Two artists went to The Hague in September to talk to the Dutch government about pollution. They arrived with coffee and two handmade porcelain cups, one light brown and one nearly black.
Iris de Kievith and Annemarie Piscaer of Rotterdam have been creating tangible representations of what city dwellers breathe every day in the form of porcelain dishes glazed with particulate matter. The project is called Smogware in English, or Servies in Dutch, which uses the Dutch word for tableware while highlighting the “vies,” which also means filthy.
The nearly black cup represented the amounts of pollution the average European breathes in over 85 years, and the lighter brown was coated in the amount of fine dust a person would breathe in if World Health Organization recommendations were followed.
“From which cup do you prefer to drink your coffee?” they asked the members of the clean air commission. The choice was obvious.
Origins of Smogware
Piscaer and de Kievith first met three years ago at a discussion about air pollution held by CityLab010. The city-funded social innovation center gathered designers, experts and local residents to discuss how they could possibly make the problem of air pollution more tangible.
Rotterdam has a traffic problem, the duo says, with bad air quality. But straight numbers often aren’t enough to get people to make real changes.
“We are talking about an invisible problem,” de Kievith says. “Nobody can see it, so first of all, let’s make the problem visible.”
This question of how to visually represent the problem of pollution struck a chord with Piscaer and de Kievith, who had studied design and architecture, respectively. De Kievith describes herself as an experimenter who likes to test practical ideas; Piscaer is the professor, paying more attention to theory.
They started playing around, asking questions and finding answers. They wondered if they could use pollution to glaze ceramics with. The answer was yes. And then they wondered: Will this glaze look different with particulate matter from a different city? Again, the answer was yes.
After many experiments, they have developed a standard porcelain tableware set that they glaze with very specific amounts of dirt that represent the amount of pollution that a person living in that city will breathe in over the course of 10, 25, 45, 65 or 85 years. The glazes range in color from milky tea to dark loam. Each piece is marked with a stamp of the city’s name. The duo has led Smogware workshops around the world, with more dates to come this year in Paris, Bruges and China.
“The design process led us to the form,” de Kievith says. “We were looking for a form on which the glaze would have space to tell its story. The form shouldn’t be distracting, no bubbles or edges in which the glaze would act differently or disappear.”
“At the same time, we wanted you to connect to it,” Piscaer says. “Do you dare to eat or drink from it? The cup fits in your hand, ergonomic. The bowl fits in your hands, and you feel that you can connect to it.”
Gathering dirt in Berlin
Back in October, a dozen people including me gathered in a popup cultural center funded by Germany’s federal government. This was my first introduction to Smogware: We saw a full set of dishes glazed with pollution from Rotterdam. It was gorgeous; the darkest colors looked like well-worn leather or coffee grounds.
Piscaer explained the process and distributed protective masks, gloves and scraping tools that were like little fake credit cards. We trekked to the nearby Berlin Central Station to collect some dirt, an area that the organizers had scouted as especially filthy.
In a heavy-traffic area under the tracks of the train station and above a cross-city tunnel, we probably looked like an overly attentive cleaning crew. We quickly figured out how to bend the cards to get the right angle on the far sides of walkway barriers. These areas were protected from rain and coated in weeks or months of grime.
Within an hour we had scraped about 60 grams of dirt into Tupperware containers. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you’re only scraping about a pencil shaving’s worth of particulate matter at a time, and when wind is threatening to sweep away your collection, it is actually monumental. We walked back to the workshop with our bounty.
Piscaer mixed some of the dirt into a glaze, reserving the bulk of it for the Berlin set of Smogware dishes, and we painted porcelain swatches with the dirt we’d collected. It went on as a wet cement gray, but when we picked up the pieces a few days later, the glaze had turned tobacco brown.
Every city’s color is slightly different, based on the heavy metal mix in the local pollution.
“We were curious how the glaze turns out” when they started, de Kievith says. “It was very beautiful, dark. Beauty is very important for us as well, because you have to attract people.”
The final product
She later glazed a full set of porcelain dishware with the smog of Berlin. Cups, bowls and plates of various sizes all received the exact amounts of dirt-infused glaze needed to reflect the amount of pollution the average person breathes in.
Three years into the project, Piscaer and de Kievith spend the majority of their work weeks on the Smogware project. The project is funded with support from the city of Rotterdam and local partners in the cities where the duo holds Smogware workshops.
“The challenge is to have a business model in which success is not about quantity and selling, but about impact,” de Kievith says. “And that’s not always where there’s the most money.”
They aren’t sure how the project will end — they dream of one day setting a world table with Smogware dishes from every city they’ve visited. The idea of eating from them makes me feel a little nauseated, but that’s exactly the point.
People from areas Piscaer and de Kievith haven’t been able to visit yet are also getting involved: They have received dirt from Jakarta, and welcome anyone who feels moved to send them their grime. “We can do some tests and send it back to them. It makes a connection,” de Kievith says. “We’re in the same wind, and we all breathe the same dust. We all have to take care of our air.”