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Going the extra tile
The exterior looks much like any other 1920s Brighton semi, but step inside 75 Stanmer Villas and it’s a very different story.
Owner Kay Aplin has transformed the property into a living showcase of her work as a ceramicist.
In the hallway there is a huge frieze, just along from what she has dubbed her “Tudor kitchen”, decorated with a colourful collection of handmade tiles featuring Tudor motifs.
Aplin is regularly commissioned to create works of public art, from streetscapes and sculpture for city centres to architectural features for new buildings.
The tiles in the kitchen are the same as those she used in a project for Hampton Court Palace, while the enormous piece decorating an outside wall is a recreation of a commission for a school in Wales.
“I had a few tiles left over and I was foolish enough to think, well, I might as well reuse them. Of course I ended up having to make hundreds more.”
Above the garage she has converted into an office and design studio, there is another dazzling installation featuring the same tiles used to decorate two towers in Llanbradach, near Caerphilly.
In the utility room, she’s just finished installing seagreen tiling above the worktops. Raised tendrils lead visitors towards the garden, an intriguing area of raised platforms and cosy nooks. Previously an overgrown jungle – “It turned out I had an almond tree under there!” – Aplin’s collection of orange, pink and yellow tiles now conjures the feel of a sunny Spanish villa, even on a depressingly rainy Monday.
The outside took “absolutely ages”, she says.
With just one builder and a team of enthusiastic volunteers, she recalls an atmosphere of genial chaos as they worked to put up tiles several foot above ground level.
“We had a half-open paper pattern – it was too big to lay out anywhere in the house – and we’d place the tiles on it, then attach the tiles to cement boards before carrying them out into the garden. It took from nine in the morning until midnight.”
Her bedroom’s en suite bathroom was a mercifully easier matter – despite outward appearances.
“I got a tiler,” she reveals with a grin. “I used to install everything myself but it’s so nice to hand that side of things over to someone else.”
One can only imagine the reaction of the average tiler when presented with a sloping ceiling and a pile of irregular, handmade tiles.
But Aplin says he enjoyed the challenge.
“I’ve needed all sorts of things done around the house and at least they know they’re going to be working on something interesting.”
Studded with raised circles and smooth, snake-like rolls of fired clay, Aplin’s work is incredibly tactile. Fortunately, her tiles are built for durability.
“I want people to feel comfortable touching them,”
she says. “That tactile quality is one of the things I love about ceramics and it’s why I tend to fire my work so it’s fairly indestructible.
With public art, it’s pretty much essential.”
Brought up in Glasgow, Aplin’s route into ceramics was not the expected one.
She actually started off studying textiles at Central St Martins – “I’ve always loved fabrics and I love making clothes and costume but I hated textiles! It was all knit, weave and tapestry and it just wasn’t for me.”
She ended up instead studying public art at Chelsea College of Art. “I loved the variety – you could do mosaic, stained-glass and ceramics and I ended up specialising in glass and ceramics.”
Since graduating in 1995, she has worked on commissions all over the UK, responding to different environments with work that references the characteristics, uses and location of a site, its history and the way it is used by the public. Working with clay is labour-intensive and highly unpredictable. Some of the (perfectly nicelooking) tiles in the garden – rejects from another project – are testament to this.
“They didn’t rise properly and I had to start all over again.” But the potential for failure only makes the process more appealing, Aplin explains. “I suppose it’s an aspect of working with ceramics that all ceramicists both fear and love.”
She moved into the house four years ago – “It was a real mess” – and decided it was the perfect canvas to show off her work.
Formerly resident in London, Wales, and latterly Guatemala where she had a one-year arts placement, it is the first time Aplin has worked on a whole property and she’s itching to do more.
“I discovered that, as much as I like making individual pieces, I also love designing rooms – everything from where you put a tiled piece to what you leave bare. I’d love to work on other people’s houses.”
She opened her house to the public for the first time last year, during the annual Artists’ Open Houses in May, and this year will unveil even more pieces alongside those of a number of other artists whose work she admires.
She hopes it might inspire others to commission her for their homes. “There’s a lot you can do with ceramics.
It could just be a small feature in a bathroom or on a garden wall, or it could be all over a house, like this.”
It looks rather addictive.
Isn’t it hard to know when to stop?
“It’s getting to the stage where I’ve tiled everything I really wanted to tile. I don’t want to do every single room – you can definitely have too much of a good thing!”
* The Ceramic House will be open to the public during the Brighton Festival as part of Artists’ Open Houses on Saturdays and Sundays in May, from 11am-5pm. It will also feature a curated show of ceramic art from 15 established ceramists; Annette Bugansky, Vanessa Conyers, Amy Cooper, Ami Derbyshire, Natalia Dias, Liz Emtage, Mandee Gage, Renee Kilburn, Lisa Krigel, Chris Murphy, Myung Nam An, Paul Scott, Sarah Walton, Camilla Webb Carter and Mickey Wolters. All the work exhibited will be available to buy.
* For more information, visit www.aoh.org.uk.