When the food at a fine dining restaurant is described as art on a plate—most likely, the plate is art in itself, as in recent years, chefs have taken to bespoke tableware as the vessels for their gourmet creations. Chef André Chiang, for one, handcrafted ceramic ornaments for his now-defunct Restaurant André in Singapore, and he turned to the professionals such as husband-and-wife ceramicists Loh Lik Kian and Debbie Ng when it came to tableware.
“Our tableware serves as canvases for the chef’s plating, much like the blank canvases for the artist to paint on,” enthuses Loh, whose interest in ceramics began when he chanced upon a unique Japanese teapot more than two decades ago. “I was mesmerised by its ‘natural beauty’—wood-fired with just the raw clay body, with a glaze pattern reminiscent of a string of fired straw, and an imperfect handle.”
He ended up doing a full-time diploma in ceramics at the Lasalle College of the Arts, under artist Ahmad Abu Bakar, while Ng picked up ceramic hand-building techniques. The duo also learnt valuable skills and knowledge from the veterans at Sam Mui Kwang Pottery. Their works sold in galleries and requests for private commissions started coming in. They bought their first kiln and set up their studio practice at home, where they continue to work from till today.
Before long, restaurants came knocking and the opportunities for collaborations grew through word of mouth. Since then, the couple has worked with numerous chefs of Michelin-starred and fine dining restaurants, including Julien Royer of Odette and Carlos Montobbio of Esquina, and the new Rebel Rebel wine bar, just to name a few.
While they both have the ability and expertise to accomplish the whole ceramic-making process, they have somehow ended up specialising in certain areas. For example, Loh specialises in wheel throwing and airbrushing glazes, while Ng is proficient at hand-building and dipping and brushing glazes. “This specialisation means that we are much more efficient as we complement each other to complete the whole process,” Ng explains.
Loh quips that even their lecturers at the Staffordshire University, where the duo completed a postgraduate ceramics programme in 2019, had a hard time keeping the creative partners apart. After gaining almost 20 years of experience, the couple decided that it was time to acquire new skills and knowledge so they based themselves in Stoke-on-Trent, the heart of ceramics in the UK, to learn the industrial methods for small-scale and mass ceramics manufacturing such as casting and using plaster, with modern technologies such as 3D printing and laser-cutting and etching.
It was during this time that they developed the fins design of the If (insulation fins/interlocking function) collection, which is inspired by cooling fins and heat sinks, to offer insulation to vessels. They even collaborated on the Adagio coffee pot set, which utilises an interlocking fins system, to enable the user to securely carry a heated cup on the pot. And this despite the naysayers that the design would be impossible to execute.