For Karla Sotres, design must respond or speak of context. In her work, the aesthetic and functional qualities of the pieces are results of a rigorous process of observation of colors, shapes, culture and worldview coming from the surrounding territory. In this interview, the designer born in Mexico in 1984, who lives in Rieti (Italy) since 2013, shares the creative forces of her work and her conception of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
What are the values in ceramics that make you prefer it over other materials?
Ceramic is undoubtedly the most earthy material. There are values that are shared between different materials, but the relationships among these are those who make ceramics a docile, generous and amazing material:
1. Nature. Unlike other materials, ceramic goes through many stages of development to reach a "crystallized" result. Through this process it interacts and is affected by natural conditions that can hardly be controlled a hundred percent. Therefore, it is hypersensitive and vulnerable to its climatic environment. It is not the same to work ceramics in the Huasteca region than in Mexico City, or make pottery in winter or during summer time. Humidity affects the processing time of the material. And even more, there are firings that can last up to 6 months and the equivalent time for drying. In this case, you cannot manipulate the processes of drying or firing, as it is all about changes in the state of the material and energy cycles.
2. Itinerant: Both in its physical form as in its chemical composition. In its dry state (without being manipulated) is a compacted powder; in its wet state is plastic like clay. Dry, when it has been manipulated by hand, is fragile and at this point it could return to powder. In its pre-fired state (biscuit) is porous and lightweight; in its firing state (mature) is dense and vitrified. During the interaction with heat and oxygen it changes in color, while with other oxides and minerals (glazes) it dresses in color.
3. Diversity: There are a variety of types of pottery, classified by origin (chemical composition) and processing (type of firing). Each is unique and, according to firing processes so are the shades of color, density and texture.
4. Docile: There are different piece forming processes, from the primitive such as punch or “cordoncillo” (forming with coils) - to complex and technological like 3D printing. In between these extremes are casting techniques, plate and wheel, which is an ancient technique used for centuries in Asia (China and Korea) and Africa.
There seems to be a significant difference between industrial designers and ceramists: the craftmanship and the mass production. As an industrial designer, how do you conceive this relationship or distinction between industrial and craft?
Design was a 'modern' response to the problem of "humanization" of the industry; it is clear that design has its origin in the arts and crafts (handicrafts). Crafts are a human expression that has always existed, and its most notable value is the (practice-mythical) dual function that develops in human society (that is why it has endured). The craftsman provides metaphors to practical functions of each object as supplemental response to their cosmogony. On the other hand, art is the domain of a craft technique; sometimes the artist gives more weight to the aesthetic or mythical functions than to those that are practical. And it is valid.
Over the past century, the concepts of art and craft were isolated. Even in some parts of the world, handicrafts were exterminated and a new model emerged: industrial production. Thus, industry largely replaced trades while art (as resistance) became subversive. Design was the "politically correct" response to the need to rationalize and humanize industrial objects. Nowadays humanization is vital, concepts like art, crafts, industry and design become more complex, they integrate, and they coexist. What make them different are the priority values that each society attributes to them.
We potters are craftsmen as a source, but designers too. Are there any differences between potters and designers? Yes, the ceramist specializes in a material which handles by hand but with a scientific basis. However, the resources and tools can be similar to those of a product designer. The product designer in turn, interacts with different types of customers, materials and industrial conditions. His designs respond to a specific question (brief), his time and tools are particular to what his profession requires from him.
The ceramist designer is the one that with tools from the design industry performs a "traditional" activity or craft. My work is located there. My training as an industrial designer has been very useful in this new formation as a ceramist. No taboos, I am neither scare of doing things with my hands nor to produce them industrially. I can make 1 single piece and if it works and it is necessary, we can make 1000 with molds (aware that the features and values of the pieces will be different). I love the idea of extruding the ceramic with 3D printing and at the same time have the technical capacity to produce vases on a manual wheel. There is a relationship between craftsmanship and creative industries, between high tech and that of origin. One does not exist without the other.
You are interested in medium technology, which is original to its territory or culture. In an era defined by globalization, how do you understand the use of technology into your practice? And what is, from your perspective, technology related to its territory?
I'm interested in all technologies, although my work concentrates and applies the medium technology because it is what I can achieve (as current resources). Before running a practice in a cultural, social, economic or environmental atmosphere, it is necessary to observe what is done, how it is done and why things are done that way. In the case of ceramics, technology has generally remained in the ancestral level.
The problem is not the technology, but the ability we have to dialogue with it, to know whether or not it corresponds to the intrinsic values of each context, if it is worthy, if it respects the worldview of communities, whether it is sustainable even through time, if the territory has the human, economic and energy resources that could sustain it.
Furthermore, technology related to its territory is the one that nourishes and enriches it. All countries must be reflected in their technologies, know about them and embrace them. Otherwise, it is sterile, alien and alienates society. Generally, in the case of ceramics, local technology is the one that achieves this level of symbiosis, which persists over time and evolves into art.
In relation to technology, which in recent years has turned in crisis the notion of the author (with 3D printing, for example), what do you think about authorship? Specially from your practice that is more in touch with human labor.
It is a subject I should deepen more. Some of the best designs of the past century, for example, are anonymous (the most simple and practical) while the more complex are generally developed in groups. To walk through life as a single author you need tenacity and be an incredible genius, but I feel that is very lonely and it should not be easy. I'm more interested in community work.
How is your creative process?
I have been working with ceramics since 2011, and my approach started by the need to specialize in a material. I'm very intuitive, so I understood that ceramic would be with me all my life. My process is guided by nine elements:
- Useless Objects: At the beginning my projects were a mean to get rid of my profession. At first, I denied all the processes and rational methodologies of an industrial designer to begin working pottery intuitively, as a pleasure. My first projects (Balanus and Useless Objects) are a purely aesthetic, material and ornamental exploration. A constant question was: What is your concept? My answer: objects. When we do not understand what things are for, we hope to find a theory behind them. Then, when I made utilitarian objects it was a success, I did not have to explain anything to anyone. That was when I reconciled with my profession.
-Drawing and Color: Drawing has always accompanied me in my creative process. With the potter´s wheel I learned to draw in the air, but I never substituted wheel drawing with the 2D drawing. To draw with pen or stylus, is the true length of my ideas, my most practical and reliable tool. The color, meanwhile, gives my objects identity, continuity, connection and meaning.
-Objects/Systems: To work with Hector Galvan made me realize that an object by itself does not have the same value that when it is in use, in a context, in a society. So, I began to understand the objects as part of systems as a means to generate relationships and moods.
-Processes: Another key element in the creative process is the construction technique. I like to leave tracks of the construction process in the pieces, not only as a resource but also and above all, as an aesthetic language.
-Observation: I observe, listen to the context that will to some extent, define a collection and an object, I like asking and watching people: what do they eat, how they serve their food, how they set a table, how the food is served, where they wash their dishes, where they keep their tableware. Those are the common interfaces that give meaning and distinction to every collection I do.
-Repetition: After three years of exploration, I have four defined families with specific aesthetic, mythical and practical characteristics: Progreso, Gracil, Primaria and Arquetípica. Generally, I repeat several times the same family but in the process there are changes in proportions, materials and colors. I love to polish the object until achieving complete results.
-Method and discipline: It is important to find the right balance between duty and pleasure, I think that is the most difficult part: to understand the boundary between your freedom and the need to live of this craft. With Ángulo Cero, for example, I found an excellent commitment.
-Evaluation: Once the pieces are out of the oven I watch the result, then I begin to classify (between ordinary and extraordinary), I measure, I set prices, I label and do inventory. I do not know if it is clear, but my creative process is very slow and always in development.
-Materials: Currently I only work with six neutral enamels because it is very difficult to start with a wide range. Instead, I am exploring with more than eight ceramic bodies (brown, black and white stoneware, terracotta and porcelain), which is a totally new experience for me. To work with these materials is revealing me new secrets from the world of ceramics.
Your work consists of two lines: ordinary and extraordinary. What do they project?
Labeling is very complex, and I'm still working on a better definition for these lines. Both lines are functional, located within home or in meeting spaces; they can be made with artisanal or industrial techniques. Today the ordinary is to make slip casting pieces and the extraordinary to make pieces by hand. Tomorrow, the extraordinary will be to make 3D pieces. In general, there are some differences and similarities between the two lines:
-Ordinary: It emerges mainly to cover practical functional objectives. Not necessarily by me, it also involves other people or other workshops. You can give a new meaning to an ordinary model and become extraordinary and vice versa: an extraordinary one can be repeated until be controlled and become an ordinary one. The ordinary line is not necessarily composed by unique pieces. And I'd like it to lose the notion of individual authorship.
-Extraordinary: This line gives greater weight to functional and mythical values. It is outstanding in its technical qualities and above all in its aesthetic. It may involve a special commission: in the case of Ángulo Cero, I traveled to Mexico and for 40 days I worked only on the extraordinary line. A piece from the ordinary line may be repeated in the extraordinary line, but in a specific material. The extraordinary are unique pieces and have authorship.
 Fernando Martín Juez. Contribuciones para una antropología del diseño. Editorial Gedisa Mexicana, S.A. Barcelona, España, 2002.