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The beauty of imperfection

After nine years of working 8 to 5 (what a way to make a living), Jana Nel traded the mundane sense of security a corporate job offers, to finally live out her dream … one of creating gorgeous one-of-a-kind ceramics. Everything was planned down to a tee. Ferocious to-do lists were made. But then a pandemic hit and it was sink or swim. And thank goodness, Jana swam … straight to success.

Jana Nel’s perfect three-month kick-off plan, which included workshop events, markets and projects, simply crumbled at the hands of a virus, which made her question the brave – or crazy – decision to resign from her safe corporate job.

‘It made me fall into a spiral of doubt, disbelief that pursuing my dream was still a valid and sensible path to pursue … until I realised this unperfect situation of uncertainty is something every entrepreneur faces daily. Uncertainty is now my new normal – even without the impending coronavirus. Embracing the unperfect and uncertain … there is an opportunity hidden in every challenge.’

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Jana was born with a fiery creative passion. And although working in a corporate career, more specifically in IT and then later on medical aids, she made sure to live out her creativity after hours.

‘Baking, photography, oil painting – I’ve tried it all. Until three years ago, a friend and I decided to take up ceramic classes at night. Ceramics has always been a process I wanted to learn how to master. There are so many steps and quite a bit of chemistry involved that you need to understand to make sure your pieces come out exactly the way you want them.

‘The beginner classes were wonderful but I very quickly came to a point where I wanted to learn and experiment more. So I started to experiment in my home studio. Roughly 80 per cent of my knowledge and skills are self-taught. I’ve also found a wonderful resource called The Ceramics School (a global platform for ceramicists) and they offer an incredible range of tutorials for any aspiring ceramicist.

Jana mostly works with stoneware and occasionally with porcelain because ‘these clay bodies offer beautiful stone-like textures and colours. I love a neutral colour palette and prefer to work with the clay’s natural colour and texture as opposed to covering it with a brightly coloured glaze. In essence, clay is a piece of glorified mud, and to be able to hand-form functional objects from such a simple material gives me loads of joy.’

A perfectionist at heart, Jana’s journey with ceramics has challenged her to abandon the unrealistic expectation she always had to be perfect.

‘My new-found wabi-sabi philosophy has taught me to appreciate the beauty in imperfection, not to force a piece of clay into something it’s not meant to be, but rather let it take up its own form and character. Many uncontrollable and external factors influence each piece’s end result … The clay’s organic characteristics, the natural air-dry process, the high firing temperatures (some pieces are fired up to 1260°C). This all plays a role in the becoming of a beautiful art piece. It’s these natural-uncontrollable influences that make each piece unique.

‘Pursuing a career in ceramics has most certainly given me a whole new level of perseverance. Which was also the most important lesson my father taught me. We share a lot of similarities, one being that when we put our minds on a dream, we won’t quit until we feel we’ve reached our goal.’

With a flair for design and an eye for beautiful things, you simply cannot pass up a gorgeous Jana Nel Design. So it came as no surprise that H&M approached her to collaborate on their Conscious Exclusive Collection Range that launched last year.

‘I had the amazing privilege to hand-form stoneware cups and create custom gift boxes. It was such a wonderful project to work on, and it showed how dedicated H&M are to support local artisans and promote artistic talent in South Africa. I’d say it was a blessing that fell straight from heaven into my lap. My biggest fist-pump moment so far!’

When Jana is not creating art pieces, she loves to be in the kitchen, cooking and entertaining people at home. And from what we’ve heard, she really goes all out.

“Yeah … for me there is no such thing as just a braai or dinner. I want to create an experience, from the moment you set foot into the house. So, I love having a theme, and everything, from the table décor to the food, will all add to the entertaining experience. It is my way to show you how much I care.’

Details: Shop her latest collections online, jananel.com and follow her Facebook and Instagram, @jananeldesign

Jana’s top tips for entertaining:

  • Always have some bubbly in the fridge. South Africa has such a wide variety of really good MCCs.
  • Fill your dinner table with a bunch of beautiful, handmade candles, they add a beautiful charm to the aesthetic of your table.
  • A good sprinkle of flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper is the best accompaniment.
  • A good quality olive oil is superb on just about anything, from a fresh burrata, or dipping a fresh piece of bread into a pool of olive oil.
  • Make sure you choose a menu where you can prep most of the ingredients ahead of time so you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time in the kitchen when your guest arrive.


Two of Jana’s ultimate favourite recipes:

Yotam Ottolenghi’s beetroot, caraway and goat’s cheese bread

You’ll need: ½ cup (50g) rolled oats; ½ cup (20g) thyme leaves, finely chopped; 1/3 cup (50g) pumpkin seeds; 2 teaspoons caraway seeds; 2 teaspoons nigella seeds (also known as Black Seed or Black Cumin); ¾ cup (100g) all-purpose flour; 2/3 cup (100g) plus 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour; 2 teaspoons baking powder; ¼ teaspoon bicarb of soda; 1 pinch salt; 1 medium raw beet, peeled and finely grated (2 cups or 200g); 2 large eggs; 1/3 (80ml) sunflower oil, plus 1 tablespoon extra for greasing; 1/3 cup (80g) sour cream; 1 tablespoon honey; 20g Parmesan, finely grated; 120g creamy goat cheese, roughly broken into 2cm pieces.

How to:

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Grease and line the base of a 20 x 10cm loaf pan.

Mix the oats, thyme, pumpkin, caraway, and nigella seeds in a small bowl. Put both flours into a separate bowl with the baking powder, bicarb of soda, and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Whisk to combine and aerate, then add the grated beet and all but one tablespoon of the oat and seed mix. Don’t stir the mixture, just set it aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, oil, sour cream, honey, and Parmesan. Pour over the flour and beet mixture, then, using a spatula, mix to combine. Add the goat cheese and carefully fold through, trying not to break the pieces as you go.

Spread the mixture evenly into the prepared loaf pan and sprinkle with the remaining one tablespoon of the oat and seed mix. Bake for 40 minutes, then cover tightly with foil and bake for another 40 minutes. A skewer inserted into the middle will not come out completely clean, but it should not be too wet. Remove from the oven and let stand for five minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack and invert the bread so it is resting seed side up. The exterior will be quite crisp and dark. Cool for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

* Recipe and from Yotam Ottolenghi’s book, Simple.

Homemade fragrant roasted garlic hummus

You’ll need: 60g store-bought Tahini; 12 roasted garlic cloves, plus four tablespoons garlic oil; 1 tin chickpeas (drained); pinch of flaked Sea Salt; ¼ cup lemon juice; 5 tablespoons plus two teaspoons ice-cold water, plus extra; 1 ½ tablespoons parsley, finely chopped

How to:

Place the garlic cloves on a tray, and drizzle with a good amount of olive oil and a sprinkle of flaked sea salt.

Roast them at 180°C until golden brown and caramelized. Keep the remainder of the oil the garlic has been roasting in to add on top of the hummus when serving.

Add the tin of drained chickpeas, tahini paste, roasted garlic cloves, ½ teaspoon salt, and the lemon juice to the bowl of a food processor and blitz until smooth, 2–3 minutes.

With the machine running, slowly drizzle in the ice water until completely smooth and aerated. You may have to add slightly more water to reach the desired texture. Taste and adjust for seasoning if necessary.

Add the parsley, 2 tablespoons of garlic oil, and a pinch of salt to the bowl with the reserved chickpeas, and stir to combine. Set aside.

Transfer the hummus to a shallow platter and smooth it out with the back of a spoon, creating a slight well in the centre. (It’s okay if the hummus is a little runny; hummus will set as it cools.) Spread the Tahini Sauce into the well, then spoon the herbed chickpea mixture over the top of the tahini. Top the hummus with the remaining garlic oil.

WIN! Who wouldn’t love to have a Jana Nel Design item in their home? So, we’re giving away a salt and pepper gift set. It is hand-formed from stoneware clay with a beautiful ivory glaze on the inside and adorned with Jana’s signature 22-carat gold logo mark. Enter our competition by liking Getitpretoria on Facebook and tag a ceramic lover in the comments section. Entries close 21 June.


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