A Conversation with Arran Street East
We are longtime fans of the wonderfully refined forms being thrown over at Arran Street East. We were the first retailer to work with them, and their mugs and espresso cups have been firm favourites with our customers ever since. The ceramics studio was established by the Craft Council’s Laura Magahy, and to celebrate the arrival of their new range of vases we decided to head over to see how these pots are made. While we were there, we got a chance to talk to Studio Manager Sheenagh Green about the area, their approach, and the earthy magic of clay.
With sunlight pouring through the striking front windows, it was a joy to see the perfectly balanced, modular forms that rested on every surface. It was amazing to witness not only the mechanical wonders like the beautifully functional conveyor belt used for transporting clay, but also the quiet, intense technical skill required to throw and glaze these fabulous pots. While Patrick concentrated on throwing espresso pots, Sheenagh took a break from glazing to talk us through the studio, its location, and the various processes that the clay goes through, some ancient, some modern.
You are right opposite the Smithfield Fruit and Vegetable Market — what led you to set up here?
Well our Creative Director, Laura Magahy, has been based nearby with her design and project management company MCO for fifteen years, so this is right on her doorstep! She was looking to set up a pottery studio in the heart of the markets area. There is a real mishmash of things here, like beautiful flowers in plastic containers, and the different textures inside the market itself, different patterns and things. Of course, the colours we use are inspired by the fruit and vegetables we see every day.
“There is a real mishmash of things here, like beautiful flowers in plastic containers”
How has the environment affected the work?
The colours have been the main thing, but in designing our space, we have definitely been inspired by our environment, thinking about the patterns in the marketplace and and the interior of the building itself. It became a palette for the interior of Arran St East, like all the black steel you see on the windows here reflects the black steel in the market, and the green on the conveyer belt is like the green on the roofs around Mary Street. It's all related back to the area, and where you live and work will affect what you make to an extent.
Do you all have a formal training in ceramics?
My background is in Industrial Design, and then I specialised in ceramics with the Craft Council down in Thomastown. It’s an amazing course, two years, really full on and skills based. And that's where Patrick, our thrower, trained too. Laura is our creative director and designer of the pottery. She was mentored by Pat Connor, a potter based in Schull, West Cork, where she determined to design the geometric-shaped pots, thrown by hand.
Your pieces look beautifully simple, but so much goes into each one — what makes them so special?
I guess the main thing would be the amount of times the actual pot is touched. If you think about a mug, the clay is wedged, prepared, weighed out, before being thrown. The handle has to be extruded, dried to the same stage as the pot, before being applied then left to dry and sponged down- and all this happens before its first firing. The kiln has to be packed and unpacked, the pieces glazed, but there are steps within the glaze itself too, the mixing and development of the colour. Once glazed, the mug is pared back again, and put back into the kiln, and only then does the final pot come out.
"It's still amazing that you open the kiln and the pieces have changed, it's like alchemy!"
What is your favourite part of the process?
My favourite part is probably glaze development, I find it really interesting getting different tones. As well, the balance of kiln firings is so important, five degrees or the thickness of a glaze can make such a difference to the outcome. We mix all our own glazes, and from your own knowledge you'd know what factors would affect it and you'd have an idea of different saturations and things, but obviously like any design there's a certain amount of experimentation in it. For me, I love getting it to the point that it’s just what you're looking for.
How important is texture in your work?
It's pretty important, obviously our glazes are quite matte satin so there’s not a lot of movement in them, they don't drip that much so the texture doesn't come from the glaze. What's interesting about our pieces is that if you look at one of the pourers or mugs, if the form was slipcast you wouldn't get those lines running through it, and that kind of energy, the life that’s in it. So that brings texture into the pieces as well. For the flowerpot range we use a slightly grogged clay, so that has a small amount of texture in it too. The flecks in the glaze as well, they are iron and though you can't feel it to touch, it adds a kind of depth to the body, a visual texture.
The vases showcase some new glazes; how do they relate to the existing range?
They are a bit more muted, but the market is a fruit and flower market so they all have the same origin. They have eucalyptus, and the hydrangeas in their plastic tubs, and the lily is a sort of crossover between the core and the flower range, to have a connection between the two, a white.
“If the form was slipcast you wouldn't get those lines running through it, and that kind of energy, the life that’s in it.”
Are there any other ceramicists or techniques that you particularly admire?
We all have different favourites here, my taste would be very different to Patrick's, and Laura's different to that again. As an Honorary Architect of the Royal Institute of Architects Laura has a really strong interest in achieving structured, tessellating shapes, but achieved by hand. I admire different parts of different people's work, I love a lot of woodfired work, and the subtleties in that. Patrick is really into Bernard Leech and Michael Cardew, with quite an interest in ash glazes, whereas my own work would have been in porcelain and inlays, the complete opposite.
What excites you about ceramics today?
I think it's the mix of bringing old and new together, keeping traditional skills and what's great about them, but mixing them with more contemporary design and colour. And for me, its still amazing that you open the kiln and the pieces have changed, it's like alchemy!
Thank you to Laura, Sheenagh and Patrick and all at Arran Street East.
Interview by Makers & Brothers
Photography by Makers & Brothers