All fired up: Australia’s handmade ceramics boom

Enrolments in pottery courses at Tafe NSW have doubled and there’s a growing demand for handcrafted tableware. The only problem is finding the kilns to fire it in

Allison Mueller was always interested in ceramics but career and family got in the way.

Trained in interior design, she worked as a fashion stylist for 30 years. Mueller says the design industry is her “whole life”.

She started playing with clay 10 years ago but it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that she began foundation and intermediate ceramics courses at Tafe. About the same time, her daughters moved out of home. With downsizing on the horizon, she could properly commit herself to clay.

Alison Mueller in her home ceramics studio
Allison Mueller in her home studio in Manly. She is now embarking on a course to finesse her craft. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

She found a place with a “little studio space out the back”. She painted the space white and built a custom table and bench for her pottery wheel, trimming tools and buckets. Her kiln sits near the door for ventilation, and rows of white shelving display test tiles and drying projects.

Vicki Grima, executive officer of the Australian Ceramics Association, has noticed the “slow uptake” in pottery transform into a sharp rise over the last two years. She says Mueller’s story is typical.

“There has always been a trend of hobbyists in the association pivoting from other industries and jobs in their mid-40s to ceramics, to begin community classes.”

In the past four years enrolments in ceramics courses at Tafe New South Wales have doubled, says Chris Casali, head teacher of fine arts and ceramics for Tafe’s Sydney region.

‘Blown away with what you can do’

Pottery students come “at different times in their lives,” Casali says, with needs that vary.

While “some want the qualification”, others want “experimentation with resources”.

Allison Mueller’s pots
Allison Mueller’s pots. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Despite its newfound popularity, particularly among hobbyists, Casali still says “not enough people see the capacity of what ceramics has to offer as a career”.

“You can work as an artist, with artists, as an exhibitionist. Many students want a pathway into an arts health practition, like art therapy where clay is used for a whole range of things like motor skills.”

Mueller says fashion, homewares and interiors are “coming into one” with ceramics.

She points to the success of the Australian homewares company Mud Ceramics. Since opening in Sydney in 2007, the company has expanded to eight stores globally, from Melbourne to Los Angeles to London. This year it will open a second shop in New York City, along with new stores in Byron Bay and Sydney.

Mud’s porcelain clay homewares are still handmade in a studio in Sydney’s Marrickville. “People want homeware that is unique, handmade,” Mueller says. “Mud are doing amazing things in this space.”

But consumers are not the only ones driving the demand for handmade ceramics. Casali and Mueller say restaurants are also big customers.

“It started with the more exclusive restaurants getting ceramic artists to create their dinner wear,” says Mueller. Now these collaborations have “filtered down to even the local cafes”.

‘Super bored in lockdown’

Not every person finding a passion for pottery is making a mid-life career pivot.

For Nicky Li, a 20-year-old university student in actuarial studies and applied finance, an unexpected lockdown hobby turned into a small business.

Feeling “super bored” in lockdown, Li “decided to order clay online” after seeing pottery posts on Instagram. Social media is a common entry-point to the craft; on TikTok, Queensland-based home pottery kit company Crock’d has racked up 7.2m views; while on Instagram, there have been more than 300,000 posts under the hashtag #AustralianCeramics.

Li’s projects started small, with air dry clay; but she quickly transitioned into sturdier stoneware, turning her parents’ garage in western Sydney into a makeshift studio. After a while, the garage “became insane”.

Li sits in her makeshift studio in western Sydney
Nicky Li ordered clay online after seeing a pottery posts on Instagram. Soon afterwards she launched a small ceramics business from home. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

“Clay gets everywhere, all over the floor and table,” she says. Li stored her ceramics projects in stacked bread crates and crowded her workbench with “buckets and buckets of reclaimed clay”.

“I had an excess of things I made, and my parents kept saying, ‘What are you going to do with all of it just sitting here?’”

Li decided to start selling.

She set up Be Kewl, an online store featuring batch-made ceramics, imprinted with slogans and affirmations. It’s still a steep learning curve for Li. Although she now sells her works, ceramics is “definitely not a cheap hobby”.

‘You can’t just cook it in an oven’

In addition to the cost of clay, Li must pay to fire her works. “I don’t have a kiln, so I hire someone else’s,” she says.

Grima says the Australian Ceramics Association receives inquiries about where to find kilns “all the time”.

Access “is a bit problematic, with all the people falling in love with ceramics”.

“You can’t just cook it in an oven,” she says. “People need to cook it in a specialised kiln, with a minimum fire of 1,000 degrees Celsius.”

For hobbyists learning about ceramics from home, Grima suggests checking websites like Crockd’s Kilns Near You, which functions almost like an Airbnb for kilns, charting studios and independent potters offering shared firing spaces.

Pottery suppliers, local artists and community centres can also help. “But the reality is, there are lots of places in Australia where there is no access to kilns.”

This was a problem even before the pandemic. Kayde Clemans, owner of Bondi Clay, says a lack of accessible kilns is “why we opened up a studio” three years ago.

Kayde Clemans at Bondi Clay
Kayde Clemans is the owner of Bondi Clay, which teaches would-be potters how to make mugs, cups, plates and sculptures. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

The studio offers casual classes, take-home projects (which were huge sellers during lockdown) and more intensive workshops, but shared facilities – and the community building that comes from it – is central. “People share facilities, but also their thoughts and ideas,” Clemans says.

He has since opened ClayGround, a second studio in Rosebery, which caters to intermediate and advanced potters.

‘An antidote to modern day life’

Casali likens clay work to visiting the ocean or sitting in the forest. “When you touch clay, there is some sort of weird bond … It just feels like you can slow yourself and your mind down.”

Grima admires the material’s “amazing chemical change”, starting from “soft muddy stuff” to hardness after firing.

A potter works at a wheel at Bondi Clay
Clemans calls ceramics is ‘almost an antidote to modern-day life’. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

For Li, the impermanence of the craft is its big appeal. “Even if your work is dried – if you haven’t fired it yet – you can put it in a bucket of water. It turns back to mush and you can remould it to what you like.”

“Even if I make mistakes, I can redo it and see my progression over time.”

For Clemans, it is no surprise that a world-altering pandemic drew people to ceramics. “It made people step outside their work life.” He calls ceramics “almost an antidote to modern-day life … You get your hands in it, and you are doing something tactile again.”


Rafqa Touma

The GuardianTramp

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