It's clear where London-based designer Bodo Sperlein finds inspiration for his bone-china plates and bowls. "I really love food," he tells me.
Sitting in his Thames-side studio, we've met to talk about his signature stark-white tableware, which has made the 34-year-old ceramicist a star in England and is about to do the same in America (one indicator: savvy design stores in New York are already selling knockoffs, a favorite being a variation on his bone-china beaker that, with the addition of a votive candle, becomes luminously sheer). But somehow we've digressed into a discussion of where to buy the city's best game (Steve Hatt, in Islington), smoked fish (H. Forman & Son, in the East End) and bread (the 5th Floor at Harvey Nichols).
Still, the turn of our conversation is entirely appropriate. Sperlein is obviously interested in how his creations will be used, not just in how they look. His plates may appear delicate, but pick one up and it's remarkably sturdy. Hold one up to the light and it reveals a subtle line of dots hand-pressed into the clay. But serve dinner and the plate will complement, not show up, the food.
Just as Sperlein exploits bone china's natural qualities—the brilliant white color, the delicate translucency, the eggshell texture—he has created subtle yet striking work with other materials, from porcelain vases to stone and leather furniture. "Bodo treats porcelain as if it were rice paper or silk," says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. "The object's soul shines through the glaze."
Remarkably, the Bavarian-born Sperlein didn't make his first piece until he was 24, when he was living in London and working as a translator. He got a new apartment and needed dishes. "I was interested in beautiful things," he remembers, "but couldn't necessarily afford them." So he enrolled in a ceramics class to make them himself—and found his calling. Instead of designing a full range, he created only what he needed: plates and bowls. "To this day, I don't make a cup as such with a handle," he says. Rather, his various bowls can also be used as cups or serving pieces.
It didn't take long for Sperlein to get noticed. When he graduated in 1997 from the prestigious Camberwell College of Art and Design, his final show so impressed Caroline Burstein Collis, director of London's designer department store Browns, that she commissioned him to work on its housewares line. For Browns, Sperlein put dents in the rims of simple white bowls and added striking bands of platinum to otherwise unadorned bone-china plates, bowls and vases. The following year, the venerable German manufacturer Nymphenburg asked him to apply his skills to porcelain, bone china's less brilliantly white but even more ethereal ceramic cousin. Sperlein placed small blushes of pink and shadows of gray in the center of white plates and bowls. He also created elegant new forms: orb-shaped lighting fixtures and lamps with shades shaped like sails, dishes with biomorphic shapes reminiscent of the '50s and a line of pieces with the simple geometry of Asian rice bowls.
More commissions followed: original pieces for Sotheby's; a naughty pink egg of a perfume bottle for Agent Provocateur, the chic lingerie company created by Joseph Corre, the son of designer Vivienne Westwood. And design museums such as Munich's Die Neue Sammlung and the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in England have bought his work for their permanent collections. Sperlein also has a couture line, available exclusively through his studio, with bold silver and gold handlelike elements by jeweler Janice Derrick on the vases and centerpieces. And in 2002 he will introduce a line of stainless-steel cutlery.
In America, Sperlein's work is quickly getting more attention: Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman and a smattering of design stores across the country now carry his pieces. As of this month, Gump's in San Francisco will be selling, for the first time outside the United Kingdom, almost his entire line.
It's been an enviable run of success. It can't hurt that in person Bodo Sperlein exudes a clean-cut, European charm. And rarely does one find such a passion for traditional craftsmanship coupled with an interest in pushing the medium into new areas. Sperlein has used traditional bone china and porcelain to make such unusual objects as screens—and serving spoons shaped like hands. At the same time, he has taken new, high-tech ceramics such as VPP, a mix of bone china and polyethylene resin, and made extraordinarily transparent lamps. But bone china and porcelain tableware remain the core of his work.
Does Sperlein use his own pieces to entertain? Yes, but he's careful not to make his home an exhibition space for his own work. "How can you get inspiration from pieces you've done already?" he asks. His nineteenth-century row house, in Battersea, a neighborhood in the south of London, features an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary ceramics and furniture that demonstrates the range of his interests: An ornate antique mirror, for example, reflects a minimalist charcoal-gray sofa by British designer Terence Woodgate. Sperlein's also inspired by his clients—one reason he does an increasing amount of bespoke work, creating custom dinner sets for individuals and corporations.
Food, too, inspires him. In the future Sperlein would love to design for a restaurant. "You go to restaurants and the tableware is incredibly boring," he argues. He's obviously delighted at the thought of working with "a really good chef whose food is amazing." Having already created furniture, Sperlein's thinking of moving next into fashion, perhaps even designing hotels. That might sound ambitious for someone who was a student only four years ago. But pick up one of his creations and you'll realize that whatever he does next, he'll be a designer to watch.
Simon Firth writes for Salon.com and produces television programs for PBS.