Saturday, July 21, 2012

Precison Manufacturing VS Organic Production

When my parents decided to create a handcrafted product, affordable to the middle class, they "innovated " their own category which existed somewhere between factory made table top ceramics and handcrafted art ceramics sold in high-end art galleries. There has always been a great deal taking place in ceramics that does not fall into any of these categories because ceramics attracts so many individual artists working in many different ways, and so this statement is made  within the frame work of larger categories, which are used by galleries, organizations, competitions, shows and governments.

For instance design shows tend to focus on designs that are reproduced in a factory setting. For some, factory settings have a bad name  as a throwback to the days of the "sweat shops" but that is not what I intend here. Factory reproduction uses "precision methods" which often involve the use of jiggering machines to create the desired uniformity. They usually have temperature and humidity controlled environments and use glazes that are consistent, producing an even and predictable service. Decoration is often applied with decals and if hand-painted, maintain a set pattern and brush stroke. The results can be very attractive. In the 1950's designers like Eva Zeisel and Russel Wright and others were producing what has become the signature lines of the mid-century movement for the American dinnerware companies. A few of these companies are still existing today, such as:
Homer Laughlin China Company, "By 2002, ownership of the company was shared by third, fourth and fifth generation members of the Wells and Aaron families and others.  Many of the shareholders were scattered throughout the country and had little involvement with the business.  In an effort to consolidate resources and provide improved direction for the company, Joe Wells III, together with his sisters, Jean Wicks and Elizabeth McIlvain, purchased the interests of the other stockholders.  In June, 2002, Joe Wells III was elected president and chief executive officer.
Since the re-organization, the company has experienced continued growth and is poised to move forward with the Wells Family’s pledge to continue producing quality, American-made china and provide jobs for potters of the Ohio Valley. " quoted from Homer Laughlin websight
Heath Ceramics is part of the California tradition. Heath uses the slip casting method and has an impressive production studio. If you look at their process slide show, you will see a picture of the mug molds which look very similar to our mug molds , except the designs are different. See Heath Mugs here ** Heath makes their own glazes, which appear to be of the consistent nature preferred by dinnerware productions. Andersen Studio also makes our own original glazes which are categorized as "art glazes" because they are not so predictable, using more fluxing materials than production glazes which cause the glaze to flow, creating interesting effects. Since we started our line in the 1950's our original glazes have distinguished our signature identity, creating a unique Andersen style. Dad also made the decision, early on, before environmentalism was a popular movement, to avoid using toxic materials such as cadmium red. That decision contributed to and encouraged the soft marine and beach tones for which Andersen Studio is known.

Many of the American Dinnerware companies have gone out of business as you will find on which maintains a record of the American Dinnerware Industry

Andersen mugs could be made using standard dinnerware factory techniques,and be very attractive while still producing a hand made version of the same mug using art glazes and decorative techniques. Yves Saint Laurent, the fashion designer created the rive gauche line as a simpler, less expensive and sportier alternative to his couture line.

This slip-cast stoneware mug was hand-carved and then glazed. The glaze flows over the carving with a natural quality- not perfectly as in "precision manufacturing" but with an occasional skip that fills in the carved lines in a manner that is in keeping with an organic quality.  the carved design can be hand carved in to the mold without losing its natural characteristic. Mug copyrighted by Andersen Studio on or about 1995.

By serendipity, as I am writing this blog , I am interrupted by customers from Virginia . He works for Homer Laughlin and tells me that they produce 35,000 pieces a week of which 80% is flatware. He says they used to slip cast mugs, but now jigger them. As far as production is concerned, he says it is all robotics, embellishing that by saying that our work is much prettier, representing the kind of product that brings them to Maine. I am thinking that Homer Laughlin with its huge production and "precision" process is the kind of manufacturing that Maine's government management of our economy seeks for Maine.

I have to get some other work done and so for now I'll close this post with some quotes from

Decorating with the Objects you Love 

              Christine Churchill, published by Harper Collins

"Responsible for changes good and bad in architecture and design, the industrial Revolution changed the manufacturing process of pottery for good. New factories spat out thousands of pieces of pottery per day – their goal to stock kitchens and dining rooms of middle-class Europe and America quickly and inexpensively.

The Scandinavians were the first to rebel. The y began to address the need for “good design for every day use” around 1916. For Swedish artist and alchemist Wilhem Kage, that meant inventing hundreds of new glazes.
Also thumbing their noses at machine-made perfection were Weston and Brenda Andersen of  East Boothbay Maine ( many of their pieces are seen in this spread)" ristine Churchill, published by Harper Collins
"If you’d like to know the next big thing in collecting twentieth century design, you might want to ask Sara Blumberg and James Oliveira….....
 Italian glass is one of the fields that now consumes them, particularly the stunning shapes that have been produced for hundreds of years on the fabled isle of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon. They’ve also been buying American studio pottery from the 1950’s and the 1960’s ,especially the simple bowls and vases made by Weston and Brenda Andersen in East Bootbay, Maine. Not to mention twentieth century Scandinavian pottery.
 What do these disparate fields have in common? Looking at the pottery shapes on display, you can see that the crosscurrents of design have flowed from Europe to America and back. But Sara has a more elemental reason: “It all comes down to form”. In relating why they love one group of Andersen pieces, she calls them “organic” and the same would be said about their favorite objects-not to mention the way they have decorated their home.”

*Dad was both a student and colleague of Eva and was invited twice to apprentice for Russel Wright, which he perceived as a position he could not afford to take if he were to be able to support his family,

** The link to the Heath Ceramics Process that I posted above did not connect to the slide show, which is to be found under the Art Of Making and includes a picture of production slip casting mug molds, which you can see includes the handle. The picture that the link opens shows a handle being attached by hand to the form of the mug. Such a handle could be incorporated into a slip-casting mold. I suspect that the body of the mug pictured was produced with a jiggering machine, which, to my understanding is a mechanized throwing machine  that spins the liquid clay with centrifugal  force as the mold is mechanically rotated beneath it..

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Historical Future

This is an image of the last sculpture that my father, Weston Neil Andersen, did before the day he fell down on the pavement  and suffered a brain injury. The sculpture, in my view is the most gentle and tender sculpture that Dad ever did. It invites one to enter into the intimate activity of looking for food. It seems quite daring to do a sculpture in which the beak is not complete as it is buried in the sand, the form of the belly is so round, full and sensuous. the curve of the neck so natural and our brown slip treatment of the surface seems to melt, lifelike, into the form.

The last sculpture that Dad is likely to do, is actually a new direction for him and it is interesting in respect to the fact that the brain injury prioritized a different aspect of Dad's personality. It brought his own gentleness and tenderness to the surface, and it rearranged his experience of time so that we get to know our father at many different ages of his life. As a child he was raised on a chicken farm. He probably witnessed the chickens in a similar pose as is seen the sculpture, on many occasions. Realizing that the chickens would be killed was one of the most traumatic experiences of his life.

Dad knows I am writing this. He always experienced dimensions in a slightly different way than others, accepting the ghosts that he encountered wandering around our 200 year old house as a natural and non-threatening occurrence. Now when I write a blog, I am unsurprised when I encounter my father and he continues my train of thought. Although I can no longer tap my father's wealth of information about clay bodies and glazes, Dad remains actively concerned with the welfare of the unique and creative business that he built. He is often deep in thought and when one asks him how he is, he will say something like "the whole thing would work much better on a larger scale"- which is what we hope to capitalize with our KickStarter project.

Right now, I am wondering if we should produce this piece as a limited edition. My first thoughts are that I do not want to price out our loyal clientele of our line of ceramics which began with the philosophy of creating a hand made product affordable to the middle classes, but my second thought is that we will not be out-pricing our base because we still be in an affordable price range within the collectibles limited edition market. The difference is that a limited edition establishes a degree of rarity, and rarity increases the investment value of a collectible. The way the rewards are listed on KickStarter is that at the upper end the suggested price is stated as  "X amount of dollars or more". In theory a supporter could elect to pay more than the requested price, which would then potentially increase the value of all the pieces in the limited edition - an interesting concept because such a generous act would not only benefit us but all those who purchase the item, as it would establish a  higher value than others paid for the item. We can reward the highest contributors by offering them first choice out of the total number sold during the project, because every piece that we create is unique in its own right as a result of the hand-crafted process.

To our point of view it would be ideal to develop a limited edition sculpture, sell the entire run in advance, as KickStarter allows one to do, and then be able to contract with other slip-casters to produce the piece and possibly the decoration as well, though I expect that initially we will do the decoration in house- but one of our goals is to develop the ceramic design and crafts business that our family has established in such a way that it can be carried  on by future generations beyond our own family. Therefore to be able to subcontract all aspects of production advances us further on that goal and as we achieve that goal it opens up our own time so that we can concentrate on sculpture, designing, and the fascinating art of glazing and decorating.

However we never want to stop producing a line that is affordable to the middle classes. Over the years we have received so many personal letters of appreciation from our base in the middle. While galleries, organizations and shows honor or reject work as as art or not art, craft or not craft, often opinions formed on the basis of using a re-productive process, our collectors who send us personal letters have formed a consistent consensus , they identify our handcrafted affordable sculpture as "art".

In fact I attribute the decision to re-produce art work using the slip-casting reproductive process as the source of our ability to maintain prime Google search engine positioning for our key search terms. When I set out to create our website, I read up on search engine optimization and decided to focus, initially, on the search term "ceramic birds". I created a stand alone page that displays our collection of ceramic birds (still not yet complete but more so than other categories) . I watched as our website went from not being found in a search for "ceramic birds" to making its way from the bottom the first page to the top. For a while we maintained the number one position but now that belongs to Etsy, (after a paid ad for Pottery Barn) which includes among the ceramic birds it offers, our own ceramic birds. We now maintain the number two position, with ease, thanks to our unusual number of bird sculptures that we have developed over sixty years. Since we have never created our work as a limited edition line in the past, our classic sculptures keep on selling and the number of ceramic birds we have to offer has grown to a level for which we have little competition. Our classic line has a proven marketability consistently established over the course of sixty years, as popular today as ever.

Our classic chickadee sculpture is three inches long and fits in spaces around other objects in the kiln. Most kiln firings contain some chickadees. The chickadee has been a perennial favorite since it was first created and retails at the affordable price of $35.00.

We are targeting the beginning of August as the time to launch our KickStarter project. Success depends on the ability to reach a large base of supporters. We know we have a large base but reaching them all to let them know about our project is why I am writing this blog. If you would like to see Andersen Studio succeed, not only in reaching our project goal , which will be relatively modest but in developing the capitalization to obtain a new production space and the equipment, and resources to hire a small staff, then please help us by sharing this blog and spreading the word.

An advance Thank You for your support.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ceramic Productive Traditions


Andersen Studio is not a school but it is a place of learning. When Weston and Brenda  brought their ceramic slip casting studio to Maine, there were no other slip casting studios in the area and so they taught the skills of ceramic slip casting, glazing, and decorative techniques to local women who had formerly worked in the fish-packing industry.

Weston and Brenda also created their own marketing brochures. We still create our marketing in house but today it includes web design, social networking and related skills which we can also teach to others. as we encourage them to learn on their own.

This historic Maine Coon Cat was modeled by Brenda Andersen probably in the late fifties. It is featured in Images Of America. There were a few pieces cast but the mold was retired early on because the Coon would split in the mold. As you can see, this Maine Coon has places at both ends that hold the mold in place. As the clay dries in the mold , in shrinks in size. If a mold is anchored at both ends it will split at the middle.

We love this wonderful Coon and
after all these years would like to re-configure the mold. We are hoping to include the making of the Coon mold in our KickStarter project and to offer the Maine Coon Cat as one of the rewards.

On the job training is costly and so a number of years ago I called the Maine Arts Commission to inquire about applying for the traditional arts apprenticeship grant

The then director of Traditional Arts, Mr Keith Ludden, said I would have to make a convincing case that ceramics is a traditional art. This took me aback since ceramics is one of mankind's oldest art forms. Most culture's have evolved their own traditions of ceramic art.

 I did not pursue the inquiry further. Later I participated in the Traditional Arts forum on the Maine Arts Commission. This forum had one topic. All topics were created by the government, none by users. Once again it was managed by Mr Ludden. I asked what qualifies a traditional art and Mr Ludden recited a list, to which I responded that all applied to our studio, including being handed down from one family generation to the next. Mr Ludden said I was off topic.

Ceramics is a traditional art form since the dawn of civilization with each culture creating its own uniquely identifiable tradition. Andersen Studio's ceramic art is intrinsically associated with Maine. At one time Maine Governors would use our wildlife sculpture as gifts. Andersen ceramics are iconic in individual family traditions. There is a familiar story that many people tell of how their grand parents discovered Andersen Stoneware and ever since their family has collected Andersen artwork. There is an intimate identification when the individual discovers a collectible, independent of external influences. Andersen Studio became a collectible through an authentic grass roots movement.

In the larger world, ceramic slip casting is a traditional craft that is endangered in Western civilization as long established potteries opt to "outsource" to countries with low priced labor, few workers rights, minimal environmental laws and low corporate taxes. The idea that I am entertaining - that this is a time when one can grow an American slip-casting industry must seem audacious on the surface, considering the rapid decline of the pottery industry in the west.

I am introducing three articles about the British Pottery Industry which hint at an emerging shift in the outsourcing trend and are also applicable to what is taking place in Maine as our economy is redesigned from the top down by state corporatism.

The first article, The Strategic Management of Outsourcing in the UK Ceramics Industry , by The Manchester School Of Management, was written in 2001. It is a comprehensive study examining the advantages and dis-advantages of outsourcing and also contrasts, with an eye toward integrating, human behavior and institutional (by the numbers) factors that impact decision making. It applies as much to government institutions and it does to the private sector, especially in the era of the "quasi" which blurs the distinction between the government, non-profit, and private sectors. I am introducing this paper as a resource for anyone who might take a serious interest in our vision for the future of Andersen Stoneware. Andersen Stoneware is distinct from the examples in this paper, which are a company producing hotel china, a company producing fine "inspirational" tabletop china, and a company producing low cost earthen ware. Of the three, only the latter had embraced overseas outsourcing at the time this paper was written. Andersen Studio produces art sculptures and inspirational functional ware and operates at a much smaller scale than the companies examined in this paper, but If I were to find myself on the verge of implementing my vision. I would want to read this paper several times over.

This paper points out that outsourcing is not new in the ceramics industry but that there is a fundamental difference between outsourcing locally and outsourcing to a foreign county.

The British identify their pottery industry as a "heritage industry". Andersen Studio has been given a similar recognition in Jim Harnedy's Images Of America, The Boothbay Region

 The second article, written in 2007, is  Once Made in England  by Elizabeth Hart - How the former pottery workers explain the decline of  the UK pottery industry focuses primarily on the workers in the British Pottery industry and tells of their feelings of loss of dignity within society that resulted from the loss of employment in the pottery industry. It also includes this inspirational quote about the philosophy of Josiah Wedgwood
Wedgwood was a Master Potter in his own right, a hard task master and strict disciplinarian: he was also a talented designer and innovator, who knew how to create markets for his ware nationally and internationally. Wedgwood and his fellow industrialists were inspired, amongst others, by the great French Philosophes. He was an Enlightenment thinker who was against slavery and believed that manufacturer was the driving force of improvements in society, including for the potters he employed. Wedgwood was a shrewd and talented businessman and his approach to manufacture, design, and marketing is used as an exemplar at Harvard Business School even today. An eighteenth century industrialist, his values, however, were those which the craftspeople I have brought to you today, would recognize, identify with and hold to. In effect they are twentieth century industrial workers whose attitudes to work, to bosses and to the clay were moulded in an age of Enlightenment.

The Third article is short and sweet, a cultural blog CharlotteHiggins ONCULTURE blog for the  Guardian wrote the following in the fall of 2011

But one of the things that has changed – indeed was in the process of changing while I was growing up – is the state of the pottery industry. When I was young in the 1970s, the small and medium-size firms were being gobbled up by the giant companies, often to the detriment of design values. Later, it seemed to many companies to make good business sense to mothball Stoke factories and outsource production to the far east. But the quality of ware thus produced could be variable, and meanwhile the industry seemed slow to second-guess the changing fashions in tableware: a trend for chic informality replacing the full-dinner-service culture of previous decades.

 Last week it was deeply heartening, then, to see that for some firms, such as Portmeirion, "insourcing" – bringing back pottery production to Stoke – was a new buzzword: that actually making things in Stoke is possible, and economically viable. At a time when one of the few things uniting Ed Miliband and George Osborne in their conference speeches is the conviction that Britain ought to be a producer, not just a consumer, of things, I hope Stoke can lead the way. 

Three mid-century Andersen mugs in teardrop pattern

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Developing Economic Growth At The Roots.

Our Stoneware Wren Sculpture is a popular classic 
from our Ceramic Birds collection

When, as described in the previous post, I  presented my pitch to Mr Burns, I believe that he responded to the what he perceived to be a large scale idea, but did not recognize that the the need for a larger scale arises from the need to accommodate the breath and depth of our line of designs as well as the development of new designs. Our designs have retained their marketability for over half a century but because we use a hand crafted production process, our designs never saturated the market. The reason for envisioning  a number of networked production studios is because of the complexity of producing such a large line. If one can contract the crafting of designs to other studios, those studios can then focus on the specific skills and artistry involved in specific designs.

Each individual piece has individual tricks that one has to keep in mind. Some pieces such as our small birds are always in production, but other pieces are produced in runs. When I am working in casting, I usually find that if I haven't produced a piece for a while, it takes at least a couple of tries before I completely recall all the little tricks that make that particular piece function  at an optimal level. There is a great marketing potential for Andersen Studio on the Internet, which can produce an increased demand for all of our pieces, enabling us to provide a bread and butter basis for other slip cast productions. These could be designer craftsmen themselves or slip cast productions that primarily focus on the craft of slip casting.

Andersen Studio started with an idea. That idea was not about making a high growth profit, it was to make a hand crafted product affordable to the middle classes. Just as one could not start a Microsoft or an Apple company in one's garage today due to all the governmental regulations that have since been put into place, one could also not start a business based on the idea of creating an American- made hand-crafted product affordable to the middle classes. It was a difficult goal even when my parents started this business during the Golden Age of the Middle Classes.

But Andersen Studio is not a start up company. We already have a line that remains affordable to the middle classes and is hand- crafted in America.  Andersen Stoneware is an established brand, and a low profile collectible, with a well recognized place in ceramic history. That puts us in a unique marketing position that fits comfortably with social network marketing, and potentially with portal marketing as well. We also have an established wholesale business. We are currently seeing an organic growth in social network marketing, but are restraining from portal marketing and other more pro-active forms of Internet marketing as our current production capacity places limitations on rapid growth.

An idea remains only an idea until one connects with those that who share a similar interest and have the capacity to co-ordinate on implementing it. In the mean time one plans should include being prepared if interested parties appear. Expanding our production and shipping facilities is a necessary next step in our growth.
The Sea Urchin has vanished from the Maine shoreline since this bowl was created but perseveres as an Andersen Studio classic in functional form design

Our first new production facility should be located reasonably close to where we are currently located in East Boothbay, Maine. It would function as a production and a training facility, where we can teach the skills and aesthetics of our craft and designs. Other facilities can be located any where including areas where there is high unemployment and low income.  A ceramic production company can work with those who have a good work ethic and an ability to learn and a capacity for self direction. There can be a retail gallery adjacent to the production as a hand crafted art product works as "destination shopping" and around "destination shopping" other retail outlets arise- the most well known example of this phenomena being LL Bean.

An expanded shipping and delivery space is also a necessary function. It could potentially handle the needs of other producers as well

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The KickStarter Option to Big Government Inc.

In 2009 I attended a competition for what I thought was a small business grant, but later I found was "an investment". I made this mistake in part because I learned of it through the Maine Art Commission which had been sending announcements all year about the availability of stimulus grants - but when one opened the link, it was inevitably and exclusively for non-profits. When The Maine Arts Commission announced a competition for small business investment from an anonymous source I assumed it was a grant for a variety of reasons, including that it was for a very modest amount and that the source was anonymous. I wasn't paying much attention to those details as I had never entered such a competition before and there was a lot to processing taking place in a short amount of time. As later became apparent the anonymous source was the Small Enterprise Growth Fund, an investment corporation chartered by the Maine legislature to serve as an "instrumentality of the state"

Throughout the entire process brevity was required, from filling out the initial application to presenting an "elevator pitch" which means pitching a business idea in no more than five or ten minutes. According to the thinking of government economic developers, if a plan is good , one can present it in five minutes. As you can see, I am doing the exact opposite in Kickstarter Diaries as I take my own time to let my idea unfold.

 I bring this up because I have come full circle. The project that we will likely select for the KickStarter project is the same as the one I presented then- making production molds. The "guidelines" for the "elevator pitch" advised talking about one's vision and so I did- but only as context, just as I am talking about my larger vision in KickStarer Diaries to give the Kickstarter project, which we will eventually launch, its proper and larger context. There is no way that the amount of the investment being offered at the pitch competition could be adequate enough to capitalize my larger vision. In my naivety I presented an elevator pitch for a project that could be capitalized by the amount being offered. Kickstarter is set up in an much more advantageous way. One can select a small and easily achievable goal that assures that one gets to retain the money raised, but one can also generate money beyond that goal that can be applied to the larger vision.

Andersen Studio has many original mug designs. Currently each design has only one or two molds. we need to create rubber molds for each design so that production molds can be easily reproduced. The line of mugs can be marketed as its own product line and is a potential item for contracting with other ceramic studios to produce and even develop new patterns and finished.
I was surprised when the response from Mr John Burns was "excellent" and even more surprised when the question that he asked was to explain more about my vision in the two minutes that remained in the allotted time . I didn't see how I could say much more than I already said unless I said a great deal more and clearly there was no time for that and so I said succinctly that the idea is modeled on the United States of America, intending the relationship between the parts and the whole.

Despite Mr Burn's enthusiastic response, I was not the one he selected as a semi-finalist from his group. That would be someone whose idea was for an "organic running tee shirt". He had a better "exit strategy" than I. He said that he would just sell his business to his competition, which I thought, was likely Nike or Adidas, companies notorious for producng their product in China which happens to be one of the most polluted countries on earth. Sure, I'd buy an organic tee-shirt made in China. Why not?

As was revealed in the follow up correspondence, when Mr John Burns said "excellent !". he was not talking about the mold making project. he was talking about my vision. His written comments were something to the effect that I had the mold-making aspects all worked out but I hadn't presented a good plan for my vision, which is because a vision is an idea or a concept  that pre-exists a plan- and of course because it is ludicrous to suppose that one could achieve the larger scope of the vision with such a small investment. Mr Burns also said that I did not have an "exit strategy", which further conversation revealed means a plan to sell the business so that the high growth investors can make a profit. This is true. I did not have an exit strategy because it has nothing to do with my motivations, which is to preserve the ceramic life style for future generations. Andersen Studio has always been committed to being made in America. Chances are if one sells the business to high growth investors, production will be outsourced to China or which ever is the country du jour with the "cheapest" labor. This is what has happened to the pottery  industry in Great Briton.

Andersen Studio has a comprehensive and layered inventory of ceramic disign accumalated over 60 years. There are many different lines with our collection. Our vision entertains the concept that we can work with other  United States based ceramic slip casting studio's, which could specialize in selcted components of our line,  possibly developing their own glazes and decorations and their own designs to complement what Andersen Studio has begun. As a collectible brand, Andersen Studio can be an effective marketing entity in the modle of fashion design houses which are carried on by future generaions in the name of the original founder

Of course this sort of misunderstanding and cross purposes is part and parcel of trying to present an idea in five minutes. I think Mr Burns was listening for that one thing- how will the high growth investor make his profit? Where is the "exit strategy?, which to my ears has little to do with "creating jobs" which is how the government justifies "appropriating" from unknowing taxpayers, what amounts to 10% of the SEGF"s investment capital, which the legislation/charter states will be used to cover administration costs. My idea is not only about creating jobs but preserving a meaningful working lifestyle, which provides an opportunity for those involved to develop an income of their own making. Two things that my father told me that left a long lasting impression are that our business creates jobs and that if one wants to be content, make ones self part of something larger than one's self. A ceramic slip-casting studio does both.

More about the SEGF HERE