It would be hard to imagine anyone more passionate about ceramics, and the more imperfect the better. Interior designer Janine Vasta takes us to meet Justin van Nierop, artisan, designer and founder of the Melbourne tile gallery Urban Edge Ceramics.
Justin van Nierop started Urban Edge Ceramics 15 years ago in an inner city Richmond warehouse that he says had seen better days. “It was supposed to be a hobby project, a toy.” Justin set up the showroom after the pace of the successful Sydney renovation company he ran with his sister left him looking for something more low-key.
Instead the thriving business now sees him crossing the globe several times a year in search of the best and latest surfaces in Europe and beyond. But meeting Justin you get the feeling that nothing he does stays small for long. He’s the kind of person who reminds you that success really can come from following your passion and trusting your own sense of style. Oh, and that perfection is way overrated.
The highly skilled Portuguese artisans Justin has teamed up with to produce his latest collection had a hard time understanding that he wasn’t seeking a faultless tile. “The first samples they produced were just too perfect,” he says. “It was a really difficult process. They just didn’t believe that we actually wanted the tiles to have wobbly edges and for the glaze not to be perfectly even and flat.”
Justin says that his partners in the new range are Portugal’s only government certified producers of ceramic tiles. “They kept looking at us and saying, ‘but no!’,” he laughs. “These guys have been conditioned to create the perfect handmade tile. It was a bit of a shock when we actually wanted them to relax a bit.”
The result, “Fifth Element Handmade Tiles”, is completely artisan-made, from sourcing and mixing the clay and grinding the pigments for the glaze to the firing process that creates the little imperfections that make every tile in the collection unique. “Everything is done as it has been for centuries,” he says. Laying them out on the table back in Melbourne, Justin looks like a proud father. He loves them. He dreams about them he tells me unashamedly. “They’re my gems.”
This isn’t such an odd analogy when you consider Justin trained as a goldsmith in Sydney and spent his childhood fixing old watches with his father, a Dutch watchmaker and jeweler. The youngest of five and the only boy, he learnt from his father to love and respect handmade objects and the artisans who create them. This passion for craft and the happiness that comes from beautiful textures and surfaces shapes the collection at Urban Edge Ceramics.
Justin’s Dutch-born mother played her part too, making everything at home from bread and cakes to clothes by hand. “Nothing was bought,” he says. “It was the seventies and there was a lot of sameness but everything we had was handmade.” Fast forward to 2015 and Justin thinks his mum’s handmade fashion would be way cool today. “Handmade clothes, handmade food, handmade whatever is cool now,” he says. “It’s self-expression. Whatever is cool for you is cool.”
For Justin, along with his fierce anti-sameness ethos, certain inspirations never falter. When I ask him where he finds most of his products for UEC he’s quick to single out Italy as his go-to place for everything from lifestyle and coffee to tiles. “The Italians are the best,” he says. “I know them and I know their quality is going to be first class.”
But he’s also ready to add a new muse to the list. “Lisbon is amazing,” he says, recounting the story of a dinner for two in the Portuguese capital (Justin works and travels with his partner Mia) that turned into a late night sightseeing tour with the local couple at the next table. “The Portuguese are so open, ” he says. “They say ‘this is our style’ but they’re not too proud to reinvent themselves and try new things. I could move there tomorrow.”