There is something resolutely upbeat and cheerful about gaily-coloured enamelware. Simple, practical, indestructible, redolent of English summers and childhood, it has an enduring appeal.
‘Calling my business the enamel factory is a misnomer,’ says Kate Samuels ruefully. ‘It’s really a cottage industry.’ She shares a studio with her print-maker mother in the old coach house of her fine Edwardian house, just yards from the sea in Herne Bay
Kate, originally from Essex, studied jewellery design at London Metropolitan University, exploring a variety of techniques including the art of enamelling. Ultimately she found designing jewellery too restrictive: ‘I like to work on a big scale.’
On leaving college she lived in Cornwall for five years, lecturing in art before moving to Kent to teach 3D at the University of Creative Arts in Rochester for 10 years. Happily the college funded her MA. It was then that she began experimenting with enamel, making abstract designs on sheets of metal to be placed outside. ‘I wanted to show that enamel isn’t necessarily a precious medium confined to fine works of art by the likes of Faberge.’
After the birth of her first child, her artistic endeavours became constricted by time. Inspired by an old enamel mug her mother had once given to her, she began experimenting with domestic plates.
Her first design was a plate inscribed ‘You are my sunshine’, decorated with vivid yellow sun rays for her daughter. It is typical of the jaunty, friendly and personal spirit that imbues her work and is an extension of her appealing, bright, smiley personality. She employs a technique known as sgraffito (Italian for scratched), traditionally used in pottery. Sgraffito works by applying a layer or two as a preliminary surface which then has a design scratched into it in such a way that the pattern that emerges reveals the underneath colour. Kate swirls on a surface of brightly-coloured vitreous glass enamel (ground glass), mixing it with water before scratching the design with a wooden kebab stick revealing the white surface. Kate fires everything in her own kiln. ‘I love the whole process, creating something through a series of steps.’
Not surprisingly, a lot of her work is to commission: personalised plates with favourite motifs or messages. ‘People increasingly want to be individual. Every plate is a mini blank canvas.’
Kate’s two children, Maddie and Henry, are a rich source of ideas, as is the seaside.
On the day I visited her studio, I spotted a series of beguiling Kentish coastal town plates, tractor plates for little boys, initial mugs and a witty ‘Happy Camper’ mug. ‘I did it as a bit of a joke, but to my surprise it is one of the most popular designs.’
What doesn’t come across in any photograph, however good, is the tactile quality of her wares. It is a pleasing sensation to run one’s fingers over the enamel, feeling the contrast of the different layers made by the humble kebab stick.
If you don’t fancy eating off enamelware, Kate is just as happy to design kitchen splashbacks and plaques which can be used as pictures or house names. Remember, London street names are enamel plaques as are the splendid Tube signs.
Text: Amicia. Photographs by Sonja Earl