Interview with Simon Pearce

Interview with Simon Pearce

Simon Pearce Royalton Ruffle Dinnerware

Royalton Ruffle Dinnerware by Simon Pearce. All images by Simon Pearce.

When I got married 20 years go, my mother-in-law and a few of her friends – all stylish hostesses with gracious homes – bypassed my bridal registry (which, in the folly of youth, I’d loaded up with fancy china that today I almost never use) and instead banded together and wisely gifted me with ceramic serving pieces from the Simon Pearce company, maker of glassware and pottery since 1971. They just knew – and they were right. Those bowls and platters (blue and white, with a fish motif) quickly became my go-tos for entertaining, though they’re solid enough for everyday. Every time I use them, which is often, I envision the picturesque Vermont studio where they were crafted.

It’s always a treat to talk to the maker behind the things you live with. Simon Pearce, it turns out, is as charming and down-to-earth as the products that bear his name. In a voice lightly seasoned with a lilt from Ireland, he was happy to speak recently with
American Craft, sharing his thoughts on, among other things, how he went from second-generation craftsman to wildly successful brand name, the best marketing decision he ever made (though he wouldn’t make it again), and why creative people should stop worrying and learn to love the business side of what they do.

These days craftspeople seem to be considering new models for putting their creativity out there, engaging with the worlds of design, industry, manufacture. You’ve been a visionary in terms of getting good craftsmanship to a mass audience. What are your thoughts on this subject?

It’s one that, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about. I have pretty strong opinions about it. And I must say, I have been amazed, and sort of can’t understand, why more people haven’t done what we’ve done. All these students are coming out of the art schools and craft schools, and I just would have thought, over 40 years, there would have been a good bunch of people who would have done, on a similar scale or a smaller scale, what we’ve done.

You know, there’s always been this discussion about art and craft, where one stops and the other starts. I have a very simple definition, which has always, I’ve felt, stood me in pretty good stead. Art for me is – and people would argue with this statement, of course – something that’s nonfunctional. When I say nonfunctional I mean in terms of usability: eating, drinking. A craftsman is someone who makes things to be used, whether it’s a plumber, an electrician, a glassmaker, a potter, a weaver – you know? The moment you make a tapestry to go on the wall, for me it’s art. And the moment you make a rug to go on the floor, it’s for use.

So that’s my simple definition. We have actually, more recently, started going into both areas. But we hadn’t for 35 years. I always have looked at myself, and always will, as a craftsperson, not an artist. People want me to be an artist, but I don’t feel like an artist. I design and make things for use. 

How did you make that leap from craftsman to brand-name designer?

I never consciously made that leap. It actually happened, and I’ll tell you how it happened. It’s kind of interesting, because I had no idea, when I was doing it, what I was really doing.

The early potters who started the pottery movement, in the 1940s after the war – [William] Staite Murray and all the ones that are known, Bernard Leach and [Shoji] Hamada, all of those – most potters in those days (and I talk about pottery because my father was a potter and that’s the environment I grew up in), when they started a pottery, during the revival of handmade pottery after the Industrial revolution in England, they mostly always named their potteries for the village they were in. That was the standard thing to do. Wenford Bridge, [Michael] Cardew named his.

But a few – Leach and Hamada specifically – named them after themselves. They put their own name on their work. And what I realized at an early age was, they were charging a lot more for their work than the other people could get. My father, he called his pottery Shanagarry Pottery. We were selling a dinner plate 40 years ago for $1.50. Hamada and those guys were charging $10 or $15.

That’s what made me think. I said, well, if you’re going to make things by hand, you need all the help you can get to make it work, to make it successful financially, and have a decent living. And that’s all I was thinking of in those days, was just making a living, a decent living.

So I decided, hey, this is pretty obvious: I need to put my own name on it. And it really did make a big difference. And that created a brand, eventually. It would have been much harder to create a brand if I’d called it Quechee Glass. If people can associate a name with it, it really seems to make a difference.

So that was how that piece came about. And funnily enough, if I had to change one thing, if I had to start over again, I would not put my own name on it. [Laughs.]

You would not?

No. Because the one thing I had never thought of, because I never realized it was going to grow or become much larger, was the name recognition. I’m a pretty private person. I don’t like being recognized. When I go to the store and pay my grocery bill with my credit card, they say are you the Simon Pearce? It really makes me pretty uncomfortable. 

I never thought of that. Maybe they envision a walking, talking goblet?

[Laughs.] Anyway, it’s too late now, and luckily I live in an area where it’s a very small issue.

It’s arguably a nice problem to have.

You could argue that. My original vision was simply to make things that were functional and beautiful, at a price that people could afford¬, and also to make a decent living. That was the only vision I had. You just start out when you’re 19, and that’s as far ahead as I ever thought.

That’s pretty much what we have done for 40 years. It’s not really changed at all. As I say, we have evolved into some nonfunctional things, more artistic pieces. We have a line now called Pure, and they’re one-of-a-kind pieces, mostly larger and more expensive. It’s a way of sort of allowing things to evolve, and new techniques, and giving people a chance to explore and expand. So that’s a change, but it’s only a very small part of what we do.

How many craftsmen do you employ?

It goes up and down a little bit, but it’s usually around 60. We’ve got three locations where we make glass. Quechee makes about 20 percent, Windsor makes about 40 percent, and Oakland, Maryland, makes about 40 percent.

I think of you as being a fairly big operation since the 1980s, is that so?

No, we were tiny in the ’80s. When I moved to America in ’81, we were just about five people. You see, we sold in this country when we were in Ireland. I started in ’71 in Ireland, and we exported a little bit to some nice stores in New York, got some good promotion. And then when we got here, we got some very good publicity. But it’s grown. The company now employs some 250 people.

Do you have a design team, with yourself at the head?

Exactly. Because one of the things I’ve seen over the years with other companies, if you have one designer and something happens to that designer – they die or they get old or they get hit by a bus – I have seen companies actually come to an end because of that. So I was determined to try and get a good team together, so that we weren’t vulnerable like that.

What about the craftsperson who is intrigued to branch out a bit, but who worries about creative control – that if you don’t have your own hands on the work, something will go missing. This is obviously not a direction for everyone.

No, not at all.

But what would you say to the artist who’s maybe thinking, could I do this?  You know, let someone else do the actual making. Take on the mantle of designer.

Well, I think it really comes down to what you’re comfortable with yourself. You’d have to be the sort of person who is comfortable doing that. Some people are, and some aren’t. Some people don’t like letting go of control of any part of it. I actually enjoy delegating. See, I really enjoy the business part. And I really enjoy seeing other people develop and evolve. So for me, it’s a pleasure. 

Up until a few years ago, I designed everything. But last year, because we had a lot of issues with flooding and everything, I didn’t do a lot of designing. Now I’m starting again. So I’ll probably do about 30 or 40 percent of the designing.

And what is your design process? Do you make sketches, get on the wheel?

With glass, I’ve always done a rough sketch – and I mean really rough. I can’t draw at all, myself. But I can get what’s in my brain down onto a piece of paper, as a rough sketch. And then I’ll do quite an accurate drawing. Then I will usually have it made by somebody else. I used to make it; I blew glass every day for about 20 years. I haven’t blown like that for quite a while. I blew again two years ago and I’m about to start [again]. But I do it for the fun of it now, not for production, which is a great luxury.

So I have the piece made, and then I look at it, and I usually alter it or change it. Because even after 40 years, it’s amazing: when you see it in three-dimensional it’s never quite like it is in two-dimensional. So it might go through one or two or three changes, and then it’s done. The design is finished, and then we’ll start producing. I can never wait to see a piece, even after all this time. I still get as much excitement out of seeing it now as I did when I started.

Does it ever get old, the thrill of knowing how many people own and love and use your products every day?

Never. I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful that people like what I make. I don’t believe I’ve ever taken it for granted. I’ve always felt it’s a two-way street. We can only make things if people want them.

That would seem one of the most compelling reasons for a craftsperson to consider some form of this direction – getting one’s creativity and aesthetic out there to a broader market. We hear of craftspeople designing for Anthropologie, of West Elm engaging craftspeople, a quilter branching out into paper products…

I did a little of that in the very early days in Ireland, to try and make some money. And I really enjoyed that. I didn’t have to go on doing it, because I had my own production.

What did you do, exactly?

Designing for other people.

Glassware and ceramics?

Yes. It never really got going, because at the same time I was getting my business going, so one overtook the other. But again, I’m surprised that more craftspeople don’t do that.

Artists often say they struggle with the dual demands of business and creativity.

I think this is a really, really important issue for craftspeople. What I’ve noticed talking to craftspeople over the years – and I think it’s changed a little bit – but for a while there it was almost like a dirty word, “business.” And making money. And being successful. It almost meant you really weren’t being a true craftsman–you know, you weren’t the struggling craftsperson. I think that’s an enormous issue in the whole craft movement.

I was very, very fortunate, in that I had a father who I always say chose quality of life over quantity of money. He moved from London to Shanagarry, Ireland, when I was very young. First he was a farmer, and then he set up a pottery. What was so incredible was that he enjoyed running this little business. And it was tiny! But he enjoyed the business as much as he did the pots, and making pottery.  So I had this role model, called, “one is as much fun as the other.”

It never occurred to me that you didn’t really enjoy the business, and it wasn’t really fun to try and make some money and be profitable. So if craftspeople could really enjoy the business side – and say, this is fun, you know, it’s interesting – and also enjoy the actual creative and the making… And really, the making of a piece is kind of the smallest part, when you think of all the other pieces that have to go into it. The selling, the packing, the invoicing. There’s a slew of other stuff. So if you’re not enjoying all that part of it, if you’re not successful, not making money, you’re struggling. How can you be really creative if you’re always under financial pressure, and you can’t pay your bills, you know? It kind of feeds on itself, in a funny way.

But if you’re somebody who doesn’t really want to employ people – and lots don’t, and that’s totally fine – then the idea of designing for other people makes total sense to me.

So that would be another pathway.

Exactly. I think they really need to understand the process, so that they can design things that can be made efficiently, and at the right price, and so on. There’s no point going to somebody with a design that’s so complex to make that the person has to charge so much they can’t sell it, or they can’t make any money on it. So there is that piece of it. But I find that fascinating – you know, having those restrictions and having to work within them.

But I do think there’s also been that sort of stigma – you know, if I design this beautiful plate and somebody makes 5,000 of them, that’s terrible. Instead of, that’s wonderful, if it’s a beautiful plate and people can afford it.

We’re seeing more openness to that way of thinking. Maybe it’s just an idea whose time has come, or maybe it’s economic reality. Or do you think it might have something to do with this new vogue for the artisanal lifestyle, which you were way ahead of?

I think it’s hugely important, that subject you bring up, because I think there’s an enormous opportunity for craftspeople all over the world. Because I honestly don’t think we have begun to realize what the whole computerization and the sort of sterility – it’s so un-human, the direction we’re going in, where our lives are being governed and run and controlled by screens and computers. I’m not anti-them at all. But when I see families in airports, and they’re all sitting looking at screens instead of the kids running around and playing – I don’t think we begin to see what’s going to happen.

The human spirit yearns for a human-ness. And we’re sort of being dehumanized, the way society is going.  I think there’s this “I need something,” without even realizing it, that’s got something to do with a person. So a handmade product, which has really got some feeling and character to it, people are drawn to without even realizing it.

And then of course, the other thing I used to get on my high horse about was that, for a while there – and I think it’s really changed – craftsmanship was almost an excuse for poorly made. People were selling things that were handmade, that just weren’t good quality by skilled craftspeople. You know, they were just learning, and they were charging very high prices for things that were very poorly made. But I think the public has kind of wised up to that. And they realize, “I’m not going to pay some ridiculous price for something just because it’s handmade.”

Because I actually – and this would probably shock you and your magazine – I actually don’t mind how something’s made. I mind about the finished product. That’s what I care about. But as it happens, most of the time the only way to get human feeling into it is by doing it by hand. So it’s a slightly different way of looking at it: I’m not doing it because I want it handmade. I’m doing it by hand because I want the results I get.

The problem is, what’s happened here is everything was made by hand, and the Industrial Revolution came along and people started seeing things made more perfectly, and then the whole society said, “Oh, handmade is bad, we want things that are more perfect.” So the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other. And everything was made perfectly by machine.

Then some people came along and said, “Well, we don’t like it, we’re going to go back to some handmade.” So a certain part of the population went after handmade, and that’s when the whole crafts movement came up. But it was not really about the hand making; it was about the feeling that was in the product, I believe. That’s what people wanted back, was that feeling. That’s why I started making glass. Nowhere could you buy a handmade – I shouldn’t say handmade – a piece of glass that had character or individuality. That’s what I wanted to make again, and the only way I could do it was by hand.

Which leads to this idea that the craftsperson does have something unique and special to offer the design world.

Yes! I couldn’t agree more.

Understanding of material, process, and a bit of soul as well.

Exactly, and that’s the soul piece that’s been missing. And it’s still missing, in so much product that we live with.

You’ve had a restaurant at your Quechee studio for how long now?

Gosh, it’s been open about 25 years.

Was that because of a love of cooking and a way to showcase the wares?

No, not at all. Actually, it was purely business. When I moved to this country, there were three things I wanted and I wasn’t prepared to compromise on. One was somewhere beautiful to live and work and raise a family. Somewhere we could have a really good retail business, because I’d learnt that the more you can retail, especially making it by hand, the better it is. And somewhere we could make our own electricity, because of the cost of energy in glassmaking. We found this old woolen mill in Quechee, which had all these things.

And I wanted to make it a destination for the retail. When I travel, what I usually remember most a year down the road is that I had a great meal somewhere. There are good places around here for dinner, but it was hard to get a good lunch, and that was the most important part for us. So it started off that it was going to be a coffee bar, and then it went to lunch, and [now] lunch and dinner. But people come, they can see the product being made, they can shop in the store, and they can have a good meal. So that makes it more of a destination. People, if they live within an hour, will bring friends to see it. And they’ll spend time here. I’ve seen families [visit] in the mill for two or three hours.

I think the most important thing in all of this is not to limit oneself. To be open. I’ve heard of potters who say they won’t use an electric wheel; they’ll only use a kickwheel. You know, I just don’t understand that. It just blows me away. It’s hard enough to make a living and to make something work if you use everything that’s going for you. But if you start putting up barriers and making it more difficult…and I feel it’s the same with design and techniques, and how you make things.

Are there compromises an artist must be willing to make?

Life is about compromising. The idea that we should never compromise–it’s all about compromising, to a level that you’re comfortable with.

And collaboration as well?

Exactly. Anyway, come see us. We’ll have lunch, and we’ll show you what we do.

Joyce Lovelace is contributing editor for American Craft.