On April 14th, Northern Clay Center hosted the Minnesota Ichibana Society here to demonstrate flower arranging. In light of this event, I looked around the gallery at all our assorted flower vases and flower bricks. I thought to myself, what is the history behind a flower brick? How is it different from a vase? Below is an interview with two NCC gallery artists who make flower bricks, Margaret Bohls (MB) Kristen Kieffer (KK), to address these questions.
NCC: What does a traditional flower brick look like? Is it defined by a certain shape or amount of openings?
MB: They are the size and shape of a large brick; no feet or handles, with a varying number of holes cut in the top.
KK: The antique ones I've seen are indeed shaped like a brick and about that size (sitting horizontally on the skinny side), having about six or many more dime-sized holes (though sometimes both holes and an opening).
NCC: What is the history of flower bricks-- are they specific to a certain region or culture?
MB: My understanding is that the flower brick form emerged in the 18th century, around the same time as the Dutch “Tulipiere” form. Its history is connected to the import of both Chinese porcelain and tulip bulbs from the Middle East via the silk road. Both were extraordinarily valuable, and generally available only to the very, very wealthy.
To satisfy the desire of the less wealthy to own porcelain, Dutch potters began making direct imitations of Chinese porcelain using earthenware coated in a lead glaze, opacified with tin. This ware became known as “Delft” after the town in which it was made.
This ware was exported to other European countries, especially Britain, which did not at that time have a very developed ceramic industry. Most wares made in Britain were fairly rustic. Inspired by the “Delft” imports, British potters also began making tin glazed earthenware pottery, which is also, confusingly, called “Delft”. In general English Delft remained less refined and more “folky” than its Dutch inspiration.
I believe that the flower brick form is of English and not Dutch origin. However, there are certainly Dutch examples of the form, which were likely made for export to Britain. The form is probably a more “plebian” version of its high-class cousin, the Tulipiere, but designed for more common flowers and used by the lower and middle classes who could not afford tulip bulbs.
NCC: Do most people who make flower bricks abide by the "tradition" of making them -- a surface, clay body, shape, etc-- or is flower brick a loose term?
MB: Definitely a loose term. Almost all of the historical flower bricks I have seen are similar in shape and size. They are usually decorated with floral motifs inspired either by Chinese blue and white, Ming era decoration, or by what is called Deutche Blumen, or German flower style. However, contemporary artists’ flower bricks vary widely and rarely, if ever, resemble the originals.
KK: I think of a contemporary flower brick as being distinguished by small holes for flowers vs. a larger, single opening, but could be any shape or size.
NCC: What sort of technical advice would you offer other artists interested in making flower bricks?
MB: Well, I have been told that they are vastly easier to clean if the top is removable, but mine aren’t.
NCC: Do you own any flower bricks by other artists?
KK: I own a Linda Christianson flower brick (see image at right - tulips from this last Thanksgiving, which are a little long, but look gorgeous in her piece). As well as a Kathryn Finnerty piece which I actually use for napkins. Both of these pieces are low, long and narrow, and despite my comment above, do not have holes, but a full opening.
NCC: Flower bricks seem to lay somewhere between functional pottery and functional sculpture. Does this seem limiting or limitless in terms of your creative energy?
MB: Vases in general are quite open to interpretation, and not at all limiting in terms of function. Broadly speaking, as long as it will hold water and not tip over when you put flowers in it, it can work as a vase. Of course, those whose avocation is flower arrangement might say different. The aesthetic challenge of any vase form is for the form to look good both with and without flowers. The brick form provides some guidance for the flower arranger, and allows for a nice arrangement with fewer flowers.
KK: Flower vessels in general are a fun form to play with as a maker because, as you suggest, they can lie on the sculptural side of function. Like the tulipiere, or even the teapot, flower bricks give the maker an interesting parameter with which to play, stretch and re-imagine.
Please feel free to email me with any comments or questions about this interview. Thanks for you interest! -Karen