Bo Jia and Alison Alten have a remarkable story. Inspired by the craftsmanship and techniques of traditional Chinese porcelain, they founded not one but two companies: Middle Kingdom and Cobalt Guild. Where Cobalt Guild embraces and updates the classic blue-and-white motifs of Chinese pottery (going back literally thousands of years), Middle Kingdom breaks new ground with colorful, eye-catching, even quirky pieces. Case in point: vases that resemble laundry detergent bottles or motor oil containers, taking the everyday and turning it into something wildly artistic. It’s as if Andy Warhol took a turn behind the wheel with traditional pottery.
We spoke with co-founder Alten about their businesses, the inspirations behind their work, and how they find so much joy in what they do. Read on to learn more about them and discover why collectors everywhere—including the Victoria & Albert Museum—have wanted a piece of their work.
Bo and I started Middle Kingdom out of our love for classic Chinese design and to create a brand that, like French wines and their “terroir,” was from the source. We were mainly inspired by the minimalist aesthetic of the Song and Ming, though we are open to any source that inspires. We’ve leaned back as far as the Han and Zhou dynasties for inspiration, but also forward to contemporary sources like American woodworkers.
Cobalt Guild was born of a special request from an American doyen of blue and white. He knew we had an “in” in Jingdezhen, where blue and white was first made and where our kiln is located, and asked us to source a baluster vase. We quickly realized that there was more interest from many of our customers and started to have a lot of fun trawling the markets near our kiln for special pieces to share. As we’ve grown in our contemporary design work, we find that we love the traditional pieces even more. As any fan of Chairish knows, great design is timeless!
How did you decide on the names for your businesses, and what do they mean?
When we named our company Middle Kingdom we wanted a name easily evocative of China, but with some mystery still attached. We wanted the name to be accessible without a lot of explanation, so it did win out over another name we considered that sounded lovely in English but would have only been a secret wink to scholars of Chinese history (and stay tuned — maybe we’ll make a new collection!).
Cobalt Guild, like the best of names, was the result of a wine-fueled dinner party with our friends David and Molly Raymond who collect early Qing blue and white. Cobalt is an element of the underglaze pigment used in blue and white ceramics, and “guild” connotes to us the history of manufacture in Jingdezhen.
As you mentioned your Cobalt Guild porcelains are made in Jingdezhen, the ancient city famous for creating blue and white pieces. What is the history behind that, and why is it so important to you to create there?
Jingdezhen really breaks down to mean “Jing De’s Town,” which was the name given to the place where the ceramics are made by the Song emperor whose reign name was Jing De (one must never call the emperor by his given name). Before that, it was plain old Fouliang, which is still the name of the county surrounding Jingdezhen. Deposits of the two kinds of clay that comprise porcelain were first discovered near Jingdezhen, so it just makes sense to be where it all started. The earth, the human expertise, and the history all combine to make Jingdezhen a special place.
The Middle Kingdom pieces feel really joyous, with a wide variety of colors. How do you go about choosing them, and what’s the design process like there?
Bo was a painter before he was ever a porcelain designer, and he brings the sensitivity of an artist to the process. He has an innate color sense and the pieces we make now share the same voluptuousness that his painted figures, be they human or inanimate, once had. As with drawing and painting, sometimes a piece is defined by what is not there, which means when we make a series, we make it to work together. This idea is perfectly illustrated by our mini vases — there are 11 shapes and each is a visual unit but they are so much more when taken all together. For color, we only ever choose what we love and work with what the materials dictate.
How do you develop your design ideas? What is that process like?
Many of our design ideas derive from a function that we want to provide, or conversely from a beautiful shape that then has to be worked to become useful. Since we now also collaborate with other artists we derive inspiration from their ideas, and they from us. We end up naming a lot of our designs after poets and writers, so I have to think that some of our inspiration comes from other than visual sources. In fact, we moved to Washington in large part because the museums here are mostly free, so we can dip in and out at will to catch a show, film, lecture, or visit the permanent collections and focus on just one favorite piece.
With travel still very limited, how have you managed production and communication? Did you have to reconsider product development or pivot in any way during COVID?
We are thankful that we’re a small and nimble company, but being small and nimble does not mean that we can prevail upon shipping companies or export control authorities to do anything but hurry up and wait. Over this time, we have used our ubiquitous cell phones to stay in touch with our artisans at the kiln. We’ve tweaked around the edges but have not brought out brand new designs in this time. Our pivot during COVID has been one long in the making, to work more on B2B and B2C outreach via digital rather than physical platforms. We miss meeting our customers at trade shows, but we certainly don’t miss the expense and wear and tear. We too are curious how our customer outreach will develop in the “After Times.”
What are some of your own favorite pieces? What kind of styles inspire you when you’re creating?
Bo’s favorite pieces are the mini vases, because they’re like little pieces of candy! Bo can’t ever not design things, so having his very own supply of tablescaping accoutrements is just too convenient. My favorite pieces are the gourd shapes, which are voluptuous and suggestive of fertility icons.
When we’re creating, it’s a bit like painting in watercolor or ink painting — you collect impressions, references, and inspiration and then these influences blossom in a way that you don’t consciously decide, but you know they’re right. Our influences range from all manner of decorative arts and materials from both East and West. Since we are creating a new fusion in our Middle Kingdom lines, we feel that the whole world is right and appropriate as a reference source. Bo has always looked West and Alison to the East, so we feel at root our work cannot be considered as any one thing. The most important element of an inspirational object or reference is whether or not it has soul.
How have your lines evolved since you launched them, in terms of both product creation and the way you’ve grown the business?
The lines have definitely changed since we first started, in that they less directly reference Chinese historical origins. The production techniques have also changed; even though our wares are made by hand, we have moved to some processes that are aided by modern tools. At heart, though, making porcelain is a hands-on, labor-intensive process.
Are there types of pieces you’d like to launch in the future? Where will your businesses go next?
We’ve always relied on a sixth sense or “gut” for Middle Kingdom, so we continue to soak up inspiration and influence and will move on them when it feels right. For Cobalt Guild, it really is the thrill of the hunt — finding or creating pieces that really stand the test of time and are backed with our knowledge and design integrity.
Images courtesy of Middle Kingdom & Cobalt Guild