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Crafting a better future for all

Jun Rhee is master potter at Kiln, the Newcastle-based bar, café-restaurant and ceramics maker known for its range of exclusive tableware. Here, he tells Pete Mallon about the philosophy and inspiration behind his craft, his journey from East Asia to England and why he will never tire of championing handmade goods in a world of mass production.

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do

It’s less about what I do and more about what it’s used for. I’m a craftsman; I create empty spaces using clay, things like noodle and porridge bowls, things you can use and feel. And I love it.

Describe your philosophy

When I started making pottery, I loved being able to make something out of my hands. But once it became a daily routine, I began to feel a little stuck. My back was hurting, my neck was hurting – I kept asking myself, ‘why are you making things by hand?

And why with clay?’ I couldn’t find the answer and then, one day, I went to church, where the priest told us about the Bible, and that how we are the clay and God is the potter. That made me think again.

Clay is the reason I’m alive and here on the planet. We discovered fire two million years ago. At the same time, we found clay; it was the first chemical reaction without language and knowledge, and it has protected my DNA ever since.

When clay meets fire, it becomes denser, and when it is fired to more than 1000 degrees, it becomes a space where no bacteria can live. By picking clay for tableware, people gave themselves more opportunity to survive, and it meant the population went up.

Then, one day, someone used a bowl to put food inside, and then another on the top as a lid, which gave us the jar. That meant people could survive winters much more safely, and the population increased again.

That triggered agriculture, which triggered civilisations. Clay has been fighting to protect me and my parents, and generations before them, in all that time. That was when I really started to live clay.

Was this realisation the defining moment of your career?

I’ve been making something from clay for 16 years, and I had those thoughts maybe two years ago.

Before them, I looked at myself as someone who made ceramics using clay. Now, though, I consider myself a craftsman, a potter who uses clay to make life more beautiful.

At the beginning, I did it because it was cool and I enjoyed the creativity and the emotions that came with it. But now, I see it as my destiny; it’s a job given to me by nature and God.

You grew up in South Korea. Tell us about your journey from East Asia to England’s North East

I wanted to introduce people in the UK to the values of pottery and handcrafts, because this is where the Art and Crafts movement and the Industrial Revolution both started.

As someone who uses their hands to create, I’m not against the machine as long as it isn’t killing nature and people.

But in a world where money is more important than nature and people, I can’t help but fight the machine. The machine makes products faster, cheaper and better, but it ruins the power of natural circulation.

It makes rich people richer, and leaves poorer people worse off.

The other reason I came to the UK was William Morrison, who is known as a father of design. He was also a craftsman against the machine, someone who railed against the culture of fast disposal, of making things cheaper and binning them for another.

He knew it was going to kill nature and that it was bad for the planet, so he encouraged a craft movement, one that made products with care and love. And we need to bring craft back into culture, to make it by hand, rather than by machine.

Where and how do you seek inspiration?

I get inspiration from a need.

If I’m making a beaker, I need to think about where to put the handle.

But if I want to keep my tea warm for as long as possible, do I make the top narrow, so it retains the heat? Or, if I want to drink my tea more quickly, do I make the top wider, so the heat can escape?

When I first made pottery, it was all about shapes and lines.

Now, though, it’s about the space and the need.

How important is failure in the creative process?

Failure doesn’t teach me anything; not failing makes me grow.

If you want to grow, you shouldn’t accept failure; you need to focus on how not to fail.

What advice would you give to someone in a creative role?

Find your reason, though it isn’t easy.

To do so, you need consistency, to wake up and work every day.

It might make you hate what you’re doing, but you need to be bold.

Finding an answer takes time. If you’re lucky, you might get one straightaway.

But it might take a year, two years, ten years.

Equally, there may never be an answer.

What goes through your mind when you’re at the wheel?

I ask myself why I’m doing this. And the answer is the future.

Do we want to keep this skill for the future, so we can still make things out of our hands?

I know I can make ceramics, but what about the next generation, and the one after that?

What if we reach a day where everything is made by machines? That is what goes through my mind.

What kind of legacy would you like to leave?

I want to be remembered as someone who made the world a more beautiful and cultured place, and who fought against the machine for handcraft value.

I want people to think of me as someone who, while he made good ceramics, lived a happy and poetic life.

That’s why I keep questioning why I’m making pottery, and why people should keep doing so across future generations.

And I’ll never stop asking myself.



Photography: Andrew Lowe

May 9, 2024

  • Feature

Created by Pete Mallon

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