This September, colourful ceramics brand MUD Australia will open their first international store in New York’s hip NoLita district. And while the Crosby Street retail space isn’t necessarily a business dream come true for Shelley Simpson and James Kirton, the husband-and-wife team behind the brand, it does reflect their decision to grow MUD in stature rather than size.
After almost 20 years wholesaling their handmade porcelain collection, Shelley and James are now focused on building the retail side of their business. The Manhattan shop front will be the third dedicated MUD Australia store, joining existing boutiques in Sydney and Melbourne. Inside each, MUD’s entire collection of dinnerware, platters, jugs, teapots, vases and vessels are on display. The organic shapes, with their signature glossy hand-glazed centres, are grouped by colour and arranged on timeless Vitsœ shelving, for which MUD is an exclusive agent.
“Retail is far more interesting and creative than I thought it would be,” says Shelley from behind her desk at MUD’s factory headquarters in Sydney’s inner west. “Our retail stores also provide feedback on what people really want – as opposed to what the wholesalers are ordering.” Creating their own retail environment means Shelley and James can immerse customers in the experience, emotion and ethos of the brand. “People can be creative in our stores, they can mix colours and be part of the creative process,” says Shelley. “That’s what we offer that other people don’t.”
The MUD Australia story began in the early 1990s, when Shelley, who worked in hospitality, moved in with a friend who had a kick wheel out the back. Initially she took up pottery as a hobby, but at around the same time, was overlooked for a managerial position. “I was more than qualified for it and I realised I was 30 and that is the time when people don’t really invest in women as you’re in your child-bearing years,” says Shelley. “My mother said to me, ‘You should work for yourself’. I started MUD as a way of finding something that I wanted to do, that could be mine and that could be very flexible.”
At first, Shelley made highly decorated, hand-thrown pieces in clay, discovering new processes as she went along. She shared studio space in Sydney’s inner city and was fortunate to cross paths with a number of influential people, including food stylist Donna Hay. “I think I just listened well,” says Shelley. “It’s not necessarily that I’m the most fantastically creative person – I love colour and shapes that make sense for me to use in my daily life, but MUD is functional and it was always meant to be functional. Listening to what people like Donna had to say – and not being precious about what I wanted – meant I could tweak and play and respond well to what the marketplace wanted.”
Her shift from clay to porcelain was equally practical. “We had so many different restaurants wanting to use our products, earthen ware just didn’t make sense” she says. “It’s not strong enough and, even in the domestic setting, it has so many limitations. I got a bucket of porcelain from somewhere and added a whole lot of under glaze to it because I didn’t know I should be putting pigment in; I put it in the kiln and it was better. Immediately it was obviously better.”
Today, MUD uses only porcelain from Limoges in France, its milky complexion the perfect foil for their evolving range of up to 20 colourways. Tints are sourced from as far afield as China and Mexico, and range from whisper-soft pink and grey to duck egg blue and wasabi green. New shapes are introduced regularly (replacing less successful ones) and Shelley uses fashion and her Pantone chart as a guide for colour. “Choosing the next colours, I think that’s probably where my ability really lies,” she says.
All pieces are slip cast in MUD’s Marrickville factory. The porcelain is tinted before it is poured, then fettled and finished, bisque fired, sanded and glazed, and, finally, fired again to vitrify the finish. At every stage each piece is touched and worked by hand, giving the finished product warmth and character, and setting MUD apart from the raft of cheap, mass-produced home wares. The dedicated staff of 35 includes 12 people working solely on the factory floor. Some are professional ceramicists; others were trained on the job. Whenever her schedule allows it, Shelley will join them. “I love the kilns opening and I love to spend time glazing,” she says. “That’s like meditation to me.”
With no plans to expand beyond their current premises or take production offshore, Shelley and James are instead exploring new ideas for the business. In the pipeline is a range of ovenware, MUD-branded glassware made inJapan, colourful linen napery finished with porcelain buttons, and a mug and teapot design for tea retailer T2. All of which will only add to the experience of stepping into a MUD Australia store and buying something handmade and uniquely yours. “It’s nice to pick up a plate or mug in the shop and have that dent where someone has touched it,” says Shelley. “Everything is so automated these days. To actually have something you know has been made for you is nice.”