Hailing from one of the UK’s most veiled, creative families, it seemed inevitable that Romy Northover would follow in her family’s footsteps and pursue a career in the creative industries. Despite initially eschewing her creative impulses and trialling work in more traditional sectors, Romy has gone full circle and returned to work as a practising artist, writes JoBeth Phillips.
Creativity runs through the Northover blood – father Jim founded leading graphic design consultancy, Lloyd Northover, with friend and business partner John Lloyd in 1976; elder sister, Sophie, works on costume design for blockbuster films; and younger brother, Maxim, has worked as an illustrious film-maker/photographer, a model, and is currently working in animation. It seems inevitable, then, that Romy should end up working within a creative profession.
“My extended family, on both sides, all work within the creative industries in one way or another,” says Romy. “You could say it’s a strong bloodline! There was a time when I felt like it was preordained, that I didn’t have a choice. But then I thought what the hell is the matter with you? Get on with it!”
But by no means does Romy assume any success as an artist based on her family’s fruitful endeavours. Instead, she has moved from her native Britain to go it alone in New York as a ceramicist, on her own merit – a testament to her characteristic enthusiasm and sense of adventure, seeking out new challenges across the world.
Ceramics wasn’t Romy’s first foray in the art world – she previously worked at an advertising agency, as a freelance stylist, and even won a grant to work in Venice painting masks and reliefs for the Venetian masquere, as well as stints in Berlin and Hong Kong. Each of these experiences helped refine her creativity, and positively apply them to ceramics, a medium which Romy is exceptionally passionate about.
“Ceramics was in my bones the whole time,” she attests. “But I needed to try other things … let’s say it was important to positively eliminate!
“But ceramic is my sweetheart! It’s an extraordinarily versatile material – it can be very modern or ancient. The medium itself leads me as much as anything, and that is really great.”
The material itself gives Romy an unprecedented sense of artistic freedom, and the resulting products are often inspired by the environment around her – from a certain colour, logo, magazine design, the weather, people, places – all of these influences can be found within her diverse ceramics portfolio.
“Anything that makes me feel – in essence, life, inspires me,” Romy says. “I learnt to love life, and I love the natural world. Travel is very important – I need to get perspective and take time away in order to replenish.
“It is important to experience new cultures, spaces, places. The shapes, the horizon, the smells, sounds – all the senses which you experience in your entirety. I like that it makes me feel very alive,” she continues. “Nature inspires me – I live in this super urban city, but sometimes I want to run away to the forest, mountains or desert, and lay my head on the sand!”
Inevitably, music, fashion, film and literature also inspire Romy’s work, of which she says: “A sense of narrative can be translated in so many ways. A story is such a primeval form of education and entertainment.
“I reference fashion textiles for colour palettes, too,” Romy explains. “In my practice, I tend to prefer more tonal and form variation, rather than a great mix of colour – and you can really achieve that with fabrics. I’m more sculptural in my approach – I like things to exist in space, which is why the worlds of film, installation, interiors, fashion, sculpture and ceramics have been a great pull to me.”
But one of the most important influences that manifests in Romy’s work is undoubtedly Japanese ceramics. Indeed, Romy has a studio, entitled No, at one of New York’s most prestigious Japanese ceramic centres, New York Togei Kyoshitsu.
“Japanese ceramics influence my practice a lot, partly because of my studio location, but also because it is so different from the traditional European aesthetics of symmetry and perfection.
“In the West, beauty and aesthetics are often discussed in theoretical terms, whereas the ideas of the Japanese aesthetic are seen as integral to daily life – wabi sabi – the beauty of things that are imperfect, impermanent, incomplete,” she explains.
In fact, even her studio’s name, No, is derived from this Eastern philosophy. “Noh is derived from the Shinto-Japanese word meaning for ‘skill’ or ‘talent’,” Romy explains. “It is also an abbreviation for my family name, Northover, and no, as a number – potential infinity! But aside from anything else, I think No is a great word. Affirmative! An important word to use,” Romy enthuses.
With a supportive family behind her, Romy called upon her father, who trained in graphic design, and has an impressive body of work in his CV, to design the No logo. “I’m exceptionally lucky in that respect,” she says. “My parents have always encouraged me to do what I want, and specifically in my return to working with ceramics. I am forever grateful for their unfaltering support.”
Despite being a relatively recent transplant to the US, the success of her New York studio has encouraged Romy to continue persuing ceramics as a serious career option, not a hobby. In fact, the popularity of her designs has propelled her into jewellery design.
“I am working on a line right now,” Romy explains. “I wanted something that looks big, ancient and rough. I collected a load of rocks and shells on a recent trip to Nicaragua, and I want to combine them with ceramics, corals, leathers, horse hair and other natural materials.
“They are all made from natural elements and carry significance – it is so direct from the earth.”
Romy’s interest and earthly approach to her work doesn’t just extend to (literally) taking from the earth, but also giving back. Currently, Romy is in the process of setting up a system so that a percentage of sales work is donated back to preserving the earth, through charities that tackle climate change, support saving the ocean, and so on.
“I use the earth’s resources, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite – it’s very important for me to take responsibility and make considered choices in giving back. There is a big movement towards sustainability and giving back in Brooklyn, which I feel very positive about,” she affirms.
An avid nomad, Romy has finally found a place which she feels is home. After battling in the London art scene, to a self-made residency in Berlin – as well as travels in-between – Romy finally made the move across the pond in 2010 with her husband. Moving directly from her time in Berlin, Romy confesses that New York was a “massive culture shock” – but she wasn’t deterred.
“New York is such a loaded city with preconceived ideas. It’s true that it is very fast and very aggressive. It can be difficult to figure out where you fit into all of that. Then, suddenly, after nearly two years, I fell in love. New York is a magnetic city. If you know what you want, you can find it here, but heaven help you if you don’t know what you want. My move to New York was instrumental in my transition to ceramics. It forced me to question what I was doing.”
The progression to ceramics as her preferred medium was a relatively smooth one – she had previously spent her formative art education experimenting with the material, and was fortunate enough to do a workshop with Ian Gregory, who invented the paperclay technique in the UK, and who first introduced Romy to the concept of firing her creations using the Japanese Raku technique – a technique which Romy still employs today.
Romy’s resulting wares blur the boundary between functional products and art – a trait which is increasing the notoriety of her No studio – along with her personalised approach. No two products will be the same, even if they are from the same line – a distinct antithesis to the off-the-shelf ceramic products that can be found in their thousands across the world.
“There are collections and then named groups within the collection. Each piece is hand-built and individual – no two items are identical,” Romy affirms. “Ideally, the products should look good and be able to stand up when on display, but also be functional,” she continues “It’s really the customer’s choice!
“However, work can really improve as you use it. I was really unhappy with a piece that came out, and was advised to take it home and use it, that it might work better with food – and now it’s one of my favourites!”
The Arts and Crafts movement, proving popular across the world, also inspires Romy – and naturally ceramicists in particular. But with a firm background in the art and design industry, Romy is flexible and open to using various materials in the future – as long as she is creating.
“Fortunately, it’s more acceptable for designers and artists to diversify, and I really like that. Even now that my primary medium is ceramics, it would never preclude me from working with other materials/mediums as and when I want to,” she says.
But for the foreseeable future, working with ceramics will be her main concern. “I love my work. I’m never bored, and I’m always thinking about something I want to work on. It’s a very special feeling that there are endless possibilities,” she says. “I like the idea of regeneration, to learn from experience, and learn from the process and make the journey pleasurable in some way.”
What medium her creativity manifests in may vary – but one thing is for certain, Romy is finally comfortable with the art of creation, and nothing will hold her back.