Akiko Hirai took a circuitous route before finding her place at Chocolate Factory N16, an artists’ studio in northeast London that she shares with more than two dozen artists, sculptors, designers and painters. Mounds of clay, a gas kiln and a potter’s wheel signal Hirai’s speciality: ceramics.
Hirai first visited the U.K. in the mid-1990s after quitting her job in Tokyo. She had been working at an advertising agency for a few years after leaving college, but, she says with a laugh, “I didn’t like the company, I didn’t like the job, I didn’t like my colleagues. I didn’t like anything about it.”
Her sister was in London studying photography, so she left for the U.K. and enrolled in English-language classes. While learning English is pro forma for many newly arrived visitors and immigrants, Hirai’s next move was unusual: She signed up with a volunteer agency to work at a homeless shelter and found herself posted to Northampton, a large town in the English Midlands about 110 kilometers north of London.
As an undergraduate at Aichi Gakuin University, Hirai had studied psychology, and while she had little practical experience, she wanted to be useful while in England, she explains. In Northampton, however, she was thrown in at the deep end.
She admits that she was a little naive at the time, and in certain cases she was unable to fully understand situations because of her language ability, making a difficult job even harder. And so, after eight months, she chose to leave. But her time in Northampton exposed her to a side of life in England that she says she would have never experienced in a classroom setting or in her studio.
“It was very stressful but very interesting,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have met so many different types of people if I hadn’t had that experience.”
Working at a homeless shelter also helped Hirai understand some of her own strengths and weaknesses. “Living with somebody else and trying to help them through their problems is really tough, and at one point I just thought I’m actually not very good at dealing with people,” she says.
In that respect, Hirai’s next step made more sense — to learn a craft that involved spending a great deal of time alone working on expressing her own thoughts. For this, she chose the medium of clay.
After leaving the shelter and returning to London, Hirai says she needed “rehabilitation from mental fatigue,” which led to her enrolling as an adult learner in a pottery course at City and Islington College. “I wanted to make things with my hands,” she says, “and it (pottery) was quite relaxing.”
Again, her previous experience was limited. Hirai had been in the photography club at university in Japan but says, “it was nothing really serious.”
From the get-go, however, Hirai discovered that she had a natural affinity for working with clay. So much so that she would bring clay home from her school to carry on working.
Now, nearly two decades on, Hirai is firmly established in the U.K. as a leading potter, having shown her work in exhibitions across Europe.
“I saw one end of society (at the homeless shelter) and I’m seeing the other end now — it’s quite interesting,” Hirai says of the contrast between those in need that she met in the shelter and the wealthy collectors who now buy her pieces.
She finished her arts training at Central Saint Martins, an art school of the Universty of the Arts London, graduating with a degree in ceramic design. This was followed by a 10-year stint of teaching ceramics at Kensington & Chelsea College, while she set up her personal business at Chocolate Factory N16.
Studying in England, Hirai explains, was a much easier and cheaper option for her than returning to Japan to learn a new craft or skill. It was also, she suspects, less arduous.
She recalls the story of one of her Japanese students, whom she taught ceramics to in London, who subsequently returned to Japan to continue studying. She heard that the student’s teacher, a distinguished ceramicist in Kyoto, would humiliate students and denigrate their efforts for something as little as not cleaning the floor properly.
In contrast, in the U.K. Hirai considers her time as a teacher to be one of continued education.
Though she was unsure if she would enjoy it at first, she explains that teaching not only helped her continue learning about her craft, but it also forced her to become a better communicator.
One of the aspects that attracted Hirai to London — and still does — is the city’s multiculturalism. In one class she taught, of the 15 students present, there were 12 different nationalities. “You wouldn’t have that experience in Japan, especially in my hometown of Shizuoka,” she says.
Back in Japan, however, her parents didn’t really approve of her work. They worried of the viability of a career in the arts — but, as Hirai says half-jokingly, “they can’t actually say anything as long as I don’t ask for their help.”
Yvonna Demczynska, the founder of Flow Gallery in Notting Hill, has been exhibiting Hirai’s ceramics for more than a decade and says she was attracted by the Japanese essence of Hirai’s work — the beauty revealed in imperfections and the pared-down nature of her vessels.
Gallerists Juliana Cavaliero and Debra Finn, of the art gallery and store Cavaliero Finn say it is the contrasts inherent in Hirai’s pieces that drew them in.
“When we first saw Akiko’s work we were blown away by the simplicity yet complexity of her work that appears both fragile and solid, glossy and raw.”
The down-to-earth quality of Hirai’s work also reflects her unpretentious personality. She recalls that when she started out, she never imagined that she could make a living from just making art, especially in a city, like London, that is overflowing with artists.
“I have been lucky,” Hirai says of the support and encouragement she’s received in the U.K. “I’ve also been quite honest with my work. Of course you have to sell your work, but if it’s not right for me, I don’t want to make it.”
Name: Akiko Hirai Collingwood
Key moments in career:
1999 — Moves to London
2003 — Graduates from Central Saint Martins with a degree in ceramics; begins work as a potter at Chocolate Factory N16 in London
2005 — Begins lecturing at Kensington & Chelsea College
2011 — Becomes a fellow of the Craft Potters Association of Great Britain
2013 — Appointed as head of ceramics at Kensington & Chelsea College
Favorite artwork: “Antique ceramics by anonymous artists”
Things I miss about Japan: “Onsen (Japanese hot springs)”
Things I’m grateful for in London: “So many people helped me after I moved to London. My sister, my husband, my studio landlord, my first pottery teacher, colleagues, customers and friends. I am truly grateful to them all.”
Words to live by: “Expect nothing, hope for the best.“