I don’t know what I was expecting when Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch visited the Elle Decor offices to talk ceramics. Going into the meeting, I had that infamous scene from stuck in my head: Demi Moore’s spinning pottery wheel, Patrick Swayze’s glorious coif, that Righteous Brothers’ song. So imagine my surprise when the venerable duo behind New York City’s Roman and Williams design studio compared a gilded vase to the music of , the British anarcho-punk band. With that, it became clear that I was entering a bizarre new world—one made of hardened clay. “There is a new appreciation of ceramics,” Standefer told me. “It’s having a kind of renaissance.”
Last December, the couple opened Roman and Williams Guild, which is as much a museum as it is a home decor shop, with a magnetic selection of edgy ceramic works that range from the elegant to the supremely off-kilter. “The stuff at Guild is kind of high-folk, rather than classical,” Alesch said. “These pieces can appear somewhat primitive and clumsy, but there is great skill behind them.” What catches their eye is not your grandma’s clay garden urn, or Demi Moore’s output for that matter. It’s something ineffable—preferably with an overglaze.
Stephen Alesch: Ruan’s gnarly name matches the piece, which reminds me of the punk bands and Rudimentary Peni: high-pitched yelling, but very intelligent.
Robin Standefer: It speaks to 18th-century Royal Dutch tradition, but Ruan puts his own dissident signature on this beautiful, gilded vase.
5" dia. x 6" h., $5,200.
RS: It’s great when materials don’t immediately show themselves. You could absolutely believe this was metal. It feels like a giant talisman. I can’t take my eyes off of it.
SA: It is so luscious and sensual. It is the embodiment of Baroque. It has a magical quality with an energy center.
32" w. x 45" h., $28,000.
RS: There’s a reflective beauty in the glaze and a muscular strength to the form. It’s hardcore.
SA: I see architectural discipline here. It has a regimented, Brutalist intensity that gets attacked in the kiln.
28" w. x 30" d. x 48∞ h., $30,000.
RS: I love it! Look at the glaze and the shape of the platter. There’s so much skill. This makes you smile.
SA: That is the liveliest shrimp doodle I’ve ever seen. It’s so much fun!
14.5" w. x 11" d., $554.
SA: It reminds me of the work of Louis Kahn or B.V. Doshi—or Luke Skywalker’s childhood home.
RS: It has a certain primitive purity and a sense of sacred geometry.
5" w. x 5.5" h., $529.
SA: They’re very charming, and if you look closely, you can see they’re hand-drawn. From a distance, it could be a computer-made design.
RS: I like the draftsmanship.
Bread & butter plate, 5.5" dia., $90; dessert plate, 8.5" dia., $120; dinner plate, 10.5" dia., $160.
SA: I love the patterning on it.
RS: This is entirely ceramic, except for the legs? Whoa! Incredible. It reminds me of whimsical, female French modernism.
39.5" w. x 17" d. x 73∞ h., $60,000.
RS: The weird yellows and the funny brown—those are the colors of slipware. Lemons with leaves resting in this would be spectacular.
SA: The colors are so intense that I’d put it in the studio environment rather than the kitchen.
10.5" dia. x 5" h., $2,100.
RS: A conceptual statement.
SA: It’s fun to look at, and politically charged.
8" w. x 13" d. x 15.5" h., $9,500.
RS: She’s challenging. That’s what her work is all about. She has created a narrative that’s unexpected for a pitcher.
8.5" h., $700.
RS: This is interesting. It’s sculptural and utilitarian, and I love the limited palette—like cracked earth, a celebration of the imperfect.
SA: Lines on cracked mud are so beautiful.
22" w. x 19" d. x 14.5" h., $15,000.
SA: This guy is the Hunter S. Thompson of glazing. The design looks like a crazy, violent brushstroke painted at 3 a.m.
RS: There’s an irreverence to the drawing. This is blatantly spontaneous.
17" dia., $1,000. rwguild.com
RS: It recalls Memphis tradition in that it’s not focused on supergood taste. It’s cool and strange, but it wants its own space.
SA: This is lawless—truly wild, anarchic visual madness. It would have to be alone, because it wouldn’t play well with others.
15" w. x 15.5" d. x 25.5" h., $6,800.
RS: Very interesting. Reminds me of a daguerreotype.
SA: I’d immediately want to cook something and place it on them.
11" dia., $90.
RS: I find the purity and directness so appealing—beauty and utility working together. I think I’m going to buy one of these.
SA: This is ancient modernism. It reminds me of things at the museum in Naples. I’d put it in the kitchen and store vegetables on it. (We never put anything in the fridge!)
8" w. x 8" d. x 8" h., $1,500.
RS: This is true folk. There are so many fantastic shapes. I find one alone powerful, but eight together would be sublime.
SA: The brushwork is so brave. You can almost see the maker spinning it.
10" h., $200.