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The grandfather, father and son of Toni Cumella have, like him, made ceramics a way of life. As the third generation of a saga that has gone in search of new horizons for ceramics, he has brought this material to the front line of architecture, becoming involved in projects deeply rooted in our physical and mental landscapes such as the renovation of Park Güell and the Santa Caterina market in Barcelona. Implacable in his commitment, after 35 years of tireless work, he takes on each new project as a challenge that entails transforming a dream into a piece of ceramic tile in the workshop of Cerámica Cumella in Granollers.

Why ceramics applied to architecture as a continuation of the family saga?
I don’t know. It was never a pre-planned idea, rather that I let myself be swept along by an ambience and a fount of knowledge and a sense of restlessness. During my father’s life, the workshop served as a support for his personal projects and at home there were always poets, writers, musicians and a lot of architects too. Theoretical conversations about architecture were always very much a feature of our home life. In addition, part of our production was intended for construction and architectural purposes because that was what gave my father the economic freedom to do his own work and maintain his creative independence. Indeed, he never had a dealer and he used to call himself a Cartesian anarchist. So when he was no longer there, I carried on in the workshop, leaning towards architecture because it was a world that was already very close to me.
Thanks to Cristian Cirici I was fortunate enough to learn about the PER Studio comprising Lluís Bonet, Lluís Clotet, Enrique Stigman and Óscar Tusquets. It was they who let me believe that I could earn a living from ceramics for architecture, for which I’m very grateful. Through my brother-in-law Josep Maria Botey, with whom I’ve worked regularly, I met Elías Torres and Martínez Lapeña and we worked on the renovation of the benches at Park Güell; Enric Soria and Jordi Garcés… and the ripples just kept on growing. My contact with the PER Studio was a hugely important period in my early days.

So you had doubts when you started out as to whether you could make a living…
And I still do! Now I don’t know how to do anything else, but we’re going through a pretty bad time. Bad because of the economic crisis, but also bad because of the relationships being made in the world of construction. The crisis has tarnished the atmosphere in the construction world. It’s making it difficult for everyone, but a lot of sensitivity has been lost in terms of aesthetic results. Everyone’s chasing the euro and there’s no respect for other people’s work. It might be a good idea to put the clock back to zero in the construction world and start all over again.

An artisan in the middle of construction processes that on many occasions are on a massive scale, and also having to abide by corporate criteria… how do you see the role of ceramics in this scenario?
I have adopted ceramics as a way of life, not just a way of earning a living, but in the very broadest sense. As far as I’m concerned, working with architects, and the fact that each project is different, is a privilege. It’s the complete opposite to monotony. Every project has its different connotations and conditions, and this makes for a very rich world. In this respect, I think I’m very fortunate in not having to churn out mass-produced products. You might say that I live and breathe architecture to a much greater extent than construction per se. I could never be an entrepreneur and compete with the rest. That world is just beyond me. Perhaps that’s also the reason why I’ve chosen the path of working on more contemporary projects.

And what about those who think that ceramics just bring a complementary aesthetic touch to construction, what would you say to them?
I have a bit of Stockholm syndrome when it comes to ceramics, obviously, but I’ve always believed that ceramics are a twenty-first century material and I’ve always fought for that idea. Ceramics perform much better than other materials that are regularly used, without suffering in bad weather, for example; especially ceramics fired at high temperatures, such as porcelain stoneware. Porcelain stoneware and ceramics generally have the capacity to metamorphose with projects that many other materials lack. They are much more adaptable to very different projects because we’re starting out with a plastic, elastic material before firing. This allows us to work on a plane or in 3D; we can work on textures, on different glazing… the uses of ceramics in architecture are infinite. And also the ageing process produces some very good results.

Are these properties of ceramics sufficiently appreciated compared with when you first started working nearly four decades ago?
Yes. More than 30 years ago, the association was emerging from a controversy that caused us a lot of damage, which was the Walden building, where all the tiles were dropping off. And although the problem was nothing to do with the ceramics but rather the adhesive material used, it caused a lot of damage to the concept of using ceramics on exteriors. Since that time, however, we’ve done a lot of work to educate people and I believe that nowadays there is no doubt about the results that can be achieved by using ceramics on buildings and in contemporary projects, and I’m very pleased about that.

You’ve often spoken about encounters with certain architects that represented a turning point in your career. Who are these architects?
I think there are three periods in my career. The first, as I mentioned, was influenced by my contact with the PER Studio and enabled me to work with a group of architects who are now around ten years older than me, so aged 74 or 75. The second phase was my collaboration with Enric Miralles. It was such a blow that he died so young, because he really set the bar and his work was recognised worldwide. We worked with him on the Diagonal Mar Park, the Park of Colours in Mollet del Vallès and the Santa Caterina Market, which opened up a whole different dimension. Consequently, after the Santa Caterina Market we were able to collaborate with Alejandro Zaera on the Spanish Pavilion for the Aichi Exposition in Japan, and with Patxi Mangado on the Spanish Pavilion at the Zaragoza Expo. And finally, for the last ten years we have been collaborating with the ceramics chairs supported by ASCER at various architectural schools in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Alicante, Liverpool, Harvard and Castellón, something that has been very important for us. During these collaborations, explaining to young architects what ceramics are all about, I was lucky enough to meet two architects from the London Architectural Association with whom we organise an annual workshop. I asked one of these architects, Christopher Pierce, to write something about how he saw us, because I always like to get input on our work. He accepted, but on the condition that the text would be used as the introduction to an exhibition of our work in London. And that’s how Shaping Ideas arose, which puts a particular focus on the processes we use. We didn’t put on an exhibition of projects but rather one of procedures, even showing some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past from which we have learnt. The exhibition then went on to Madrid, and also came to Granollers; it’s been put on in Paris and will finish off its run in September at the Barcelona Design Museum on the occasion of the Congress of the International Academy of Ceramics.

Is this exhibition a kind of conceptual anthology of Cerámica Cumella?
Flicking through the pages of the exhibition catalogue, I realised that in spite of having worked on some very different projects, there is an interpretative link between them and I think that this is the creative aspect that we bring to our projects. But it’s only something I’ve noticed later on, when glancing very quickly back across three generations of ceramics. One of the parameters that I felt was most important was to address the concept of ceramics. We are artisans who use all the technology available to us, yet without losing touch with tradition.

Is the design and execution process just as important as the final piece, the end product?
The process and the material determine the end result. When we start collaborating with an architect on a project, they don’t ask us what we can do but rather we ask them what they want, and then we can see how far we can go. We like to have complete freedom in the brief. You can only learn when they place demands on you, when they force you to go a bit beyond your comfort zone, and that is what the architect does when they tell us what they want. Otherwise, you’re just limiting yourself. This is when we say: well, we can’t do this, but we can do that. We have never repeated a project, and we never will. We won’t do any more roofs like Santa Caterina, even though we’ve been asked to, for example by someone in Switzerland.

Isn’t this an occupational limitation, apart from being a challenge?
We also say no to proposals that ask us to produce ceramics that look like another material. By definition, I will never make a piece of ceramic that mimics another material for economic reasons, because that would be damaging to ceramics. For example, when you imitate parquet flooring with ceramic tiles, you’re creating something kitsch. Ceramics have enough personality and aesthetic resources to develop their own language. One of my great satisfactions from collaborating with the chairs of architectural schools is being able to contribute to making ceramics more widely known. The world of ceramics ranges from an adobe wall to the material used for a superconductor or the panels on space stations. We even use arsenic, which is just a tiny part of the world of ceramics. Every type of ceramic has its own use. An artisan or a craftsman cannot exist today unless they comply with current legislation. That’s why it’s so important to evolve with regard to technical features. This balance is very complicated and sometimes we’ve found ourselves on the edge of the precipice. Our margin of manoeuvre is very small and narrow.

Would you do things differently if you had the chance?
If I had the chance to start over now, I wouldn’t know how to. There have been so many tiny evolutions, project by project. I very much like thinking things over, but I don’t know how to predict, I don’t know how to set myself targets. I’ve never aspired to anything, nor have I relinquished anything; I’ve simply dedicated myself to solving challenges, carrying on and doing things well, though not everything comes out 100% all the time. At the moment, for example, we’re finishing off a project with Renzo Piano in Santander and I never dreamt I’d have the possibility of working with him, and it turns out I’ve been three times to his studio in Genoa and it was a real pleasure. And now my son has joined the company, the fourth generation. Every generation has worked with ceramics in a different way. I don’t know what my son’s approach will be… we’re four generations who have used the same material, but in very different ways.

An artisan workshop with all the available technology… how do you manage this combination?
In the last project we completed, the Hotel Ohla Eixample in Barcelona, we incorporated pieces produced by an extrusion process, so they were all exactly the same. Well, we wanted to interfere with this process and go one step further with the extrusion. In collaboration with the IAAC, we developed a programme that controls a robot which finishes the extruded pieces according to a musical composition. In this way, all the pieces are different because they are created depending on the music and their lines start and end at the same point on the piece. So they are all visible, there is no order. Conceptually I like having a robot to do things differently, not to get rid of anyone’s job. This is not a productive form of automation but rather a creative one.

Talking about the incorporation of new technologies, was the Villa Nurbs project with Enric Ruiz Geli particularly important to you?
Yes, because it was the first project on which we combined manual work with digitalisation. Based on 3D plans, we milled blocks of expanded polyurethane and then we applied the paste to the pieces in different organic shapes once they were extruded, leaving it to dry on top of them. I think we had 27 different moulds. Consequently we were able to mass produce completely organic forms that combined both manual and digital work. For me, this was an important step. Afterwards, each piece was glazed by Frederic Amat, making each piece unique. I need to be challenged to find a solution for a project; I find it very difficult to just do something off my own bat or try things out without a specific goal.

Now you’ve mentioned Frederic Amat, you’ve also often sought out collaborations with artists; why is that?
It comes easily to me from my family background, it’s something I grew up with. As part of this lifestyle, doing certain projects with artists helps me to move forward. The fact that we might be doing a creative or more ornamental piece with a superior finish to what an architectural piece might need helps to engender a certain climate in the workshop with the people who work with me. It’s a form of education in vision and expressionism and it enriches all of us, not just me. It’s a kind of subliminal training for us all.

I’ve heard you say that you don’t find restoration projects as motivating as new creations. Why is that?
Restoration projects are not as exciting for me because restoration is not an act of freedom. What I do recognise is that I have learnt a great deal from restoration work. Having to make something that is going to replace something else forces you to be very meticulous and it really advances your knowledge, but from a philosophical and conceptual point of view, in terms of life and dialogue, I feel much more comfortable with contemporary projects. Sometimes restoration seems more like making pieces for a museum, and immobility scares me.

In this resurgence of architecture it seems that restoration should be taking centre stage over new construction…
Unfortunately we have to come back to the economy. What’s really punishing us at the moment is the price/time conundrum. This means that people don’t really understand that what we do is more about slow food than fast food. And in this respect we’re going against the flow.

And where do you think the solution to this problem lies?
People need to live and this means that they don’t value the price/time aspect. So we clash. That’s why we almost never work with dealers, because we can see that the only form of survival for an architect is dealing directly with the client. When the process gets more expensive because of the presence of an intermediary, you lose the chance of completing a project. I don’t think this is just the case with ceramics but also in many other areas: we need to recover the formula of a more direct economy.

Do you think you’re a bit of a ‘rara avis’ for this way of working or are there other examples?
I don’t know of many other workshops like ours; there are smaller ones and other much bigger ones. Before the crisis, they used to see us as romantics and the big corporations weren’t very interested in our kind of projects. However, the crisis has changed this situation. Now you’re competing with people who you wouldn’t have been competing with before. In addition, we’ve found ourselves with another problem: the lack of respect for intellectual property. You collaborate with an architect to produce a process, a piece, a particular glaze, and then the builder takes it off to find someone who can do it cheaper. So when these projects are tendered by the developer, based on something we have already developed for the project they select the firm who will do it for the lowest price. And that’s just not ethical. The problem is all the time we have put into it, which is not appreciated. For example, for the façade of the Massana Design School, which we’re just about to start, we started talking with Carme Pinós back in 2008, and we’re also currently working on the art centre of the electricity company in Lisbon, EDP, on which discussions started in 2011.

Sometimes, though, you do get due recognition and appreciation. The project for the administrative extension of Bello Horizonte in La Nucia (Valencia) by Crystalzoo has recently won an award…
For this building we created hexagons in three different colours. Along with architect José Luis Campos we chose three shades of green and made the pieces. This was primarily a chromatic project. We knew each other from previous projects and I only found out about the Architizer Award for best public building of the year a few days ago.

Another key factor is colour and its treatment. What is the relationship between the colour and the piece?
The colour is just as important as the texture of the glaze. We have never regretted mixing glossy and matt pieces because this makes a façade change depending on how the light falls on it. This gives a third dimension to a façade when you play with the light. We have worked a great deal with colour and it has been absolutely vital in our projects. We always mix the glazes ourselves so we have been able to adapt to the needs of each individual project. We have never used a commercial glaze here. For Park Güell, for example, we used 21 different shades of white. All the colour work for Santa Caterina, I think there were 67 different colours in all, was done by my son under my supervision when he was still very young. He spent four months weighing everything out and producing samples to come up with the colour palette for the market roof.

Has the size of your workshop ever been an obstacle?
We’ve got the right sized team for the volume of our products. There are eleven of us, who have worked together for many years, and we all travel together to see our projects once they have been completed. I’ve never been tempted to grow. I just try to ensure that added value is our hallmark, because as I said earlier, I’m not a competitive person. At the moment we’re also working on some beer pulls for Damm which will end up being a very tactile ceramic feature in numerous bars.

What other projects is Cerámica Cumella currently involved in?
For the Lisbon project I mentioned earlier we’re making pieces in a very precise geometrical shape. They are pressed in soft paste and we’re taking advantage of what we learned on Villa Nurbs, not in terms of making organic shapes but in order to avoid any distortions. In the case of the Massana School, we have created a trellis which will be integrated into a rather theatrical façade which by day is opaque but by night, once the lights are turned on inside, is transparent. It’s a trellised façade that forms a kind of double skin. We’re also about to start work on an extension to the head office of Banco Popular in Madrid.