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Vallauris, the art of French ceramics

We are invited into Agnes Sandhal’s creative space, the legendary Sassi-Milici gallery in Vallauris. The multifaceted artist has her head full of shapes and colors, completely reinventing modern ceramic art in unique pieces that reflect her dreamy spirit. Paintings, ceramics, sculptures, designer furniture, table decoration: her inspiration knows no bounds. Decorated with works by Picasso and Capron, her workshop turns into an experimental theater, far from the traditional view of mid-century Vallauris culinary ceramics. Agnes’ creative talent has captivated royal families as well as luxury hotels and Michelin star Chefs worldwide.

Agnes Sandahl in her workshop at the heart of Vallauris, French Riviera

An illustrious workshop, at the heart of Vallauris

For Agnes, it all started when she visited this famous location in the centre of Vallauris, and fell in love: "When I saw the gallery for the first time, I was immediately taken by the place, an old pottery workshop built in 1852 around a wood oven where traditional Vallauris culinary ceramics where made,” she explains. “I wanted to help preserve this incredible piece of history, a place that hosted Picasso, Braque and Cocteau. It was about making this artistic heritage come alive, keeping it going and bringing it into a new, modern era."

The renovation work was colossal, but the artist had energy to spare and knew that only such a large space – a ceiling as high as 26 feet - could hold her ambitious project. Indeed, she intended to make her own modern creations, with a small team of talented potters handling Vallauris clay soil; as well as presenting ceramics and faience works of prestigious artists, selling for high prices on auction. "Every time I successfully finish a project, all the money goes into buying collectors vintage pieces from the 50s and 60s, the golden age of Vallauris ceramics, of Picasso, Roger Collet, Gilbert Portanier, Roger Capron, Jean Derval. Vallauris was the epicenter of mid-century artistic ceramics."

In this workshop, the "Agnes touch" is born: a mix of handmade sculptures, clay vases casted like bronze, glazed white plates with a lot of texture; a play on materials and on multiple decorative themes, reminiscent of the golden days of mid-century majolica in Vallauris. Agnes Sandhal does not hesitate to innovate in her blend of styles and substances, to the pleasure of private collectors, architects and interior designers.

This "marriage" of materials and textures brings us to another "marriage", an incredible adventure that took her art to new heights. In 2011, the Principality of Monaco celebrates a large royal wedding. Agnes Sandhal is contacted by the royal family to create made-to-measure tableware pieces, which made such an impression that she was hired again for the christening of the royal twins. In this fairytale, her path crossed that of Joël Robuchon, the triple Michelin starred chef. "He requested to meet me and it’s where my adventure with gastronomy started. Joël gave me carte blanche to create a full tableware collection for his restaurant, handdrawn by me in little notebooks."

Ceramic works of art for star chefs

The epicurean artist soon understood that "tableware highlights the chef’s cooking, it’s part of the sensory experience of the meal. The ceramic plates, porcelain bowls or majolica pitchers you pick reveal your taste and inner self."

Her love for colors, original shapes and vibrant optimism caught the eye of Eric Fréchon at L’Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, Pierre Gagnaire, Arnaud Faye, Yannick Alléno and of course Mauro Colagreco, who put her in charge of tableware for Ceto and some pieces for Mirazur.

Agnes Sandahl has a talent for imagining unique tables, with minimalistic, refined ceramic pieces. Her exceptional tableware is inspired by each of the Chefs’ desires and personality, as well as the restaurant itself. "It’s a dialogue: the Chef comes to my gallery, and he’ll say "oh, I like that, I love that style". They sort of make a preselection of pieces they like. And then I go to their restaurant, taste their food, meet their brigade; I really get to see how they work, it’s like a dialogue. They need pieces to feel personal to them, speak for their dishes."

This trust between her and clients is the foundation for her unique creations. "When a Chef comes to see me, it’s because they already love my art and the way I do things. They always have such high requirements, precision, a true vision. My job is to make their vision come to life, with the constraints that go with it. Sometimes, I do have to tell them: ‘I can’t do that!’. But I still can go very far, like the sea urchin plates I created for Ceto. Sealife is a huge inspiration for me."

The Vallauris artist pushes all boundaries in her creative endeavors, but her marvelous creations still have to go into the dishwasher, be piled up and manipulated daily in the kitchen and during service. Quite a conundrum to find common ground between artistic and practical. "Sometimes I must make concessions. It’s a privilege of triple Michelin star chefs to use pieces that will just be aesthetically pleasing without being practical." Agnes knows exactly what pushes Chefs to go further and further in artistic ambition. "They want to differentiate themselves, and the world of grande cuisine is very competitive, it’s all about being the first to do something, to be different and unique, and that goes for tableware too."

The legendary Sassi-Milici gallery in Vallauris, where Agnes Sandahl presents her creations

It’s hard to leave such a divine place and an artist so full of life, with the most luminous smile. Agnes is buzzing with ideas for new projects: designing Fendy handbags, doing scenography for luxury catwalk shows. For creation, like she always says, "the sky is no limit".  

As we say goodbye, she starts frantically looking for the soundtrack to her newest creation. "Music is essential to me. It gives rhythm to my movements, my brushstrokes. With music, I never hesitate." Out of curiosity, take a detour to L’Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc to see her fresco on the rooftop bar. Agnes painted it while dancing to the Jackson Five!  


Vallauris ceramics: Meet Agnes Sandahl

Our itinerary Chef’s Escape Mauro Colagreco in the South of France includes an exclusive meeting with the artist in her Vallauris gallery. You’ll discover her universe, brimming with shapes and colors, and exchange with her. This trip is a dream for art lovers, with a visit of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation and the astounding Domain du Muy, with monumental scupltures by Niki de Saint-Phalle, Claude Lalanne and Carsten Höller.

These cultural visits are interspersed with private tastings, meetings with Mauro Colagreco’s suppliers, cooking workshops and of course dinner at Mirazur, for a gourmet journey through the French Riviera.


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