One of the great pleasures of owning fine antique ceramics is displaying them in the home; and one of the delights of decorating with ceramics is the variety of ways they can be incorporated into an interior.
Hailing from near and far, antique ceramics are a succinct expression of artistry, craftsmanship and functional wares. Individually, each piece has an untold story that spans centuries and countries, and when presented singularly or collectively they create attractive displays that can take a room from ordinary to extraordinary.
Antique ceramics, such as majolica, faience, delftware, and porcelain add beauty, elegance and charm to a space. They bring splendor and character, add color and texture, and embody elements of other cultures and eras. Reflecting a homeowner’s style, taste and interests, the versatility of antique ceramics means they can be rearranged, added to, and moved to keep displays interesting and decoration current.
Here’s what to know about antique ceramics and how to incorporate them in a home.
Types of Antique Ceramics
Majolica is a tin-glazed pottery best known for its Italian heritage and brilliant shiny surface. While its production is inspired by Islamic pottery techniques developed around the 9th century, it was during the Italian Renaissance that majolica came to have the iridescent glaze that classifies it as lusterware. The Tuscans first imported Spanish and Islamic ceramics in great quantities before copying the styles using tin-oxide, a powdery white ash, which gave majolica’s luminous quality a distinctive whiteness and lightness.
Widely popular during the Renaissance, potters adapted majolica for all utilitarian ceramic objects, including dishes, bowls, serving vessels and jugs of all shapes and sizes. As majolica gained more of an artistic bent, potters used it for sculpture, sculptural reliefs, floor and ceiling tiles and by the 16th century it was considered a valuable combination of function, art and craftsmanship with stunning scenes painted on the surface.
Majolica manufacturers in Faenza, Italy, were known for their outstanding production creating clean, pure-white ceramic wares with light and delicate painted decoration. The French imported this majolica from Faenza naming it faience, the French name for Faenza. Faience manufacturers soon cropped up in France, Germany, Spain and Scandinavia in the late 1600s, with potters using a lead- instead of tin- glaze.
Potters in France, particularly, produced great quantities of faience when Louis XIV required silver to be melted down to replenish depleted state treasuries. The French faience industry produced ceramic substitutes for silver items and became known for superior tableware often based on fashionable silver shapes.
The Dutch also imitated majolica imported from Italy and manufacturers in Delft (hence the name Delftware) soon dominated production. Delftware was characteristically decorated in blue and white, evocative of imported Chinese porcelain. Potters wanted to complete with Chinese and Japanese imports and capitalize on the popular ‘Chinoiserie’ trend for in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus Delftware typically featured European and English interpretations of life in the Far East with exotic scenes of people, pagodas, boats, birds, and flora.
While majolica, faience, and delftware are all porous, opaque and coarser earthenwares, porcelain is a vitrified pottery with a white, fine-grained, translucent body. Porcelain can be hard-paste (true porcelain), soft-paste (artificial porcelain), or bone china. The Chinese developed hard-paste porcelain during the Yuan dynasty in the 14th century. Its imitation by European potters in the 16th century led to soft-paste porcelain with a softer body than its Chinese counterparts. Around 1800, English potter Josiah Spode added calcined bones (bone ash) to the recipe creating a hybrid-hard paste porcelain, known as bone china, which is extremely hard and easier to manufacture.
Where and How to Display Antique Ceramics
Ceramic antiques can brighten any room in the house and bring visual intrigue and conversation to a space. When displaying antique ceramics there are a number of factors to consider including the size of the collection and the size of the pieces, as well as the different vintages and countries of origin.
Arranging Antique Ceramics
1. Single pieces throughout a room
A sizable ceramic piece is best displayed on its own for maximum impact. That impact can be enhanced when large pieces are placed throughout a space or several spaces to carry a theme throughout a room or house. Here, three stunning pieces of blue and white delftware, including a lamp and an urn, are positioned through the open living-dining area and the blue and white geometric rug complements their color.
2. In pairs and trios
Smaller pieces and ceramic sets have more visual presence when presented together, such as a small display of two or three pieces. Whether the arrangement is an eclectic mix or a matching set will influence where the pieces are displayed. A matching set is ideal in a space or on a surface that requires symmetry, such as a dining room table, whereas an eclectic mix can create visual interest on a sideboard, mantelpiece or shelving unit. Keep the wall behind the ceramic pieces plain so as not to detract attention from the real stars of the show.
3. Create a vignette
A vignette of antique ceramics is in an attractive display that amasses a series of pieces in a harmonious tableau. Ceramic vignettes can be based on color, origin, shape, function, era, or size but do look best when there is both unity and variety. A theme will ensure harmony between the pieces while variety will keep the display interesting. This vignette amalgamates exquisite blue and white vases in differing sizes but all with bold and distinctive Far East iconography. Vignettes can really liven up a foyer, entryway or passageway but should be placed where pieces won’t be kicked or knocked.
4. Present a collection
A large collection of antique ceramics is best grouped together for maximum impact and to show both the extent and subtleties of the collection. A collection may mix ceramics of all types, vintages, and regions or present a collection that has a common theme or color.
Displaying Antique Ceramics
1. Affixed to the wall
Rather than hiding a collection of plates and platters in the cupboard, they can be used as decorative elements affixed to the wall (with plate hangers). Select a feature wall and experiment with shapes, colors and layouts for an eye-pleasing array. Consider the symmetry of the arrangement as well as the size of the plates as smaller pieces should be grouped more densely together for maximum effect.
2. Placed on a shelf
A collection of antique ceramics placed on shelf can create an ornamental and three-dimensional border across a wall or around a room. The height of the shelf will determine if the pieces can be touched or viewed up close. A shelf near the top of the room means ceramics are above eye level and out of harm’s way, while select pieces on lower shelves can be more easily seen and touched.
3. In a shelving unit or cabinet
A shelving unit or cabinet provides a variety of spaces, nooks, and alcoves for antique ceramics, which can be grouped together or placed separately and mixed with other objects, books, and decorative pieces. Consider how the color of the ceramic pieces and the cabinetry work together, as darker cabinetry will add more visual weight to the ceramics while lighter cabinetry can brighten up a collection. Glass front doors will keep the collection safe from prying fingers.
4. Choose a piece of furniture
Tables, sideboards, consoles and other furniture pieces can make striking display surfaces for antique ceramics. While the overall look of the room will determine the style of furniture, some ceramic pieces will suit some pieces of furniture better than others. Choose an equally decorative piece from the same era or origin; go for something neutral that will serve as a quiet background to highlight the antique ceramics; or pick a stand-out piece in a bold color that will contribute to an eye-catching vignette.
5. On the floor
Oversized or heavy ceramic pieces can be positioned in strategic locations on the floor. Adding color, texture, and character, large ceramics can be placed to fill a void or brighten up a corner. Be sure to consider its size and maintain scale both with the room and the other elements in it.
Beyond being wonderful collectors’ items, antique ceramics are both visual and conversational pieces. They reflect a rich interest in the objects that decorate a space, adding a sense of history, depth, beauty and charm to any interior.