The Ceramists Ushering in a New Era of Surrealism

Everyday objects, such as ashtrays and prawns, are given an artistic twist by these designers.

You began the day with ceramics, and you will spend much of it thinking about them. You woke up to a quartz clock, showered in a tiled bathroom, and ate cereal off of pottery bowls and plates inside your brick, cement, and glass house.

You might have spent the day at a computer (with ceramic-based electronic components like microchips, capacitors, and resistors), then returned home for a glass of wine, ate off of pottery plates, watched TV on a liquid-crystal display (or your Gorilla Glass smartphone), and finally set your quartz clock in preparation for another day at the office. We, like people for thousands of years prior, exist in a ceramic world, even if this is not immediately apparent. But just what are ceramics, exactly?

Ceramics are Defined As.

You can undoubtedly see from this short list that “ceramics” is a very broad term, and one that we will have difficulties defining, as it includes such diverse materials as glass, tiles, pottery, porcelain, bricks, cement, diamond, and graphite. Just what is it that unites these seemingly disparate substances?

The absence of certain chemical properties allows us to define ceramics from a chemistry perspective. As a result, ceramics are typically defined as nonmetallic and inorganic solids (i.e., those that aren’t metal or based on carbon molecules) in dictionaries and science textbooks (including wood, plastics, rubber, and anything that was once alive).

The term “refractory,” borrowed from the field of materials science, is used in certain texts to describe ceramics’ resistance to common environmental stresses including high temperatures, chemical attacks (such as those from acids and alkalis), and normal wear and tear. Properties can be a useful starting point for defining materials (how they behave when we heat them, pass electricity through them, or soak them in water, for example). But if we do that, things may become murky.

Graphite (a carbon allotrope) is a ceramic because it lacks metallic and organic constituents yet has the properties of both, while being soft, readily worn, and an excellent electrical conductor. Based only on its physical characteristics, graphite would not be considered a ceramic.

While diamond’s characteristics are very different from graphite’s, they are similar to those of other ceramics, therefore diamond (another form of carbon) is also considered a ceramic for this reason. (Diamond has been used for centuries in cutting and drilling tools, just like contemporary ceramics like tungsten carbide.)