Porcelain Droll

Courtesy of Asprey

After nearly two decades of designing for distinguished firms, Peter Ting turns to creating clever, fantastical art objects.

The prodigiously talented designer Peter Ting has devoted much of his career to updating the ceramics and crystal of some of Britain’s leading luxury goods purveyors. His work for Thomas Goode, Royal Crown Derby, and Asprey—where he’s been designing since 2002—added a distinctly contemporary twist to their traditional, upscale images.

“Basically, I don’t do low-end,” Ting booms with a mischievous laugh during a conversation at his apartment in London’s newly hip Elephant and Castle neighborhood. “You can be much quirkier and more creative at the high end. I look back at old Sèvres, which I just love, and I wonder why anybody would make such outrageously decadent pieces. It could only happen at the top end.” His award-winning designs have included commissions for the royal family and can be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A couple of years ago Ting renegotiated his position with Asprey, allowing him to retain a role as a design consultant while freeing him up to pursue his own projects. In particular, he wanted to focus on his burgeoning career as an artist, making exquisite porcelain objects that meld Asian and Western influences while riffing on quotidian forms like cups and saucers, vases and candleholders. “I decided quite young that I wanted a certain lifestyle, and design was the best way to achieve it,” says Ting, who is 48. “But after all this time, I am going back to my desire to make art.”

Ting is represented by the high-profile Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai, where his work fits nicely with owner Pearl Lam’s emphasis on the increasingly dynamic intersection of design and art. “Traditionally in China we did not have artists or designers,” says Lam. “We had literati, who wrote poetry, played music, painted, and designed furniture and architecture—there was no separation. In my eyes, Peter is a kind of modern version of that.”

In 2004 Ting created a series of massive porcelain vases—six to seven feet high—inspired by antique Chinese wares. For the actual production, he worked with artisans in Jingdezhen, where porcelain was born over a thousand years ago. “They have the skill to make these monsters,” says Ting. “Almost everyone there is in the porcelain trade, and they love stretching themselves technically, whether it’s making the vases huge or small or thin.”

Using eight of the vases, Ting created an installation that viewers walk around, dwarfed by the normally precious objects, like tiny bulls in the largest of china shops. The piece was part of the exhibition “Awakening: La France Mandarine,” which was shown in Shanghai and Beijing in 2004–5 and may travel to the Palais de Tokyo, one of Paris’s liveliest art spaces, next year.

Ting’s rising profile has coincided with an explosion of interest in Chinese artists. It’s a label Ting only recently embraced. “Growing up in Hong Kong I thought of myself as colonial British,” he says. “But when I traveled to Shanghai a few years ago, the Mandarin I spoke with my parents as a child came flooding back, and I looked around and thought, Everybody looks like me. My God, I’m Chinese. Which is how I now describe myself.”

Ting’s father was a dentist who painted, and his mother was a botanist who wanted to be an actress. “There were always actors and artists around our house,” recalls Ting. “By Hong Kong standards we were quite eccentric.”

The city’s colonial status had a major impact on Ting. “There was this feeling that if you weren’t white, you would never get that top job,” he says. “We were brought up with an inferiority complex, a feeling that if you wanted to get somewhere you needed a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”

Ting, clearly, is not short on ambition. At 16, he was sent abroad to study, ending up in the sylvan, rolling hills of Somerset, England. “I immediately fell head over heels in love,” recalls Ting. “It was so beautiful, and suddenly I was surrounded by all these great English eccentrics. It felt wonderful to be in a place where such things were embraced.”

During college Ting hustled his way into the right circles, selling his designs to the prestigious London shop Liberty & Co. While working on his master’s, he moved to Stoke-on-Trent, the home of Royal Doulton, Spode, and Wedgwood and the heart of the British ceramics industry. He subsequently worked at various jobs—including grading and rejecting pots—until he set up his own company, Tingware, in 1987, supplying select stores worldwide with bone china designs.

In 1994 he joined the luxury goods company Thomas Goode. Among the 40 patterns he introduced at the firm was the Harlequin dinner service, featuring a gilt and black diamond–patterned border. As Ting notes, “it became an instant classic.” In 2005 one Harlequin service, from Gianni Versace’s estate, sold at Sotheby’s for $9,000.

It was Ting’s hand-decorated services that caught the eye of curators at the Victoria and Albert, his free slashes of color a radical departure from Goode’s classic designs. While at Goode, Ting also created a coffeepot for Queen Elizabeth and worked on a service for the Prince of Wales, no doubt laying to rest any lingering inferiority issues.

With a mind like a Rolodex of design and art history, Ting recalls patterns and periods with impressive ease. And he eagerly discusses the influence of contemporary artists, from Minimalists Carl Andre and Agnes Martin to members of younger generations, such as Doris Salcedo.

His own latest series, begun a couple of years ago, draws on the tradition of blanc de chine, the treasured pure-white porcelain that comes from Dehua, high in the mountains of eastern China. Ting traveled there to find artisans to help him make such pieces as his lotus-handled coffee cup and saucer rimmed with rows of tiny protruding hands. Beautiful and fantastical, the work references the multiarmed deities and symbolic finger poses found in Buddhist sculpture. Bestowing sacred qualities on an everyday object, Ting elevates it to a precious work of art.

With his literati leanings, Ting is far too well-rounded—and in demand—to give up functional design entirely. Current projects include a collection of teacups with Timothy d’Offay (son of art dealer and collector Anthony d’Offay), who runs Postcard Teas in London. “Teas and their vessels can be as varied as wines and their glasses,” says Ting, noting that each of the hand-painted cups has its own distinctive shape and character.

In this transitional phase, Ting and his partner, artist Brian Kennedy, split their time between Ireland and Britain. They plan to collaborate on art installations, and they’ve set up a studio in a 19th-century London building. “We don’t yet know quite what we’ll do,” says Ting, “but it will involve sound, video, smell, sensors. And, of course, objects.”

Peter Ting’s artworks are available exclusively through Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai (133 Middle Sichuan Rd., Fifth Fl.; 86-21/6321-9606; contrastsgallery.com).