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Jul 18, 2023

A style of pottery made for centuries in a small Romanian town has recently become a hot commodity.

Maria Stefanescu, a potter in Horezu, Romania, decorating a ceramic piece at her home studio.Credit...

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By Chantel Tattoli

Photographs and Video by Marko Risovic

Chantel Tattoli and Marko Risovic reported this story from Horezu, Romania, where they spoke to a dozen local potters using a translator.

Sorin Giubega's grandfather was a potter. So was his father. And at 8 years old, Mr. Giubega said, he started to play on a pottery wheel, too.

Mr. Giubega, now 63, and his wife, Marieta Giubega, 48, are potters in Horezu, Romania, a town in the foothills of the Capatanii Mountains about three hours by car from Bucharest.

Horezu is home to a community of about 50 artisans who make a traditional style of ceramics with methods that have been practiced for more than 300 years. In 2012, Horezu pottery was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Most potters in Horezu, including the Giubegas, live on Olari Street ("olari" means potters in Romanian), where they work in home studios. The artisans advertise their craft by hanging ceramic plates outside their houses, some of which have yards where they keep roosters and pigs.

On a Monday afternoon in early May, Mr. Giubega, who was wearing a clay-caked apron, showed off a shelf of ceramic honey pots and jam jars that his grandfather had made in the 1920s.

"This is the story of my life!" said Mr. Giubega, who was named a Living Human Treasure by Romania's Ministry of Culture in 2021.

Artisans in Horezu work year-round, and the ceramics are made by two potters with distinct roles. Modelers, who are typically men, shape clay into pieces. Decorators, who are typically women, paint the pieces using ancestral motifs that include spirals, waves, spider webs, roosters, serpents, fish and an arboreal design known as the tree of life, which is dotted with apples.

"We are all doing the same thing, but we each have our own style," said Aida Frigura, 44, a potter in Horezu who specializes in decorating. "It's like handwriting."

Many modelers and decorators, like the Giubegas, are married couples. Constantin Biscu, 49, and his wife, Mihaela Biscu, 42, make pottery at their home on Olari Street, where Mr. Biscu works at a kick wheel on which he can make up to 300 pieces in a day, he said.

"It's hard, it's dirty," Mr. Biscu said of the clammy gray clay that he and others use, which customarily comes from earth extracted from a hill in Horezu. Many potters’ families have owned parcels of the hill for generations.

Decorators also work at wheels and with specialized tools, like one instrument that resembles a fountain pen. It is made with an ox horn and quills from goose or duck feathers, and it is used to draw certain designs and to apply paints, which are typically muted hues of green, blue, ivory, red and brown. Potters formulate their own paints using copper and cobalt powders, as well as minerals found in the area.

To create intricate patterns such as the spider web, decorators use two other tools: a brush with bristles made of cat whiskers or boar hair, and a twig with a metal pin on one end.

Once pieces are decorated and fully dried, they are loaded into a kiln and fired for hours. After that, they are glazed and fired again.

This month, many of the potters in Horezu will showcase and sell their wares at two folk art fairs in Romania.

The first, the Cocoșul de Hurez, or Rooster of Horezu, is a local ceramics fair named for the bird that residents of the town see as symbolic of the home. The second, the Cucuteni 5000, is a national ceramics fair that takes place in Iasi, some eight hours by car from Horezu. It is named for the Cucuteni people, who, around 5000 B.C., started to make decorated pottery in what is now Romania.

In recent years, as interest in ceramics has grown, pottery from Horezu has started to appear at more trendy design-oriented retailers around the world, including Lost & Found, in Los Angeles; FindersKeepers, in Copenhagen; International Wardrobe, in Berlin; Cabana, in Milan; and Casa De Folklore, in London.

"Demand is really high at the moment," Alice Munteanu, the Romanian-born owner of Casa De Folklore, said on a video call. She recently sold tableware made in Horezu to the owners of Clover, a restaurant in Paris. Ms. Munteanu said the décor industry is fond of artisanal work right now, adding that if it's "obscure" — she used air quotes — that was even better.

Herle Jarlgaard, an owner of FindersKeepers, first encountered the pottery in 2021 at a flea market in Italy, where she found a plate painted with trippy marbled rings and dots along the rim. On its underside was the word "Horezu."

"Whoa!" Ms. Jarlgaard, 35, recalled thinking after seeing the plate.

When she tried to contact potters in Horezu, Ms. Jarlgaard had a hard time at first. She eventually connected with Maria Stefanescu, a decorator, via the Instagram account that Ms. Stefanescu's son, a police officer in Bucharest, had created to promote his mother's work.

FindersKeepers has since started to buy ceramics wholesale from Ms. Stefanescu, who works with a modeler she is not related to. The retailer, which buys hundreds of pieces at a time, has paid her about $50,000 for its orders to date, Ms. Jarlgaard said.

At FindersKeepers, smaller ceramics cost about $25, and larger pieces about $75. The pottery is sent to Copenhagen by truck. "I get very anxious when the orders travel," Ms. Stefanescu said. "I don't sleep!"

Ms. Stefanescu, who said she can decorate up to 50 pieces a day, could not estimate her overhead costs to make individual ceramics. She said that her biggest expenses include electricity for her two kilns and the hourly wage she pays the modeler she works with. Like other potters, Ms. Stefanescu offsets household expenses by growing vegetables and raising animals to eat.

UNESCO's designation of Horezu pottery as an intangible cultural heritage was a proud moment for Romania, said Virgil Nitulescu, the director of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest. Corina Mihaescu, an anthropologist at the Institute of Ethnography and Folklore in Bucharest, said the UNESCO recognition has led more young people to take up the craft.

To maintain the designation, a state-of-the-craft report must be submitted every six years to UNESCO. The report explains, among other things, what measures have been taken to keep the tradition of Horezu pottery alive and what tools and techniques the potters are using.

Dr. Mihaescu produced the most recent state-of-the-craft report, which was submitted last year by Romania's Ministry of Culture. She said there are always concerns about how to retain the UNESCO designation — and maintain the integrity of the pottery tradition — in the face of modern influences.

To comply with European regulations limiting the use of heavy metals like lead and cadmium in glazes for ceramics that may come in contact with food, many potters now use electric kilns instead of wood-burning ones. The electric kilns can more reliably reach the higher temperatures — around 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit — necessary to fire food-safe glazes.

Other potters in Horezu have begun to use ready-made clay instead of preparing their own. And certain decorators have started to paint the pottery in unconventional motifs and colors; Ms. Stefanescu, for instance, has used bright red as well as yellow and pink. Some of the newer designs are requested by vendors outside Romania, many of whom tend to avoid ancestral motifs featuring animals and prefer bolder and monochrome palettes.

"We say, ‘Our client, our master,’ but I have final say," Ms. Stefanescu said. Of incorporating atypical colors into her pieces, she added, "I like to try new things."

Constantin Popa, 62, who makes pottery in Horezu with his wife, Georgeta Popa, 57, said they try to fulfill clients’ wishes as much as possible. But according to him, painting pieces in saturated colors has "nothing to do with Horezu."

Tim Curtis, the chief of UNESCO's intangible cultural heritage program, said in an email that the designation has been withdrawn only twice in the 20 years since the agency started to issue it, and that neither time was for factors related to the modernization of procedures or design. He added that the designation takes into account the changes that communities can make to practices.

There are plans to open the Olari Cultural Center, a new institution on Olari Street, in September. It will showcase Horezu ceramics, host conferences and present demonstrations by potters.

The cultural center was paid for by the town of Horezu and the Romanian government. Daniela Ogrezeanu, a spokeswoman for Mayor Nicolae Sardarescu of Horezu, described it in an email as a way to bring more attention to the pottery and its makers by driving tourists to the street where many live and work.

But some residents of Horezu are worried visitors won't make it to the center. Olari Street is about a 10-minute drive from the entrance to town, which is crowded with souvenir shops. Many hawk ceramics from Bulgaria that tourists mistake for local pottery, said Laurentiu Pietraru, 52, a potter and shop owner in Horezu who sells ceramics made in the town for about $2 to $54.

"That's why I label everything," said Mr. Pietraru, whose wife, Nicoleta Pietraru, 47, is a fifth-generation potter.


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