Terra-Cotta Clay Projects to Beautify Your Home and Garden
Terra-cotta gets its name from the Italian words for "baked earth," and that rich, rusty color from the iron oxide it contains. But its modern cool factor comes from all the stylish ways you can use it. Embrace these ideas—that you can buy or DIY—to lend your home warmth, indoors and out.
Lounging one Bronze Age day by a river, someone toyed idly with some slippery clay from the riverbank. Squeezing it in his fist, rolling it between his palms, he was thrilled to find he'd somehow formed... a pot. Full of a sense of accomplishment now—but not quite knowing what do with his creation—he ambled on back to his cave and left the pot sitting in the sun, where it dried, baked, and became Earth's first terra-cotta (from the Latin terra-cocta, "baked earth").
That original pot, which had served as a vessel for cooking and food storage, flowered on, turning up eventually in early-Egyptian wall paintings and on Grecian urns. What is terra-cotta, actually? It's native clay, initially, usually unearthed nearby the pottery, where that clay is refined, shaped, and baked (fired) in a kiln. Baking is the step that turns the clay that rusty-pinkish red, although terra-cotta can also be yellow, brown, or even green, depending on the color of the earth and the firing technique. Mixed with water to sieve out most of the impurities, it's then dried in the air, since any water remaining in the clay would boil in the kiln's heat and blow the pots apart. Once air-dried, it can be shaped, either by coiling, pressing the clay into a mold, or, most commonly, by throwing it on a revolving wheel. Decoration can be carved into it after it's formed, or decoration might be integral—a raised design pressed into the pot while it's still damp—or applied, perhaps, to the damp surface before firing (applied decorations, though, are more likely to fall off in frosty weather). A rim may strengthen the pot, add neat nestability, create a nice demarcation line for soil, and be a somewhat tenuous handhold. Here, some of our favorite uses of terra-cotta for the home and garden.
Shop Now: Syzygy Novah Small Pitcher, in Brown, $35, bloomist.com. Casablanca Market Unglazed Naturel Tagine, $78, casablancamarket.com. Foliage Garden Large Patterned Cutout Terra-cotta pot, price upon request, foliagegarden.com. March Large Red-Clay Round Bowl, $240, marchsf.com.
Set a Scene
Sun-kissed terra-cotta tableware and neutral linens are a match made in dinner-party heaven. We bought the plates and tumblers, and painted stripes onto the decorative terra-cotta bowl. Salt and pepper cellars and napkin rings were sculpted from a few colors of no-bake air-dry clay.
Shop Now: Skagerak Edge Mugs (similar to shown), $29 each, goodeeworld.com. CB2 Madera Camel Terra-cotta Salad Plates, (top right and opposite), $9 each, cb2.com. Creative Co-op Unglazed Terra-Cotta Bowl, 2" by 10", $18, creativecoop.com. West Elm Textured-Cotton Napkins, $20 for 4, westelm.com. Fortessa Avezzo Rose-Tone Flatware, (similar to shown), $210 for a 20-piece set, neimanmarcus.com.
Flip Your Lid
Gardeners love these earthenware pots because they're porous, which helps prevent root rot and lets oxygen reach the soil inside with ease. Note: Any moist substances inside can expand—and cause cracks—in below-freezing temperatures, so empty containers or migrate them indoors for the winter if necessary. Here, we turned an oversize planter upside down and placed its saucer on top. Presto, change-o: your new side table. (Orchid pots are perforated, like the two shown here, so the plants' roots can breathe more easily. Arranged loosely, the vessels can moonlight as decorative sculptures.)
Shop Now: The Home Depot Whitewash Terra-cotta Egg Pot (similar to shown; used as table base), $18, homedepot.com. New England Pottery Orange Ceramic Plant Saucer, 15" (similar to shown; used as tabletop), $15, lowes.com. Foliage Garden Large Patterned Cutout Terra-cotta Pots, price upon request, foliagegarden.com.
Make a Mark
Customize basic pots with a quick paint job. Straight-sided vessels (rather than ones with thick rims) are easiest to decorate, and their silhouettes are chic. For graphic motifs, create a grid with painters' tape and fill in the blanks with craft paint in subtle colors, or try geometric stamps. Once your work has dried, brush on clear outdoor sealer to waterproof it.
Shop Now: Deroma Cabo Terra-cotta Clay Planters, 4.7", $1 each, truevalue.com. Green Barn Orchid Supplies Rustic Clay Orchid Pot, 4", $3, shop.greenbarnorchid.com. Martha Stewart Multi-Surface Satin Acrylic Craft Paint, in Chestnut Brown and Sand Castle, $2.50 each for 2.2 oz., michaels.com. Plaid FolkArt Finishes Outdoor Matte Sealer, $7.25 for 8 oz., plaidonline.com. Colorations Easy Knob-Grip Geometric-Shape Stamps, $31 for 14, theamazinjungle.com.
Bring It Inside
The refined neoclassical lines of these handmade vases make them mantel-worthy. They're glazed inside, so water can't seep out, but left untreated on the outside to show off their raw, unfinished appeal. The one on the left holds miniature orange tiger lilies, chartreuse lady-slipper orchids, allium pom-poms, polka-dot begonia leaves, green euphorbia, wispy pink heuchera flowers, cranberry hibiscus leaves, and flowering grass.
Catch eyes with collectibles like a vintage egg decoy, used to distract nesting hens, and an off-kilter Cody Hoyt vase (price upon request, patrickparrish.com). An incense holder and candlesticks are satisfying to smooth into shape. These hold Creative Candles tapers (in French Bordeaux; from $13 for 2, creativecandles.com).