Ceramics for the Anthropocene

A transdisciplinary project that reflects on the prospects of a sustainable economic development respectful of natural resources, in response to the challenges of the Anthropocene. 

It promotes a new, localised approach to innovation: rooted in the rediscovery and appreciation of territorial material resources, shaped by the integration of hyper-local crafts know-how with distributed digital technologies.

Ceramics for the Anthropocene is the result of a collaboration with the local community of italian ceramicists based in the area of Albisola Superiore, the Engineering Department of the University of Genova and the DigifabTURINg robotic fabrication research lab based at the Fablab Torino. It was developed during the residency program BE sm/ART 2 organised by Radicate.eu.

Historical Research

Representation of the rise and fall of ceramic production from the XIII century onwards.  Analysis kindly provided by ceramic historian Cecilia Chilosi.
Ceramics artworks on display at the Museo della Ceramica di Savona and industrial molds in the archives of the ceramic workshops of Albisola Superiore. Photos courtesy of the Museum.

The background research process originated from conversations with ceramics historians, museum collections managers and the local community of ceramicists and technologists. These discussions allowed me to build a thorough understanding of the unfolding of the Albisolese ceramics production and its economic relevance for over 900 centuries.

Originally relying on indigenous clays, the local production introduced a new range materials in the 17th century to limit the visible impact caused by the exploitation of local materials on the landscape (whole hills had been flattened-out, becoming fertile ground for vine yards).

In order to preserve Albisola’s position as competitive european ceramics producer, the local craftsmen have had to periodically adopt new techniques, materials and style dictated by new international aesthetic taste. As observed by ceramics historian Cecilia Chilosi, the continuity of ceramics production has been characterised by highs and lows corresponding to these waves of change.

In recent years, the local ceramics industry has been stranded by the competition of global industrial ceramics production, which has decimated the factories present on the territory. Only a small number of artisanal businesses survived the globalised wave of change. Operating in the space between artisanal production, reproduction of historical pieces and support of an international community of artists, contemporary craftsmen are in search of a new identity.

Upon my arrival I observed the contemporary generation of craftsmen, surprised that it had almost completely dismissed the use of local materials, relying instead on industrial suppliers. In addition, clay often offered craftsmen a blank canvas whose raw beauty was preferentially hidden under complex pictorial decorative glazes. None of the craftsmen interviewed had ever created collections of un-glazed objects, let alone knew the origins of the clays they were working with.

The project developed from these initial findings. In a quest to quickly develop a thorough understanding of the ceramic material and its possibilities, I undertook a thorough materials research process in collaboration with ceramicist Marco Tortarolo. We were guided by the need of re-linking local craftsmanship with local raw materials, exalting the connection between clay and territory.

Developing material know-how

My fascination with clay was born from the observation of its unique characteristics. Its biological and mineralo-chemical heritage are refined by geological processes and are translated in specific physical properties and colour shades that heavily influence the look&feel as well as function of the crafted object.

Chemical analysis results of the raw clays found in the area of Savona and Albenga detailing the chemical composition of each clay sample.

It is not a case that ceramics industry often developed in areas with particular geology, prolific in clay sediments. These local realities have often succeeded thanks to the exploitation of those characteristics for particular purposes.

Because of the interwoven history of the material provenance, its properties, its use and it’s legacy, we liked to think about every handful of clay as a geo-marker of the local territory.

To investigate the relationship between local territory and clay we organised field trips to particular areas of Liguria, visiting craftsmen working with indigenous materials and collecting a range of clay samples from different areas. We entered abandoned clay pits, explored geological landmarks and sometimes private households to recover forgotten material samples and stories.

We then spent 2 months refining these clays through various processes. We learnt how to create mixes that would perform as the industrial counterparts, and produced a beautiful colour palette of 100% local materials.

Integration of digital and traditional craftsmanship

My other remit was to explore the full expressive potential emerging at the intersection of analog and digital fabrication. This process was only possible through an open-ended collaboration with the team experts. Facilitating lively discussions about the evolving meaning of craft and craftsmanship in the contemporary context, I aimed to synthesise all perspectives in the final artwork.

We mapped and tested the whole range of digital and physical parameters presented by the digifabTURINg robotic platform. As a result, we developed an extensive library of extrusion effects and layering approaches.


Looking for an effect that could recall geological stratification aesthetics, we started exploring custom asymmetric nozzles borrowed from haute patisserie (never seen before in the field of digital clay fabrication) and horizontal fabrication approaches.

This explorations succeeded in cross-pollinating traditional know-how with cutting-edge digital fabrication techniques, mixing hand-made and computational design strategies. Both partners have  gained new perspectives from the collaboration, and have integrated in their own practice the new outlook on materials and crafting tools.

Local and globalised material resources in the Anthropocene

Our approach to materials generated a broader reflection on the implications of the use of local versus globalised resources, the prospects of sustainable urban development by means of environmental responsibility.

This theme emerged in conversations with the engineering researcher based at Savona University Campus, whose work aims to demonstrate the possibility of powering-up future smart cities, relying only on available local renewable resources. 

The Savona Campus is partly powered through clean solar energy, but it still relies on external supply to meet the daily demands. Unfortunately the energy sources used by the national grid are often un-known, mostly non-renewable and partly still based on coal.

Data materialisation

I spent time with the engineering researchers and a group of their students, analysing the daily data sets generated by the smart grid system that manages the energetic exchanges on Campus. They helped me to structure the data in a meaningful way, to represent the efforts and challenges in reaching  autonomy through the management of local resources.

The shortcoming of our globalised economy lies in this lack of transparency in materials sourcing and production methods, whose impact has often been ignored by the communities benefitting from it, but has brought to changes in the geological and environmental landscape at such a scale that a new term was coined to frame the phenomenon: the Anthropocene

Sustainable development can only be achieved through reversing current globalised approaches to resources, by means of development base on the respectful use of the natural resources available in the local landscape.

We worked together to identify how to visualise the proportion between local renewable and external resources, and represent the tension between these approaches. 

The circular shape represents the year of 2016, in which each linear ray represents one day of the year. We parametrically divided each line in two parts, one representing the proportion of autonomously produced clean energy, the other representing the external supply needed to match the daily demand.

Two concentric areas can therefore be observed: an internal section representing the renewable resources produced on Campus, printed robotically with local materials, and an external wider section representing the non-renewable resources, fabricated with industrial clays and chamottes.