At first glance, Don Moyer’s plate designs look like something you’ve seen before: classic prints in classic colors. But then you look closer and notice the details. Each of his plates depicts different destructive monsters on classic blue-and-white china. Recently he’s also gotten into head wear, making bandanas covered with rage-filled paisley designs and (his current project) rogue pixels. We asked Moyer a few questions about his work, life, and the inspiration behind the angry little things that he designs.

How did you get into making classic blue-and-white china with disaster pictures on it, anyway?

I was trained as a graphic designer and have worked in that role for more than 40 years. Drawing has always been an important part of my job. I’ve gotten into the habit of drawing a little every day and posting my drawings on Flickr.

In 2011, I inherited a traditional blue Willow-pattern plate that belonged to my mother’s grandmother back in Ireland. I had an urge to redraw that plate and crank up the level of excitement. I added a pterodactyl.

As I drew additional plates that were spiced up with different calamities, and posted those drawings on Flickr, people kept saying they’d like to have real plates. In 2013, I launched a Kickstarter project to see if enough people wanted plates to support a production run.

Kickstarter is a great tool for artists because it allows wacky ideas to find sponsors. By simply describing a half-realized dream, Kickstarter allows supporters to add the momentum of a crowd to let the dream take flight. Everyone wins. The artist gets to make things that previously would have been impossible. And the sponsors get to enjoy things that previously would never have existed. Sweet.

Why do you think people love dinnerware with disasters?

This is easy to answer because Kickstarter allows my sponsors to tell me what they are thinking. I get messages that are very specific about what people are doing with their Calamityware plates. What they like is the element of surprise. A seemingly boring, traditional plate, rewards closer scrutiny by revealing something unexpected. This thrill-of-discovery idea pops up in almost all my fan mail. Some people talk about watching dinner guests clear their plates and make the discovery. There’s talk of astonishing grandchildren.

A few sponsors talk about the plates as a filter—guests who don’t notice the plates will not be invited back.

Some people think it is fun to mock grandma’s plates. And others are in love with robots, monsters, or UFOS.

In general, I’d say that my sponsors enjoy laughing and stand a little closer to the fringe rather than the center of the distribution curve.

Describe your workspace and your process.

I wish I could tell you about a magical process with fairies or astounding technology, but my process is actually pretty mundane:

  • In my Moleskine notebook, I start with a drawing of the whole plate, or the plate center, to see if the calamity will make me laugh. A plague of frogs was funny. A snowstorm was not. 
  • Next I audition elements of the design by drawing them several times in my notebook. For example, if I need a shrub, tree, or fence, I draw 10 or 20 and pick the best. 
  • I scan these elements and bring them into Adobe Illustrator to make a composition. In Illustrator, I can draw additional elements like bridges and pagodas, which are more crisp and mechanical looking.
  • Then, I invent borders. Instead of copying a specific traditional design, I look at some old plates and then make a new design that captures some of the spirit of old plates and mixes it with the spirit of my notebook drawings. 
  • I hang printouts of my designs on my dining room wall and try to see them fresh each day. Over a period of several weeks, this allows flaws to become visible—too dark, too light, too thick, too thin, etc. I fix the flaws. 
  • If the Kickstarter project is funded, the ceramics workshop that supports me produces transfers and then applies my drawing to blank porcelain plates with vitreous inks and fires them.

For me, there are two parts of this process that are great fun: the original drawing in my notebook is a treat, especially when it makes me laugh. Building the gaudy borders is also fun because it deals with excess. My training as a graphic designer was all about “less as more.” We were taught that ornament is crime. Willow-pattern plate borders would earn you a life sentence with the Modernists. To me, that adds another layer to the joke.

Have you found or made any surprising connections with people as a result of your projects?

I like this question because it recognizes that often, the greatest benefit of a project will be something that wasn’t within the scope of the project. I think of this as the Columbus Effect. His project was to find a short route to China, but he opened up something even better.

My series of Calamityware Kickstarter projects has helped me make some unexpected connections. I found a superb coffee roaster in South Dakota. I formed a strong bond with two friends who came to my rescue with improved business systems. I met someone who makes jewelry out of broken plate fragments. I’ve met entrepreneurs doing their own projects who have offered advice to help me cope with rough spots. I’ve been invited to exhibit my drawings. I met one of my favorite New Yorker cartoonists. And I’ve corresponded with dozens of charming, kind, and funny people who were strangers to me before.

It’s also possible that many more connections are germinating and will bear fruit months or even years later. You just never know.

What’s the weirdest or most interesting thing that has happened as a result of Calamityware?

Here’s one odd angle I didn’t know anything about before I started the Calamityware projects: 

Several archeologists have told me that shards from broken transferware plates are a valuable tool to date historic sites. I’m told that all sites in North America have broken china and that experts can date the site by scrutinizing the fragments. By looking at porcelain type, colors, and images, it is possible to calculate when people arrived at a site and even where they might have come from. Long-gone global trade routes can be sussed from the broken bits.

I’m told that archeologists have time lines that show when changes in the technology of porcelain occurred. By matching the shards from a site to the time line, they can determine when the site was occupied. Archeology students are trained to match samples to these time lines. To mess with the kids, teachers are now including a few shards of Calamityware among the old pieces. I love the idea of a student trying to understand why the shard they are studying has flying monkeys on it.

Then I project the idea forward another thousand years. Imagine the robotic archeologists of the future sifting through the rubble and trying to make sense of a piece of Calamityware. I like to picture them good and truly mystified.

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