September’s Maker of the Month is Rebecca Graves-Prowse, who has been making handmade functional pottery for eight years. Her love of pottery is driven by her passion for design, and her interest in making functional pottery that is elegant and maybe a little cheeky. Her business, Gravesco Pottery, offers a full line of ceramics as well as custom designs for clients.
What piqued your initial interest in designing your product(s)?
My most important criteria when designing is that a product functions as intended. The second is that it is beautiful. I initially started making pottery from a completely different career as a knitwear designer. I was looking for cool handmade buttons and couldn’t find what I wanted. When I asked a friend to have a student make some he scoffed and told me to come into the studio and make them myself. That started my love affair with clay as a design medium.
When I began making pottery it was a combination of my love of design and being able to combine all my skills in one tactile and functional medium. Handmade doesn’t have to be clunky. It can be elegant, sophisticated and cheeky, too.
What principles do you use when designing?
As I mentioned before, function is at least as crucial as beauty. We’ve all sipped from a coffee mug that dribbles and it’s frustrating. Engineering a piece of pottery to work as intended is sometimes a labor of love but the end result is worth the time spent on prototypes.
As an example, the lips of my cups and mugs taper ever so slightly so they are comfortable to drink from, don’t dribble and the narrower rim adds an elegance to an otherwise sturdy cup. Most of my drinking vessels also have a thumb dent that I press into the side as I’m taking it off the potter’s wheel. It allows for a comfortable spot for the user’s hand to rest when holding it, a bit of a worry spot when sipping and conversing, fits a variety of hand sizes more comfortably, creates and interesting diversion inside the cup during the drinking and it looks intriguing. People have to touch it when they notice it.
Who and/or what influences your design style? How would you describe your design aesthetics and values?
During my formal training years, I worked as a runway model so it goes without saying that fashion has always inspired me. Often I’ll use textures in fabric or lines in fashion to inspire what I’m doing in clay. In general, I’m always looking around for inspiration. I find it in the oddest spots sometimes. The rows of windows in a building, a texture of a crack in the sidewalk, rust on a metal building, wildlife, textures on a waterlogged piece of driftwood, the curve of a sandhill crane…what isn’t inspiring to me is probably a smaller list. I’m constantly taking photos of all sorts of randomness with my iPhone to document ideas.
What comes first for you, the design materials or the design concept?
That has changed a lot over the years. Initially the design dictated the materials. Weirdly, though, as I’ve matured I’ve found that I actually enjoy some restrictions. It forces me to be more creative. Working in clay, with the time it takes to shift materials, months of glaze testing, and firing tests generally it is easier to work with the materials that I’m comfortable with because I can predict the outcome in a more timely manner. As an example, I worked with No Crumbs Left, a food blogger in Chicago, to develop a bowl with a very specific function for her signature recipe. We decided to use a new clay and that required 3 months of glaze testing until we found exactly the right combination to move forward with the project.
While I love that aspect of the problem solving, it’s more of a luxury option than an every day activity. I have learned a lot about the engineering of the material and product by restricting the material usage to achieve the desired result. The learning never stops in this medium.
Could you describe the process of creating a piece – from conception to finish?
I generally start with sketches. Surprisingly, I don’t always sit down with the intention of designing a
specific product, often I’m grabbing a pencil and my sketchbook to work out how to incorporate a texture or specific lines into a product or product line. It’s rare that I design a single item – usually the design process encompasses a product line or mini-collection. Once I get rolling it’s hard to just stop at one thing because it snowballs as my pencil hits paper.
Once I have designs sketched out, I take it to my wheel to start playing with it in 3D. I weigh out clay and make notes as I’m working so that once I land on the one I love I’ll know how I did it. If I’m designing a bowl, for example, I’ll usually throw 15-20 and look at them lined up on the table. Those 15-20 get culled down to maybe 4-5 at most. Once they’re dry enough to trim the bottoms and outside shape, I’ll cull it again to my favorite 2-3. Those will be fired and glazed at which point I’ll either choose the one I want to move forward with or head back to the wheel to make some tweaks and try again. From the time I sit at the wheel to the time the samples come out of the kiln is two weeks, so designing new products is never a quick process.
What is your favorite tool, and why?
I know this sounds crazy, but my favorite tool is a hotel key card. Seriously. They’re the shape and size of a credit card but thinner. I can use it for creating lines in the surface of a pot, bend it to a specific curve when I’m throwing, use scissors to cut a pattern into one side that gets pressed into a pot while it’s on the wheel, and I don’t have to worry about losing or breaking it. They’re plentiful. I’ve even been known to ask hotel associates when I travel if they have any to get rid of that have dead magnetic strips.
Describe a piece you’ve created that you are most proud of. What was special about it?
Right now, the piece I’m most proud of is the bowl for No Crumbs Left because I’ve never worked so hard in my life to get a glaze just right for a project and the results are a functional and sensual bowl that just fits your hand perfectly and feels like a dream. A close second, though, is my signature mug with the pinched handle. Potters, as a rule, tend to hate making mug handles. I LOVE mugs, though, so after years of grumbling about putting handles on mugs I decided to focus on designing a handle that was different than most of what I see from other potters and that is fun to make.
The answer was a complete accident. Literally. I’d made some napkin rings that were pinched with my fingers for a cool texture. I accidentally dropped one and it broke in half. The half-napkin ring sitting on my work bench next to a row of cups just looked like it would make a fabulous handle. Holding the broken piece up to a cup, it was confirmed. The proportion and shape were going to be just right so I set about designing and figuring out how to reproduce my pinched handle that I now call the serendipity handle. My fingers pinch it in all the places that make it comfortable for you to hold. Your thumb nestles in at the top, your fingers grip right where mine pinched it, and the mug stays balanced effortlessly in your hand when it is full of your favorite beverage.
Describe the commissioning process. What are the best and worst aspects about doing commissions?
Ahhhh, this one can be a sticky wicket. I’ll start with the worst aspects. Actually, there is only one – managing client expectations. I’ve learned to turn down projects (though occasionally I forget this maxim and take one on only to regret it) when someone comes to me with, “Can you make this for me?” and it’s a photo of either commercially produced work or something made by another potter in a totally different style. Just no. If they’re that happy with someone else’s design, they’re not likely to be thrilled with my take on it. The best aspects are varied and many. My favorite is working with clients who love my work, love my clay and glaze and just want something with a different function. It’s a pleasant experience and the client ends up with pottery that suits their needs exactly.
What advice you would give to aspiring designers like yourself?
Don’t listen to people who tell you what you “should” do. I spent enough years trying to follow these unwritten rules about a variety of things you should do. The biggest being, “You should have a backup plan.” Nope. If you have a backup plan, it’s too easy to fall back on that backup plan. For 20+ years I worked in a creative job corporate retail and did art on the side. It wasn’t until I walked away from job security and dove head first into making what I genuinely wanted that I began to succeed at this and make a name for myself.
What is one thing that the creative/design community can do in Indianapolis to help grow an audience for custom or hand-crafted work?
I think this is something every community can do – don’t ask artists to work for free. When a community works with artists to develop unique spaces, original products and to showcase their voice the entire community becomes more sustainable. Additionally, by adjusting state and local legislation to make it easy for artists and makers to handle sales tax, business registration and meet local ordinances we can create a more vibrant arts community. I’ve often talked to people who just quit trying because it’s not a simple or clear cut path to doing what they are so good at, and they don’t know who to talk to so they can work out those details to be compliant.
What makes your work different from anyone else’s?
One of the things that I’ve always been intentional about with my pottery is to make things that fill a need and I love rather than following trends or copying what is hot in the market at the moment. My work is timeless but the modern sensibilities and unexpected details allow it to fit into a variety of homes and businesses from farmhouse style to Scandinavian, loft and minimalist. I work in my own style and simply don’t worry about fitting in.
What’s your most rewarding memory in your business?
It’s difficult to choose just one. I love what I do, so every day there are these rewarding moments that just stick with me. I’m going to have to say, though, that there is one constant that happens over and over. My husband, Christopher, and I met in 2013 as I was a couple years into my career as a potter and just in the process of setting up my own studio. He was incredibly supportive of what I do for a living and a few months into dating he actually bought me a brand new potter’s wheel. That was the most incredibly rewarding moment in my business because it meant that he genuinely supported me and was all in with what I do. Since then, for each step forward as my studio grows he is right there at my side encouraging me and sacrificing to make things happen – whether it’s helping me install a new kiln, pack orders when I need help, spending his weekends at art festivals, planning date nights so I have time away to refresh myself or making dinner when I roll in after a 16 hour day in the studio.