Aesthetic Sabotage: The Beguiling Vision of Robert Dawson

Abbas Youssefi
Abbas Youssefi
24th March 2020

Our friends at Diary of a Tile have sent us four new stories to entertain our loyal customers during the Coronavirus lockdown. At Porcelain Superstore one of the things we love about the tile industry is that the pursuit of excellent designs takes us to beautiful locations overseas, and introduces us to many talented and committed ceramicists in Italy, Spain and beyond.

But the four ceramic artists curated here by Diary of a Tile Addict transports us to a whole new realm: a place where ceramic tile becomes a medium for political protest, subtle humour, and striking originality; where our perceptions of tile are subverted, and we are compelled to look afresh at the world around them.

You Know It's Gonna Be Alright - Robert Dawson, 2004

The first subject is Robert Dawson. Tile Addict’s Founder, Joe Simpson, takes up the story.

"Over the years I have interviewed and profiled many well known designers and artists who work with tiles. None compare to Robert Dawson when it comes to real depth of artistic understanding of tile, or originality when subverting what is generally perceived as “art” or “design”.

The man himself

"Dawson, who works under the pseudonym of Aesthetic Sabotage, produces striking and compelling works using ceramic tile that play with our perception of pattern and texture, while at the same time providing an immediacy and relevance that is rare in the world of fine art.

"He also produces site-specific ceramic art in the form of imagery fired onto wall tiling or floor tiling and has completed several public art commissions. Experienced in working with architects and in-house design departments, what singles Dawson out as an artist is the sheer immediacy of his work.

"Working with computer-manipulated imagery drawn from both personal experience and historical reference, he produces powerful installations with an unusual combination of playfulness and geometric precision. His moniker – Aesthetic Sabotage – refers to his fascination with twisting, fragmenting and reconstructing familiar patterns and images. One of the other strong themes is ornamentation, from Moorish floor tiles through to more contemporary themes."

Decorative Ceramic Wall Tiles With Flashback - Robert Dawson, 2005

“Much of my work with ceramic tiling provides interpretations of familiar-seeming ornamentation that interact with the grid set up by the tiles. Sometimes designs are made according to a theme proposed by the client,” explains Robert Dawson

“The initial meeting with the client will ideally be on site. After seeing the site, having measurements, and knowing what the client wants, I will make the designs. These designs can be entirely my own, or they can be mine from a theme suggested by the client, or they can be from, or include, the client’s drawings, photographs or any other material or ideas that he or she wishes to contribute.

"The designs will be made using drawing, painting, photography, and possibly computer manipulation of these. The proposed designs will be presented to the client in the form of printouts on paper.

“The design process takes about two weeks. When the client is happy with the designs, work will start applying the print to the tiles and firing them. If time is short, it is possible to produce about 30 decorated and fired tiles a day, but it is best not to rush things. The tiles will usually be installed by a local professional tile setter engaged by the client, and I would be present to oversee the installation,” continues Dawson.

Robert Dawson for Ceramica Bardelli

Robert Dawson for Ceramica Bardelli

"The design can be made from a theme or images suggested by the client, based on examples of existing work, or entirely new. In each case, the designs will be made specifically for the location in which the tiles are to be installed. The tiling can be functional, such as floor tiling, but it is also highly suitable for murals or decorative wall covering in any interior or exterior, commercial or domestic location.”

Dawson didn’t take up ceramics until his mid-30s. Having dropped out of art school in 1972, he spent seven years as a radio officer on merchant ships. This unusual precursor to life as an artist seems to inform his work.

Dawson did complete a BA in Fine Art and Ceramics at Camberwell in 1993.

“On the fine art side I worked with video and painting. On the ceramics side I soon began to work with print, using manufactured tiles and plates. I found it interesting doing both art and craft. Each of these areas fed the other. I found the un-hip low art status of ceramics liberating and I thought why not let this feeling into the fine arts side too.”

Dawson acknowledges the influence of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein on his work. He was attracted to their bold, simply, distorted and technically flawed images achieved using photographic processes. The cinematic nature of large blown-ups also appealed, as well as playing with focus and fading.

Robert Dawson for Ceramica Bardelli - bold and interesting

Dawson’s work is all about undermining common images. However, although there is clearly a great depth and technical ability behind his work, they are not pretentious. Instead they appear to have been created so that everyone can “get” them. He occupies a netherworld: neither accepted as part of the fine art community, nor yet a member of the less-regimented world of the craftsman or the pure designer. This is probably just as well, because it is this vision from left field that makes his work so compelling and powerful.

More at:

Forthcoming exhibition: ‘Pièces à problèmes: Robert Dawson and Richard Slee Twenty Twenty’ at the Musée Ariana, Geneva from 29th May to 25th October 2020 (Coronavirus notwithstanding)

Solo exhibitions include:

2012: Surface Games / Jeux de Surface, Barthète, Boussan, France

2008: Ornament & Crime, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

2005: Robert Dawson Aesthetic Sabotage, Clay Gallery, Venice, California

Dawson's work can be seen in many galleries world-wide including: The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; The Victoria and Albert Museum, London;

The Museum of Fine Art, Houston, Texas; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; The Museum of Arts and Design, New York; The Röhsska Museum, Gothenburg; Designmuseum Danmark, Copenhagen; The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent; Auckland Museum, New Zealand; and Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester.

He has also produced commissions for many public and private bodies including: Liverpool City Council; Hilton Hotels; Selfridges; Nottingham City Council; John Lewis; Waitrose; The World of Interiors magazine; and The Churchill Hospital.

Commercial commissions include Ceramica Bardelli; Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd; Volpe and Volpe; and Habitat.

His work has won many awards including the Surface Design Awards 2015 in the Commercial Exterior Surface Category; and the Elle Decoration UK Design Awards 2005 for Best in Accessories.