All Aflame: Australia’s Craft Ceramic Boom | Ceramic
Allison Mueller has always been interested in ceramics, but her career and family got in the way.
Trained in interior design, she worked as a fashion designer for 30 years. Mueller says the design industry is his “whole life.”
She started playing with clay 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that she started basic and intermediate ceramics courses in Tafe. Around the same time, her daughters left home. With a downsizing on the horizon, she could well step up to clay.
She found a place with a “little studio in the back”. She painted the space white and built a custom table and bench for her potter’s wheel, cutting tools and buckets. Its oven sits by the door for ventilation, and rows of white shelves display test tiles and drying projects.
Vicki Grima, chief executive of the Australian Ceramics Association, noted that the “slow adoption” of pottery has turned into a surge over the past two years. She says Mueller’s story is typical.
“There has always been a tendency for hobbyists in the association to move from other industries and jobs in their mid-40s to ceramics, to start community classes.”
Over the past four years, enrollment in ceramics courses in Tafe New South Wales has doubled, says Chris Casali, senior teacher of fine arts and ceramics for the Tafe area of Sydney.
“Amazed by what you can do”
Pottery students come “at different times in their lives,” Casali says, with varying needs.
While “some want qualification”, others want “experimentation with resources”.
Despite its newfound popularity, especially among hobbyists, Casali still says “not enough people see the potential of what ceramics has to offer as a career.”
“You can work as an artist, with artists, as an exhibitionist. Many students want a path to a health arts practice, like art therapy where clay is used for a whole range of things like motor skills.
Mueller says fashion, homewares and interiors “become one” with ceramics.
It highlights the success of Australian homeware company Mud Ceramics. Since opening in Sydney in 2007, the company has expanded to eight stores worldwide, from Melbourne to Los Angeles to London. This year, it will open a second boutique in New York, as well as new boutiques in Byron Bay and Sydney.
Mud’s porcelain clay housewares are still handcrafted in a studio in Sydney’s Marrickville. “People want unique, handmade household items,” says Mueller. “The mud is doing amazing things in this space.”
But consumers aren’t the only ones driving demand for handmade ceramics. Casali and Mueller say restaurants are also big customers.
“It all started with the most exclusive restaurants asking ceramic artists to create their evening wear,” says Mueller. Now those collabs have “filtered down to local cafes.”
“Super bored during confinement”
Not everyone with a passion for pottery makes a mid-life career pivot.
For Nicky Li, a 20-year-old university student in actuarial science and applied finance, an unexpected lockdown hobby turned into a small business.
Feeling “super bored” during the lockdown, Li “decided to order clay online” after seeing pottery posts on Instagram. Social media is a common entry point to the profession; on TikTok, Queensland-based home pottery kit company Crock’d racked up 7.2 million views; while on Instagram there have been over 300,000 posts under the hashtag #AustralianCeramics.
Li’s projects started small, with air-dry clay; but she quickly moved on to more solid sandstone, turning her parents’ garage in western Sydney into a makeshift studio. After a while, the garage “went crazy.”
“Clay is everywhere, all over the floor and on the table,” she says. Li stored his ceramic projects in stacked bread crates and filled his workbench with “buckets and pails of reclaimed clay.”
“I had an excess of things I did, and my parents kept saying, ‘What are you going to do with all this just sitting here? “”
Li decided to start selling.
She created Be Kewl, an online store featuring mass-produced ceramics printed 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 Bake It”
In addition to the cost of clay, Li must pay to fire his works. “I don’t have an oven, so I hire someone else,” she says.
Grima says the Australian Ceramics Association gets 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 bake it in the oven,” she says. “People have to bake it in a specialized oven, with a minimum fire of 1,000 degrees Celsius.”
For enthusiasts exploring ceramics from home, Grima suggests checking out websites like Crockd’s Kilns Near You, which functions almost like an Airbnb for kilns, mapping studios and freelance potters offering shared cooking spaces.
Pottery suppliers, local artists and community centers can also help. “But the reality is that there are a lot of places in Australia where there is no access to ovens.”
This was a problem even before the pandemic. Kayde Clemans, owner of Bondi Clay, says the lack of accessible kilns is “the reason we opened a studio” three years ago.
The studio offers occasional classes, take-out projects (which have been huge sellers during lockdown) and more intensive workshops, but the shared facilities – and the community building that comes with it – are central. “People share facilities, but also their thoughts and ideas,” says Clemans.
He has since opened ClayGround, a second studio in Rosebery, which caters to intermediate and advanced potters.
“An antidote to modern life”
Casali compares working with clay to visiting the ocean or sitting in the forest. “When you touch the clay, there’s a kind of weird connection… It’s like you can slow yourself down and slow down your mind.”
Grima admires the “incredible chemical change” of the material, from “soft muddy matter” to hardness after firing.
For Li, the craft’s impermanence is its great appeal. “Even if your work is dry – if you haven’t cooked it yet – you can put it in a bucket of water. It becomes boiled again and you can reshape it as you wish.
“Even if I make mistakes, I can redo them and see my progress over time.”
For Clemans, it’s no surprise that a world-shaking pandemic drew people to ceramics. “It pushed people out of their professional lives.” He calls ceramics “almost an antidote to modern life…You put your hands on it and you do something tactile again.”