Behind the scenes at Spin Ceramics

Meet the team behind the mould-breaking ceramics store

Spin's team of five young ceramic designers
Simple, elegant and affordable, Spin Ceramic's contemporary Chinese ceramics are hugely popular. Yet, somehow in a business culture where imitation is fast and shameless, no one has managed to replicate their formula. To learn Spin’s secret, we tracked the products back through the creation process, from the finished goods in the Kangding Lu store, to Spin’s factories in Jingdezhen, to its design workshop in Xinqiao, where they’re first conceived.

The store

We begin by meeting with the founder of Spin, a Chinese-American former academic who prefers not to be named. He invites us to join him for a cup of tea at a table under the stairs of the familiar Kangding Lu showroom. A small dog sits in his lap as he outlines how Spin began as a project to meet a particular need: tasteful crockery for his Japanese restaurant, Shintori. He also gives us the phone number of Li Lansheng, Spin’s head manufactuer-designer in Jingdezhen, where the bulk of the company’s wares are produced.

The factory

In Jingdezhen, Li picks us up in a black sedan. He manages Spin’s relationships with ten factories in the city, each with around ten staff. He takes us first to his own factory, where he has four full-time employees who together turn out several hundred pieces per day, which are sent to Spin’s stores in Shanghai, Beijing and Changsha.

Li shows us around, demonstrating presses for shaping clay, and a wheel where powdered glazes are sprayed on like car paint. When the pieces are fired, the powder melts to the familiar, pale green-blue. Brush strokes that look light and dark grey on unfired works turn gory red and bright blue in the gas kilns, which, when we visit, are waiting open-mouthed to receive two huge stacks of unfired pieces.

At Li’s factory we meet Mr Wan sitting at a wheel trimming the base of a vase. He’s been making ceramics for 20 years, he says, and working for Li for six. We ask him if he enjoys his work. ‘Do anything long enough and you won’t like it,’ he says. ‘Every day is the same.’

Li drives us to another factory nearby where a huge snow drift of smashed ceramics is heaped outside. The manager of this factory, which has several clients including Spin, explains that the smashed pieces have accumulated over the past year. Inside, liquid clay is being poured into plaster moulds. The plaster absorbs water, leaving solid clay around the edge, creating the form’s exterior. The liquid centre is then emptied to create a hollow vessel.

The studio

On returning to Shanghai, we take up an offer to visit Spin’s design studio in Xinqiao, Songjiang district, an hour’s cab ride southwest of Qibao. Reasons for the remote location are two-fold: rent is cheaper there, and kilns aren’t permitted downtown. There are eight enthusiastic designers, mostly in their twenties, from around China (and one from Malaysia) working at Spin’s design studio, which shares an address with a mammoth cardboard storage facility. The designers live in four apartments, all in the same compound nearby.

When we arrive, most of the designers are sitting at computers in a light, modern office, but we’re immediately shown around the workshop where physical prototypes are made and some Spin products are manufactured. The phrase ‘千年之后’ (‘after a thousand years’), alluding to the history of ceramics in Jingdezhen, is written over the entrance to the building.

Seven ceramics workers, all originally from Jingdezhen, live in dormitories onsite in Xinqiao. They help designers by producing moulds, as well as making works for sale, adding glazes, spouts and handles to items such as gem-faced tea pots. The designers also have tables in the factory space where they conduct materials experiments. Their methodologies reflect their different backgrounds in, for instance, industrial design, crafts and ceramics.

‘Some of us use 3D software but most of us prefer to make models by hand,’ explains Gao Wenchao, who recently graduated from Dalian University. While others use programmes, such as Rhino and 3D Max to come up with complicated shapes – including a twisted loop that has just one side, and vases of origami-like planes – she prefers to work with clay, using tools of her own devising.

Li Hui, the blazer-wearing young boss of the Xinqiao base, draws his inspiration from plants – lately, it’s chilli peppers. Another designer, Li Kai, has been experimenting with applying dots of vegetable oil to the insides of plaster moulds, preventing water absorption and thus leaving shallow hollows. He also enjoys creating traditional cracked glazes. When fired, these glazes contract faster than the clay, breaking then resealing when the clay shrinks. Shanghainese designer An Na, whose first design for Spin was the distinctive archaeologist’s chopstick rests (200RMB), is experimenting with spots of white glaze on a black background.

The most popular products at Spin are large coffee mugs (60-80RMB), but designer Ti Qiongqiong insists ‘we’re not designing to meet the needs of customers. Our boss reminds us that just because an item is popular doesn’t mean it’s a good design.’When they’re ready, designers submit images of their designs to Gary Wang, Spin’s New York-based art director, over email, and receive suggestions for revisions in return. Each designer creates six or seven new designs per year.

The owner encourages his designers to get out and live life, to watch movies and listen to music in order to find their own inspiration. No doubt that’s important when you’re somewhere as distant and dismal as Xinqiao. But it’s clear that this small, close community of designers really do make their own distinct contributions. They’re ambitious, too. ‘I hope more and more Chinese people will buy our products,’ says Gao Wenchao. ‘One of my classmates is already a big customer.’

Spin Ceramics 360 Kangding Lu near Shaanxi Bei Lu. See full address details