The Ceramic House

A view of the ceramic reliefs in the garden of Kay’s house

After ceramicist Kay Aplin bought an end-of-terrace house in a quiet street in Brighton she gradually transformed it into a living artwork with unique holiday accommodation. Words: Alex Fisher

‘It started with the bathroom,’ Kay Aplin, who studied Public Art at Chelsea Art College, explains, as she shows me the blue and green tiles on the walls around her bath. ‘I converted the loft in 2010 and needed to decorate the new space. I had lots of tiles left over from a project in Wales, and thought I’d make use of them. After that, my vision for the house evolved. As a public artist, my work is spread around the country, often displayed in remote places. I wanted to show my work somewhere accessible to more people.’

Kay moved to Brighton in 2008. ‘I’d travelled around the world working, but I wanted to put some roots down. Brighton was ideal due to the proximity to London and Gatwick airport, but really it was the sea that drew me. Although I’d grown up in Glasgow and had never lived by the sea, I’d holidayed on the coast as a child. I’d visited Arran, Skye, Mull and the Outer Hebrides, where the beaches are beautiful. We swam in the sea whatever the weather; it was our holiday ritual. That gave me a connection to the ocean I never lost.’

After the bathroom, Kay set to work on a large installation on the outside of her house. ‘In my job I am always on the lookout for spaces that need attention and this part of the house was crying out to be decorated. When I see a blank wall I like to put something on it!’ Such was the size of this project Kay enlisted the help of volunteers and assistants at her studio in Phoenix Brighton, one of the largest artist-led arts organisations in the country. ‘There are always lots of people who want to learn the processes that I use to make my tiles, so I offer work placements to students and other ceramicists.’ That same winter, a cold snap killed off the vast clematis in Kay’s courtyard garden, revealing another wall for her to cover, and she set about decorating this with yet more tiles. ‘My aim was to have the house ready for the 2011 Artist Open Houses, which happens in May each year around Brighton. It’s a brilliant project that runs alongside Brighton Festival, where people transform their homes into art galleries and open them to the public. I was still grouting tiles on the morning we opened, but the feedback I got inspired me to continue the project and I spent the rest of the following year turning my home into a living artwork.’

The kitchen was turned into a utility room, with beautiful, flowing tiles leading to the outdoor courtyard, the dining room became a kitchen, with colourful ‘Tudor’ tiles, which Kay originally designed for Hampton Court Palace. She employed a carpenter to create bespoke, backlit display cabinets, where she exhibited her stained glass work. ‘In addition, I made 25 square metres of mosaic flooring and seating in the garden. I covered the steps and what used to be the concrete entrance to the garage with tiny mosaic tiles. Some of the tiles on the seats were made with lights inside, to light up the garden at night.’ Kay also made rooms for visitors, so that people could come and stay in her creation.

Recognition comes
In 2013 Kay’s efforts were rewarded when she won the Best House Award in the Artist Open Houses exhibition. ‘That really put us on the map,’ Kay says. ‘After that I converted the garage into an art gallery and another en-suite room, so that there was a clear, white space to exhibit artwork where it wasn’t competing with all the colour in the rest of the house. Then I did more work outside the house, creating a mosaic path and archway. Now we are so well known that we have people staying every weekend throughout the entire year.’

As Kay now sees the house as ‘nearly finished’ she has a little more time to enjoy her time by the sea. ‘When I first moved here I made a vow to go swimming in the sea every day from May to October before I went to the studio, and I stuck to that,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing like a dip in the ocean for clearing your mind and waking you up!’ Kay also likes to visit Ovingdean and explore rockpools when the tide’s out. ‘I love the café there. It’s a proper, down- to-earth, old-fashioned seaside café, where the cakes are made by ladies in the village and they have a sign up that says, ‘We don’t do fancy coffee’, it’s just Nescafé,’ she says. ‘I like to walk on Shoreham Beach, which reminds me a little of Dungeness, and along the white cliffs beyond Seaford. After living here, I couldn’t live anywhere that wasn’t next to the sea.’

Shared space
Kay loves living in the house and relishes sharing it with visitors. ‘It’s an amazing place to live. We always get such great feedback from guests. I like to share what I’ve created, and I don’t actually keep one room exclusively for myself and my partner, we move around and let guests choose the rooms they want to stay in. I like people to feel completely welcome, and that my home is their home while they are here.’ Although Kay would still like to build a water feature in her garden, she’s looking for other projects to get her teeth into. ‘I’d love to work on other people’s homes. My ceramics are tactile, they are meant to be touched and lived with, and I feel ready to take on someone else’s house. Not that people would necessarily want their entire house to be transformed,’ she laughs, ‘but it’s a wonderful thing to have a bespoke piece of art decorating your home. I have a motto I like to live to: “to be surrounded by beauty at all times”, and this is what I have created here in Brighton. I’d love to extend that into other people’s homes now.’

Kay’s public commissions are both national and international, including at Historic Royal Palaces and NHS Trusts. See kayaplin.com or theceramichouse.co.uk for more.

Photographs: Matthew Andrews; Sylvain Deleu; Alun Callender; Mi Elfverson; Kay Aplin

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