map after having kids and people are reaching out to see what more I can do. In previous years, the studio was just too small to take on commissions. So now, I am looking to step only into commissions and the whole business is transitioning.

TJ: It’s smart to step into commissions. Your name is literally your business so clients expect to have your hand in that process.

SN: Yes. It’s also about understanding that I want this business to be a living, breathing thing. I like the idea of having a mature studio. One that brings people together in something that is bigger than just making lights. A community. As a mother and as a creative, I would love this business to be still running in 20 years and have its ID as a consequence of the strength of its people.

TJ: It’s a really nice thing if you can create that atmosphere. That sense of extended family and collaboration within an atelier. What do you consider yourself first and foremost, a ceramicist or a lighting designer?

SN: I almost see myself more as a sculptor. I think I’ll always work in stone but I want to experiment with different materials. I love that ceramics are so malleable, tactile. You can really engage with clay. There aren’t many materials that allow you to own your practice from start to finish from opening the bag of clay to taking a piece from the kiln.

TJ: Do you like control in this context.

SN: No. Haha. But the unknown frightens me for sure. That’s why I love working with other people. After working in fashion and working on a print and going from uploading it into the computer software to then seeing in on someone walking down the street, there was such a disconnect. I love with the connection and creative freedom clay offers.

My lamps are called ‘ladies’ and it’s not because of their form even though they are reminiscent of the female body. It’s all about how connected I feel to them. I put so much of myself into each one and they exist as talismans of certain moments in my life. Around having babies and cultivating my art practice at the same time, it was so hard but so rewarding to be able to do both and it made me think of other women in history who perhaps maybe didn’t have it as easy as me.My designs are all named in homage of such women. #79 is for Peggy Guggenheim who passed away in 1979. #75 is for Barbara Hepworth who passed in 1975. #76 is for Eileen Gray and so on. I wanted to highlight women who were mothers. Honouring all that expectation that as a mother, you do everything and that includes being creative which is like eating and breathing for me. I had to work out how to manage both parts of myself - mother and artist. If I find it hard with one baby, a supportive husband, a warm home and all the comforts then how did women do it 100 years ago with maybe 5 kids?! It makes me realise how amazing women are, so that’s why they’re called ‘ladies.’

But, I feel like it’s time to move on. That moment has passed and that part of myself that I was listening too when I made them has now moved on too.

Image by Lillie Thompson

TJ: You sit somewhere between art and product. How do you educate the buyer around that concept.

SN: A lot of people talk about my work being art, which is really nice. I think it’s how people connect with it. I also think that the use of light helps. I don’t think I’ll ever create something that doesn’t illuminate or have some purpose beyond the aesthetic. I’m really interested in that space where art bridges design. Coming back to that atelier idea and the holistic way people used to design.

TJ: What does light introduce? What does it do to your pieces?

SN: I think people feel a connection with light. When I get home, I turn all the overhead lights off or down, and it creates a feeling of home within the ambience. It helps me switch off. It’s part of my ritual. It marks the end of the day.

TJ: It’s a signal.

SN: It is! The Tier collection can look beautiful on or off. It’s a very geometric pattern that is repeated in light when it goes on. That’s also where the repetitive rhythm of textile design comes back in.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

TJ: How did your Villages exhibition for Melbourne Design Week come about this year?

SN: A friend owns At The Above gallery and he approached me to see if I wanted to do something as no Melbourne artist was at that stage and I immediately agreed. I would come into the studio at 6am to work on the concept. I pulled references from things I noted years ago including works by an artist I love called Guy Bareff. His work also reflects that rhythm that I love and I wanted to create something that had that but could be modular and arranged in custom ways. The result was Monument. The scale of my design is totally different to Bareff’s whose pieces are really small. The Monument layout can also alter depending on how many pieces are used and that again alters the pattern language. They are very agile.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

TJ: Your work also has a memorial aspect. Where does that come from?

SN: Let me show you a book. This is ‘Spomenik Monument Database’ by Donald Niebyl which is all about form, lines and repetitive patterns which I love. It’s so inspiring for me. They are all Yugoslavian WWII monuments built between the 60s and 90s, so instead of creating a statute of a prominent person for example, they would build these incredibly inspiring, brutalist sculptures that are stunningly space age and meant to look towards a happier and healthier future. I love that even back then there was an investment in the future of design and a sense of optimism. They are also located in the regions my husband’s family comes from so it feel close to me for that reason too. It all comes full circle.

Image by Stephanie Stamatis

See more of Sarah Nedovic on her website and Instagram. Interview by Tiffany Jade. Images by Stephanie Stamatis and Lillie Thompson.