Ceramist Christopher Spitzmiller makes posh, expensive lamps – if you’ve been following the HOUSE column, you will have seen them in the very poshest living rooms we have covered. He knew early on that, although he was training in fine arts, he wanted to be ‘a product person’. In America, at least when he was studying, he complains, that the art students were overly-encouraged to become artists without a sense of ‘how hard it was’. He has made an extraordinarily successful niche business, and, as you will see by looking at the pictures of his New York home, his sophisticated tastes have little in common with the stereotypical woolly-sweater-lumpy-brown-bowl type potter.
Did you imagine that you would be a ceramicist from the outset or did you come by it circuitously?
It was a circuitous thing. My grandfather had his own business and he encouraged me. He said to me: ‘You’ve got to have your own business. You know nothing ever in this world is for sure.’ He saw a lot of people working for big industry get fired in their 50s. I knew I wanted to have my own business. I was serious about it. I got really serious about ceramics when I was at boarding school.
Did people laugh at you?
I don’t think anybody realized how important it was for me … I would go and bring people in to show them a bowl I had made and I was so proud of … and looking back, you know, in hindsight, it was something I might not even let my dog drink out of.
Why did you go to boarding school?
I’m from Buffalo, New York and I have dyslexia and things were not going well with my schooling there. And my mom had a set of twins and our house was just chaotic and my grandfather was like: ‘We have to get him out of here.’ So I went my junior year. It was probably one of the best experiences, schooling-wise, of my life.
Why was your grandfather so close to you?
I spent summers with him. My mom would send me off to Cape Cod in the summer.
How did your dyslexia affect your life?
I can’t spell for anything and when I was younger I had a really hard time reading, and it’s funny because I know I really love to read. I’m a huge reader. And spell check saves everything! Thankfully it was diagnosed pretty early. And I think where ceramics is great is that I chose to do something that accentuated the positive aspects of my ability, but if you pick what you can do, if you’re smart enough to do that …
Why is it so hard to throw a pot?
Because you have to center it. You have to take the clay and put it in the center of the wheel and so it requires a lot of muscle control and body balance. You’re dealing with something that’s got the consistency of like a hard gum, and you’re putting water on it.
How long does it take you to make a series of lamp bases?
It takes about a week. We make 35 bases a week. Now we have a system where I make a bunch and we pick out the best one and we cast it. But when I first started I would make everything. People wanted the consistency.
They are terribly expensive…
They are, but when you come down to the studio you’ll see there are twelve people there who are making them by hand. And when you look at the room they are going to go into, and when you look at what sofas cost, a handmade sofa, they’re really some of the less expensive things in the room. You’re not going to find a base like that on many other lamps out there … they have a real life to them.
How did you claim this territory for yourself, with all the other handmade ceramics out there?
I think it was being connected with a group of decorators to begin with.
You’re very posh for being a potter – don’t most potters live in the countryside and wear woolly sweaters?
My mother calls me her blue-blazer potter.
By Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch