On a trip to New York about a decade ago, Benoît Astier de Villatte and Ivan Pericoli stopped at ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan. The store was among the first to stock ceramics from Astier de Villatte, the line the men co-founded in Paris in 1996. They were admiring how some of their dishes were displayed when a salesclerk told them the pieces were copies of those used by Marie Antoinette.
“No, they’re not!” Mr. Pericoli, 52, recalled saying to the clerk, who was unaware that the men who seemed to be browsing had designed the plates. While the plates were not replicas of any belonging to the French queen, their look was informed by tastes of France’s former ruling class, at least loosely. In designing the ceramics, Mr. Pericoli said he and Mr. Astier de Villatte, 60, are inspired by “anything from the past, any period, starting from the Neolithic.”
The two, who met after each had graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, drew on their time as students in creating the line. Mr. Astier de Villatte’s sister, Mathilde Carron-Astier de Villatte, was another founder, before she left to start her own ceramics brand.
Instead of porcelain, they chose to work with black terra cotta, a material more common for sculpture, which they had used at school. In the style of ancient Romans, they pressed the clay into shapes with plaster molds, then applied a bright white glaze. Finished ceramics showed the artists’ hand in their uneven forms and the faint glimpses of terra cotta peeking through their smooth finish.
The technique used gives each piece an “almost ectoplasmic” effect, “like it’s been extruded out of a bowl of unpasteurized milk,” said Mitchell Owens, the acting features editor of The World of Interiors, who described Astier’s creations as a “sort of dark counterculture ‘porcelain.’”
Mr. Owens said that owning the ceramics has come to carry the air of membership in “a special club.” (He likened it to when one owner of Verdura jewelry recognizes the brand on another.)
But according to Mr. Pericoli and Mr. Astier de Villatte, who both studied painting in college, that wasn’t the intention.
“We were supposed to be painters, not ceramists!” Mr. Pericoli said.
‘Where is the dessert plate?’
Sue Fisher King, who owns a namesake home goods shop in San Francisco, first encountered Astier’s products at the Maison & Objet trade show in Paris in 1996, the year the brand debuted. Presented with furniture the men had also made, the ceramic offerings, then limited to a few dishes, “stupefied” Ms. Fisher because they were neither made of porcelain nor decorated or gilt in the French tradition.
“Would people buy it?” Ms. Fisher, 82, recalled wondering before placing an order that day for plates in a pattern called Regence. Among the brand’s most popular, it was inspired by a style of dish used by France’s Duke of Orléans.
Not long after the line’s initial pieces arrived at Ms. Fisher’s shop and other early retailers, customers wanted more. “‘Where is the dessert plate? The soup plate?’” Mr. Astier de Villatte recalled of the questions that came as interest in their wares grew.
One of Ms. Fisher’s customers was the filmmaker George Lucas, who wanted matching cups. She “was calling and calling” on behalf of him so persistently, Mr. Pericoli said, that around 1999 “we started making cups.”
The brand’s ceramics grew to include not only cups, but also all manner of tableware and other decorative pieces like pendant lamps, which are now made by some 70 artisans. While everything is meant to be used, practicality is not a guiding principle.
“We like function, but No. 1 is beauty,” Mr. Astier de Villatte said. “And if it works, it works.”
The white, minimalist core offerings have been supplemented with more fanciful pieces from collaborations, including with the French sculptor Serena Carone, who has made cups with handles shaped like cocktail rings; the Japanese painter and ceramist Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, who has created a teapot in the form of a pawing cat; and the American decoupage artist John Derian, who sources antique imagery and drawings that are transferred onto pieces. (Mr. Derian’s stores have sold Astier products since the 2000s.)
Chelsea Miller, a knife maker in New York and Connecticut, covets Astier ceramics because they are “playful without being too far set from tradition.” Ms. Miller, 38, likes to mix dish ware when she is setting a table, and thinks the brand’s pieces would “dance beautifully” with others she has bought from estate sales and Etsy.
Their blank palette can also make food appear more appetizing. “We eat with our eyes first,” said Rebekah Peppler, 35, a food writer and stylist in Paris. Her latest cookbook, “À Table,” features dishes including a leg of lamb photographed on Astier plates, which she described as looking like “that forgiving and perfectly rumpled white shirt.”
Supply and demand
Lauren Elkin, 43, a writer in London, first learned of Astier ceramics in 2000 while studying abroad in Paris. Fifteen years later, she recognized their staying power while attending a retreat at the home of the filmmaker Agnès Varda in southeastern France, where flowers were arranged in Astier vessels, mojitos were served in Astier cups, and risotto was plated on Astier dishes.
“Every time I sell a book, I buy a piece of Astier,” Ms. Elkin said. Though its profile has grown, the brand “doesn’t appear commercialized,” she added.
In part, that is likely because its ceramics output varies. Some years’ collections include more pieces, others have fewer. In conceiving of them, Mr. Pericoli and Mr. Astier de Villatte never restrict themselves to production quotas.
“Quotas?! We’ve never had that conversation,” said Mr. Derian, 59, who described himself and Astier’s co-founders as “artists who run businesses.”
Mr. Derian’s shops in Manhattan and Provincetown, Mass., embody the type of small, local businesses that Mr. Pericoli said he and Mr. Astier de Villatte prefer to sell to. In addition to Mr. Derian’s and Ms. Fisher’s stores, Astier is stocked in the United States at Bon, a boutique in Tucson, Ariz., and Patch NYC, a shop in Boston whose owners, Don Carney and John Ross, have also collaborated with the brand to create ceramics that feature Mr. Carney’s ink drawings.
Existing vendors expect to wait up to six months for orders, and prospective retailers may wait forever because the company’s sales team is encouraged to turn most away.
“This is weirdly their main job,” Mr. Pericoli said.
Building a lifestyle brand
Four years after they started their line, Mr. Pericoli and Mr. Astier de Villatte opened a flagship store on Rue Saint-Honoré in Paris. A second location in that city opened in 2016, and a third opened last September in Seoul.
From the outset, they wanted to stock the stores with notebooks, candles and ceramics from other makers in addition to their own pieces. “We’ve never wanted to get obsessed with our brand,” Mr. Pericoli said.
The two approached companies including Diptyque and Santa Maria Novella, which declined to wholesale their products. (Mr. Pericoli characterized the response to their inquiries back then as, “Go to hell!”) So they began to produce an Astier line of paper goods as well as dish soaps, lotions, incenses and candles, eventually hiring people like Emilie Mazeaud, 47, a creator of scented products, to join their staff of artisans.
In February, Astier added a new category to its inventory when it released its first perfume, Tucson, which has notes of sweet amber and Mediterranean strawflower.
“I think we’d even like to interpret the smell of another planet,” Ms. Mazeaud said of the ambitions for its fragrance business.
The company’s headquarters in the 13th Arrondissement of Paris also recently expanded to include a lab where products can be formulated. There are plans to introduce more skin care, including body soap, and a multipurpose household cleaner that Mr. Pericoli described as “a very handy soap for use on anything from tarnished silver to tea stains.”
The founders see few limits to where the brand can go. “We could embrace anything — why wouldn’t we do a hotel or a bicycle tomorrow?” Mr. Pericoli said.
But no matter what comes next, “I think our backbone will always be ceramics,” he added.