Earlier this summer, Shelley Simpson, designer and founder of tabletop line Mud Australia, visited Boston for the first time. Natalie van Dijk Carpenter, owner of South End boutique Lekker Home, hosted her for an evening. I was out of town, but was able to catch up with her a few days later by phone.
Shelley Simpson and Natalie van Dijk Carpenter at Lekker Home in Boston.
Mud Australia porcelain is handmade in the company’s Sydney factory by in-house ceramicists, from Limoges porcelain, sourced directly from France. Unlike much tableware, to which the color is applied after the fact, Mud Australia tints the porcelain beforehand, which provides a distinctive depth of color. (It also means if a piece chips, the exposed portion isn’t white.) The interior of each piece has a vitrified stone-like surface that becomes smooth with handling, but the interior is hand-brushed with a clear glaze. The look and feel is organic and the colors neutral, punctuated with a few brights.
When did you first start making pottery?
When I was 28, I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, where I rented a house with a woman named Joy, who had a kick wheel in her back shed. She was always harassing me to have a go with it. One weekend when she was away, I got some clay and played around. She was very cross with me because she said my things were prettier than hers!
So you didn’t start out as a ceramicist?
I’m creative, but I’m not trained in art. I draw now, but nothing like my 13-year-old son, who has a natural gift for it. But I have an eye for color and form. My schooling has been throwing things away.
How did you decide to pursue it as a business?
I had applied to manage a theater, but they looked me over, in part because I was a woman. Joy and I started Mud Australia together in 1994, though she left the business after a few years and I’ve continued on.
Mud Australia has 70 shapes and 18 colors. We’ve been focusing on new shapes lately more than colors. The latest is a series of mixing bowls and baking pans. We’re doing pendant lights in three sizes, and have a mortar & pestle in production. That really shows the durability of porcelain, so you can feel confident you’re not buying something fragile.
Are there pieces that are distinctive to certain regions?
The shapes work for anything. You can eat Yorkshire pudding, sushi or Middle Eastern food from the same bowl comfortably. That said, we have a distributor in Korea with three shapes specific to their market, including a kimchi pickle dish. We also make exclusive pieces, like vases, for restaurants.
Photos by Ant Geernaert
What designers do you admire?
Gwen Hanson Pygget, an Australian potter who created art pieces rather than functional ones. They’re absolutely beautiful. We’re in New York City now, and just went to the Judd; his color is exquisite.
What influences you when it comes to creating pieces for Mud Australia?
I love to bake, which is how we came to add the new baking pieces. I make Pavlovas and exotic birthday cakes for my kids and other family members. I once made a snake covered in marshmallows. Almost sculptural stuff. I go all out when it comes to baking a cake. For my daughter’s 16th, I made a cake with eight layers in rainbow colors, covered with white icing. The restaurant we brought it to was very impressed. My husband makes the dinners at home. Food is very important to our family.
What’s your home like?
We live in a top-floor apartment in a four-story building in Sydney that’s an Arts & Crafts style, with an old French lift. There’s loads of trees with a vista to the harbor and a large deck; we do lots of eating al fresco. We’ve never lived in a house or on the ground. We want a garden. We are going to put the house on the market soon and find something new.
And of course you have plenty of Mud Australia dishes?
Yes, everything. And pieces that didn’t work out too.
What do you like most about your line?
Everybody’s Mud Australia dinner set is unique to them, which I think sets us apart from other companies that present full collections. When you go to the store, you can get creative, which is fun. You can buy one piece at a time. Your collection can be a complete rainbow, or blackm white, and gray, or all pastels. Recently, one guy did slate and pink, which I wouldn’t have thought of, but when I was packing it up I thought, “This is amazing.”
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