charlotte smith’s modern cup collaboration


Modern Atlanta is collaborating with three local artisans on limited-edition products as part of its annual Design Is Human celebration. One chosen maker, emerging ceramist Charlotte Smith, has married delicate porcelain and sturdy steel in a sculptural two-piece cup. After the jump, I’ll tell you about her step-by-step process and the DIY family tradition that fertilized her craft.

As with many simple designs, the creative process is long and painstaking — accounting for the vessel’s $55 price tag. Charlotte threw the original cup on her wheel, trimmed it to perfection, then made a mold. For each new cup, she pours translucent white slip (watered-down porcelain) into the mold, lets it dry, then does a bisque firing. She dips the cooled cup in matte, food-safe glaze and returns it to the kiln. Meanwhile, she hand-bends and welds the cup’s “cage,” which references the midcentury sculptor Lee Bontecou. Finally, she seals the steel holder with a matte black powder coat.

mold weld

Charlotte trained in fine art at Mississippi State, where she specialized in clay, metal, and wood sculpture. It was not until she joined an Atlanta ceramics co-op in 2013 — a way to get out of the house and make friends, since she was new in town — that she got hooked on cups. They were “instant gratification,” she says,  “and I could explore so many different techniques and patterns on the tiny canvas.”

Making beautiful but practical objects with an everyday use feels like a return to her roots, because she was raised in a family of craftspeople in Brandon, Miss. “My grandfather’s ability to make just about anything always amazed me,” she says. “He had a shop with a lathe and drill press that he built himself out of recycled machine parts. We have furniture all over my house that my grandfather and great uncle made.” Her father is a builder, and on summer breaks she rode around with him to check on his homes in progress. Her mother, a factory seamstress, taught Charlotte to sew at a young age.

Her display of ceramics for sale at Octane Coffee on Marietta Street caught the attention of Modern Atlanta founder Bernard McCoy. He recruited Charlotte to exhibit at tonight’s International Design Expo, and the two later chatted about developing an exclusive piece for MA’s online shop. “My wheels started turning instantly,” she says, rolling back to her sculpture days and arriving at “two distinct materials that enhanced the function of one another while being cohesive in shape and form.” The resulting cup’s purity and quality are reminiscent of the aesthetic spearheaded by modernist icons such as Eero Saarinen.

Charlotte’s cup display at Octane Coffee on Atlanta’s West Side caught the attention of MA founder Bernard McCoy, leading to a limited-edition collaboration.

Only 15 caged cups are available, and Charlotte makes them to order. Will you be one of a handful of design enthusiasts to sip tea from her functional sculpture? Reserve yours online here or order in person tonight at MA’s International Design Expo, located at the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center from 6 to 11 p.m. A la carte tickets are $10, but admission is included in the cost of this weekend’s architecture tour ($35).