Interview: Surface designing with Hadiya Williams

Hadiya Williams is an art director based in Washington, DC and founder of Black Pepper Paperie Co, which sells globally-inspired, one-of-a-kind handcrafted pieces.

For the past 12 years, Hadiya has done work with non-profit organizations in the Greater Washington, DC area serving families in underserved communities throughout the city. Her ultimate goal is to create work that transforms spaces and helps people celebrate life’s most important moments. We find out more…

Hadiya Williams

What do craft and the decorative mean to you?

Embellishment, beautification, ornamentation all come to mind when I think of decorative. You can have a decorative item that is functional or just for display. It adds something special to a space or entity. I like to collect different types of items. Small Antiques, vintage pieces, chairs, handmade items, design packaging, books, etc. All of these items are decorative. They create these vignettes where you can lose yourself. 

When thinking of craft, I think of the art of making something by hand for use or using materials intended for function. Artisan, craftsman/craftsperson, people who work as woodcarvers, ceramicists, cobblers, jewelers, weavers, people who have managed to make a living out of hand-crafting functional items. I also think of fine artists who work with wood and fibers and clay to create sculptural pieces.

We’d love to know more about how Black Pepper Paperie Co. came about. What kind of space is it? 

BPPCo. is an experience in craft and design with cultural influences from across the African diaspora. It was developed out of a love for the art of handcrafted work and wanting to move my work beyond the computer into something tangible. 

What inspired you to start BPPCo. and any advice for readers looking to open a similar venture? 

I was inspired to start BPPCo. In November of 2016 after finishing a wedding invitation job. I attended the wedding in New Orleans and I returned home, changed. I knew I wanted to leave my non-profit office job and start my own business. At the time, I was still focused on stationery and event design. I’ve wanted to do stationery since I started school 15 years ago. I loved the tactile nature of paper and printing presses. 

In early 2017 things organically evolved into something that I didn’t see coming. I took a ceramics workshop in February and started to work with clay for fun. Then I tried polymer clay because I would work at home. I was able to develop my brand and creative practice sharing my work. In April 2017, I participated in an IG creative challenge, #the100DayProject, which starts the first week of April so it is currently happening. I used that opportunity to figure out my aesthetic and to create and share. People loved what I was sharing and started asking to purchase the items that I was creating. In May 2017, I launched my Etsy shop and things kind of took off from that point. 

Though I started with polymer clay and it helped me learn to shape and mold, I preferred the texture and nature of ceramic clay. I eventually started taking classes at local studios and moved onto working primarily with ceramic clay bodies. A more involved process and the pieces are very delicate but that is the part I love most.

Although we’re focusing on ceramics, you’re a multidisciplinary maker. How would you describe your practice?

That is still one that I struggle with. I started out calling myself a maker because it was the trendy term at the time and it felt accessible. My background is in graphic design, so I have little experience with art as a practice. I still call myself a designer sometimes and other times an artist, maker, or craftsperson. I would say I am a surface designer who primarily uses clay as a medium. 

I have done various projects which include: installations, interior murals, hotel room decor, jewelry, textile pattern design, hand-painted wood, etc. I love being able to create using different mediums and seeing how my work shows up on different surfaces and forms.

Your ceramic jewellery is inspired by West African aesthetics – can you tell us a bit more about how ancestral memories, energies and inspirations feature in your work?

Absolutely. I believe that we pass down our artistic practice like we pass down tradition, habits, culture. Sometimes it is learned/taught but there is also a remembering. Like a serious diasporic dejavu that occurs. You see it more obviously in dance trends that seem to directly mimic and resemble cultural dances from centuries before. A lot of my designs include motifs that are used across the diaspora (triangles, squares, circles, curves, lines). I start with West African because my earlier exposure to African art was from the western region. My mother brought a lot of African art and artwork into the home so it has always informed my way of thinking about art and decorative items.

Your pieces are all completely unique. Can you tell us a bit more about the process of making and handcrafting pieces that are one of a kind?

I rarely make the same piece twice so they really are one-of-a-kind. Believe me, I have tried to think more like a manufacturer, making the same piece in large quantities. I would say that has been my number one challenge when trying to fit into the retail space. It has made it challenging for me to do traditional wholesale. I always come back to the same issue. Most of my retail relationships are consignment which gives me a little freedom to create what I want. I realize that I appreciate the “canvas” of each piece being a clean slate and a moment for new exploration. I am still learning myself and constantly examining my process and my goals. 

Are ceramics having a ‘contemporary’ moment? What do you think appeals to people about the medium?

I would say there is a contemporary moment for ceramics. My interest started over 10 years ago. I started collecting handmade or vintage/thrifted pieces from flea markets and craft markets. I think as digital became the norm, people started longing for handmade. I also think that with the evolution of social media there has been this world opened up to us that provides so much exposure to what has been or is currently being created, globally. It is inspiring. 

I think the appeal is the ability to mold and transform and to create something from a material that seemed inaccessible to the average person. To be able to create a bowl, a mug, jewelry, something that we all use everyday, from mud is a beautiful thing. I love the handmade, imperfect nature of handbuilding, in particular. I like the challenge of figuring out if I can make a thing. I can be a perfectionist at times, so when I realized that I could create imperfectly with clay and embrace the mistakes and the flaws, I became hooked. 

How has your background in graphic design informed your creative practice and approach to crafting and making everyday and household objects?

My graphic design background is the foundation for my artwork. I have been designing professionally for 15 years and I have developed a fingerprint over time. I make sure that I clarify that I am not really a ceramicist and that clay is just the main medium that I use to express myself. It is my particular way of designing that makes my work unique to me. I still do freelance design and I have started using my hand-painted style a lot more within my design work. So now my artwork informs my graphic design.

Lastly, can you tell us what your favourite piece in Black Pepper Paperie Co. is at the moment?

My favorite piece right now is a porcelain soap dish with gold lustre. I am participating in #the100DayProject again, creating 100 soap dishes (yikes!). I used gold for the first time on this particular dish after glaze firing it with just a simple underglaze and clear glaze. I felt like it needed another layer. I have some gold that I haven’t had the time to really try out since lustre requires a third firing. I am usually trying to divide my time between graphic design work and claywork so I usually only have time to fill my orders. This “extra” time that I have during this quarantine period has definitely allowed for some experimentation. I tend to keep my designs pretty simple but that additional layer really made a difference. It added that little bit of sass that I need in my life right now. 

Words: Hadiya Williams
Questions: Polly Hember / Jade French

Hadiya’s Instagram can be found here.

About the Author

Hadiya Williams is a surface designer/artist based in Washington, DC. Her work has recently been featured on digital platforms and in print publications including, OkayAfrica, The Cut, Washingtonian Mag, AphroChic, and Travel + Leisure. With over 15 years experience in graphic design, Hadiya founded the creative studio, Black Pepper Paperie Co. in 2017. There she uses her background in design to create globally-inspired, one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces that include wearable ceramic objects, home decor, and accessories.