Tree of Life

Michael Chandler’s hand-painted ceramic mural fronts an international store.

Born in East London and based in Cape Town, Michael Chandler of Chandler House is a multi-disciplinary artist, curator and ceramicist with a particular penchant for creating spellbindingly detailed ceramic pieces decorated in the style of Oriental porcelain. His signature blue-and-white ceramic tile murals can be admired in numerous locations throughout South Africa – and now on an international scale.


Chandler was recently commissioned by Jasmin Larian Hekmat, the founder and owner of designer womenswear brand Cult Gaia, to create the mural facade of the new Cult Gaia Miami flagship store. One thousand eight hundred hand-painted blue and white porcelain tiles, meticulously arranged like a puzzle, depict a ‘Tree of Life’ scene of muses, birds, flowers and fruit.


We spoke to Chandler to find out how his involvement in this project came about, the intricate design and how he brought his vision to life on such a scale. 


Tell us about the design of the Cult Gaia storefront.


The design is a Tree of Life, which grows from the ground up and stretches itself towards a large sun at the apex of the A-frame building. The owner is of Persian descent, and she wanted to do a Tree of Life in blue and white ceramic tiles as this motif, and the tradition of blue and white ceramic decorations, originate from ancient Iran. We brought the Tree into a more fashion-oriented space by filling its branches with nine female muses, birds, flowers and fruit. The pomegranate is a potent symbol of abundance and the divine female so we chose to paint it throughout the branches of the tree.


Can you walk us through your creative process for this particular storefront? How did you conceptualise the design and bring it to life? 


I begin all projects with a laid-back chat with the client. I hear their ideas, I ask them some questions and I try to understand which boxes I need to tick. I then print out a large A0 page of the architect's drawings and begin sketching out the bigger lines of the design. I look for where I want to put weight, and how to ensure I come up with something that is balanced, elegant and makes visual sense. I also have a running check list of all the things I need to include. This prevents me from forgetting anything that was specified.


Once approved, I begin laying out tiles, coding them on the reverse and sketching out the lines in pencil (this burns away in the firing). I usually start with a dark outline and gradually add more detail in softer tones until the painting part is done. I then go into the painted surface with sharp tools and scratch into it which provides definition, a lightness, as well as another layer of human-interaction. It's subtle, but I find it makes a massive difference.


Commissions can be complicated; it's about meeting expectations so I often under promise and over deliver. It always pays off. This client was a dream as she gave me complete trust. If anyone reading this is about to commission something, please trust your artist/designer/architect/illustrator. If you’ve chosen the right person for your project, they can be trusted to do something special. If you get in the way, you get in the way. It's that simple.


You’ve done quite a few ceramic murals before. What was different about this particular project?


This mural was different for a few reasons. For one, I painted it upright on a specially made table. It was helpful to be able to stand back and see the piece from this perspective as opposed to a flat surface. It gave me distance and my back is grateful too. This was also my first really public piece. While I’ve done work for restaurants, wineries, bars, etc, this piece is smack-bang on a very busy pavement and the thought of it being a backdrop to people’s busy lives was very inspiring. I’ve hidden so many tiny details in the branches which I hope reveal themselves over time as people spend more time looking at it.


How did you get involved in this project? What was it like working for an international fashion brand? 


I received an email asking for a Zoom meeting to discuss the possibility of doing a project in the US. I didn’t really think much of it until a few weeks later when they paid their deposit and said ‘blast off!’ And that was that. While I dealt a bit in the initial phases with the owner, I dealt a lot with a really switched-on, helpful and kind architect which made a world of a difference. The time zones weren’t a massive issue, and every curve ball we received was dealt with quickly and efficiently. It was an absolute dream working for a client like this. They deserve enormous success.



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