The humble button goes from mere fastener to a place on the gallery wall

Ai Weiwei, Edmund de Waal, Cornelia Parker and Antony Gormley are among 10 leading artists who will break their usual mould by making decorative buttons for an exhibition this autumn.

Inspired by the great British ceramicist Lucie Rie, who died in 1995 aged 93, and who had to turn to producing buttons during the second world war, the artists will create their own, reflecting some event or instance from their lives.

For Ai, buttons have long played a vital role. “I lived in extremely impoverished conditions as a child, possessing just one pair of trousers and shirt, so the loss of any button was very troublesome,” he said. “Buttons held extraordinary significance – small in size yet symbolising the essentiality of life and preservation of human dignity.”

Ai has even kept two from the 1960s to remind him of living with his father in a labour camp. Then, in 2019, he bought 30 tonnes of buttons from a south London manufacturer that was going into liquidation. “They will eventually be seen in some form by the public,” says Ai, who helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium before falling out with the Chinese regime. “Buttons are both a functional object of design and a representation of industrialisation.”

Ai Weiwei near his home in Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal. Photograph: Matilde Viegas/The Observer

Ai’s buttons for the autumn exhibition at Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge have a deeply personal resonance. They will depict the red star badge of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In 2011, Ai was imprisoned in China for 81 days for alleged tax evasion. “Two officers were always positioned about 80 centimetres from me, watching day and night. I couldn’t look at their faces, yet I was in the presence of two individuals who embodied national power. Their buttons were especially conspicuous.”

De Waal, a noted ceramicist and author of the bestselling family memoir The Hare With Amber Eyes, has made buttons about Rie herself. Like the other nine artists, he has seen an exhibition of her work of pottery and buttons, which has been touring the UK, from Middlesbrough last December before Cambridge and now Bath.

A Jewish refugee, Rie fled Austria in 1938, where she had made a name for herself as a potter. But after arriving in the UK, war was soon declared and, though designated “a friendly enemy agent”, she found it hard to get clay material. The Board of Trade then withdrew her manufacturing licence, arguing that producing pots was not as important as war work. So she took up button-making, mainly for fashion houses, which the government allowed to boost morale for women who liked fancy clothes.

“Lucie was a distant cousin of my maternal grandmother,” says De Waal, who met her a few times in London before her death in 1995. “She had to reinvent herself in the UK. But, as a stylish woman who loved fashion, she understood couture and did very well from buttons, even though she wanted to get back to pots.” Rie gave away many of her buttons in her latter years to the noted Japanese clothes designer Issey Miyake, who had become a good friend.

“I’ve a particular empathy with Lucie as she was an exile, and I’m from a refugee family,” says de Waal. “My buttons – and I’m doing about 180 on 20 different cards – are made of very thin porcelain engraved with Lucie’s name and addresses of her home in Vienna and London. It’s my homage to her.”

Parker, a former Turner prize nominee, is producing what she calls “subversive” buttons. “I’m making them from lead toy soldiers,” says Parker, whose German mother was a nurse for the Luftwaffe in the second world war. She found her soldiers, some dating back 200 years, from searches in the UK and US.

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Cornelia Parker.Cornelia Parker. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Observer

“They’re all maimed, lying on button cards as if they are wounded. I’ve drilled buttonholes in them, and then sewn them on to the cards with blood-like red thread.”

Jennifer Lee, a Scottish-born ceramicist, was well aware of buttons as items of use and beauty because her mother was a prolific clothes maker: “I was brought up on her vast collection of buttons.” Lee’s own contribution will be made of brightly coloured clay, and in oval, oblong, round and teardrop shapes.

Gormley, like the other artists, has brought a personal theme to his exhibits. Having over the years frequently used his own body for his sculptures, he will make his buttons from a trace of his fingerprint.

Artists’ Buttons will open in mid-October at Kettle’s Yard, where the A5-sized cards will be on sale.

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