PPP - The Magic World of Mackenzie-Childs

May 11, 2000
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Enter the grounds of the MacKenzie-Childs studio in Aurora, N.Y., and you’ll suddenly feel as if you’ve been transported to another century. You have entered a world of the bizarre and the beautiful, and everything you see from this point forward lends itself to the grand design of two amazing artists-turned-potters: Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs.

Enter the grounds of the MacKenzie-Childs studio in Aurora, N.Y., and you’ll suddenly feel as if you’ve been transported to another century. A grand Victorian house stands sentry as you drive up the winding path, and in the warmer months, thousands of flowers nod and dance their welcome. Peacocks and turkeys parade on rolling green lawns, and ducks paddle lazily in a nearby pond. You have entered a world of the bizarre and the beautiful, and everything you see from this point forward lends itself to the grand design of two amazing artists-turned-potters: Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs.

It All Began With Teacups

The actual company didn’t begin until 1983, but the dreams and ideas started taking shape several years before then, when Richard and Victoria, both with a master’s degree in Fine Arts from Alfred University, purchased a lonely, neglected, 19th century farmhouse in Aurora, a small town located in the Finger Lakes region of New York. They didn’t have the money to purchase new furniture, buy new windows or renovate the other hundred or so things that needed repairs. So instead they began collecting odds and ends, designing a masterpiece from bits and pieces that no one else wanted.

Antique wooden tables and bedroom sets were salvaged and adorned with ceramic legs or knobs, wallpaper, murals and maps. Windows that fit the period were retrieved from nearby farmhouses that were demolished or renovated, and wallpaper and floorcoverings were gleaned from the local dump, or from stores that were going out of business. Shards of broken pottery and glass were glued to walls, ceilings, lamps, mirror frames and anywhere else that needed some texture.

And then there was the paint—cheerful yellows, blues, pinks, greens and purples in dots and stripes, pennants and checkers adorned some rooms on moldings and as borders. Murals of the lake and the farmhouse and the rolling, peaceful landscape were captured on the walls of others.

But the work on the house had only just begun in 1983, when Richard and Victoria’s eight-year-old daughter, Heather, asked to go to a ballet school in London. It was then that everything changed.

“She was the kind of little girl that never asked for anything,” says Richard MacKenzie-Childs. “We didn’t have any money, and we made everything. So when she out of the blue asked, we just looked at each other and said, ‘She’s never asked for anything in her whole life,’ and we took it really seriously.”

They decided to send her. But it wasn’t until Heather was on the plane that the reality of the situation hit Richard and Victoria. They didn’t have the money to pay for it. Richard was teaching ceramics at Wells College in Aurora, and he and Victoria were selling occasional sculptures. They began to try to think of ways to generate extra income that would also allow them to contribute something of themselves to the world. And then they struck gold.

“One day I came home from teaching,” says Richard, “and I said, ‘If we need to start making teacups that’s what we need to do.’ And Victoria said, ‘You know, I was thinking the same sort of thing...but boy, they’re going to be great teacups.’”

And MacKenzie-Childs Ltd. was born.

The first plates and teacups were press molded and fired in a small kiln in the tool shed. While neither Richard nor Victoria had every really made functional ceramics, they had enough knowledge about the process from their Alfred education and some of their past experiences to enable them to succeed at the art. And from the start, they could hardly keep up with the demand for their pottery.

They began by exhibiting at trade shows, where their product was an instant hit. At the very first of these early shows, a Nieman Marcus executive ducked into the MacKenzie-Childs’ booth to get away from the crowds. Then he noticed the pottery. Within weeks Richard and Victoria had their first large order, and word began to spread about the company’s unique products.

“We literally started by going to a clay supplier and buying 50 pounds of clay because that’s all the money we had,” says Richard. “We made some plates and sold them and bought 100 pounds of clay—that hand-to-mouth. But from day one we could never produce enough to meet demand.

“We hired one of my students as an assistant, and then that wasn’t enough so we hired another. Before we had even decided to have a business it was a business. We still weren’t thinking of it as a business, but it was already forming itself.

“When we finally realized that it was a business—I think we had two employees—we asked a friend at Cornell, ‘How do you really do a business? I think we need to do something formal about this.’ And he said, ‘Well, I have a couple of recommendations. One is you should probably get a telephone.’ I can’t remember what the other one was, like a desk or something. But we just kept progressing from there.

“When I look back at it, I never could have imagined this today. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, and it would have scared me if I could. So it was really good that it moved along the way it did. To some people it seemed to move along really quickly, but to us it was in logical steps.”

A People Sort of Place

Today, the MacKenzie-Childs design and production studios are situated on 75 acres of what was once a 19th century dairy farm on the eastern shores of Cayuga Lake in Aurora. More than 200 artisans lend their talent to create the one-of-a-kind works of art, and the product line has expanded far beyond pottery to encompass furniture and other home decorations. But the pottery is still a classic. Each new product is designed by either Richard or Victoria—sometimes together and sometimes individually—before it is sent into production, and some pieces take weeks or even months in the design stage.

“I always like to make all my pieces by myself at night—sometimes I’ll make 10 of them,” says Richard. “And then I play around with ideas as far as glaze and things like that. Eventually it evolves to the point where I feel like it’s ready, and then it gets introduced.

“Sometimes we get halfway through something and it doesn’t seem right, so we just put it on a shelf for awhile—sometimes for as long as a year. And then one day one of us will think, ‘Oh, I know exactly what it needs.’”

Once a new piece receives Richard and Victoria’s approval, a mold is created in the company’s mold shop. In the production stage, pieces are slip cast, hand pressed or RAM™ pressed into their final form, depending on their shape and detail. Terra cotta clay, supplied by Sheffield Pottery, is used to give the pieces an “earthy” quality—the footprint of each piece is left unglazed to reveal the terra cotta color. (A wax coating is used to repel the glaze.) The pieces are glazed and fired, and are then sent to the decorating stage of the process, where they are meticulously hand-painted and sometimes decalled to achieve the final design.

“It’s always a trick to take something from an idea into production. It’s not hard to make the first one. But to be able to make it consistently from that point on is trickier. A great staff—people that enjoy the process as much as we do—has been the key to making this happen.”

From the beginning, Victoria and Richard have placed a great emphasis on the importance of their staff. The studios are designed with numerous windows to capture an abundance of natural daylight, and special care is taken to make each employee feel like an important part of the business.

“We try to really bring it down to a personal level,” says Richard. “When we build a new studio and people are moving in or we’re moving people from one place to another, we know it’s a little bit disorienting. So we [always try to make some small gesture, like] putting a vase of flowers on their desk, so that when they’re in a new spot they’ll know that we thought about them, rather than just saying ‘We have to move you over here. I hope you like it.’ It’s just kind of to remind them that we try to pay attention to all the details. I’m sure we miss something, but we try.

“[This business is] really our whole lives. We don’t just come to work and design dishes. It’s really every part. Everyone has their main function but at the same time does a little of everything and anything, and this gives everyone a stronger sense of belonging.”

In 1993, a devastating fire burned the Aurora studios to the ground. But even then, the sense of belonging held firm. “You would have thought this was their house,” says Richard. “Everyone pitched in. And it was not fun—we had to shovel mountains of black gunk for weeks. But the spirit was there. Even though it was terrible, I wouldn’t trade it. We learned that the business isn’t the building or the walls—it’s the people and the ideas. And ideas can’t be destroyed by fire.”

The Nature of the Thing

Manufacturing pottery and other products on the shores of Cayuga Lake has been an inspiring experience, but it has also posed challenges. When construction on the new studio began in 1993, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Conservation mandated that a new water filtration system be put into place to capture any contaminants generated within the facility. Engineers worked with representatives from both agencies to design an elaborate, expensive system that would do the job, and everyone approved the final design. But when Richard read through the final, ridiculously thick document detailing the system, it just didn’t make sense.

Finally, on the day construction was scheduled to begin, Richard called the Department of Conservation and asked them to meet with him to go over the system one more time.

“I don’t know anything about this stuff, but logically it just doesn’t seem like it will work,” he said to them. “You’ve approved it, you’ve signed off on it, but what do you think?”

“‘Well, yes, theoretically it will work perfectly,’ they said. ‘But you’re right—we don’t think it will work either.’”

So a different plan had to be formed. Richard suggested that they try to find a way to reuse all of the water instead of sending it back out into the lake, and a cost-effective closed-loop system was developed that could handle the relatively small amounts of water used by the company. When the floors are hosed down at night, for instance, the water drains into large tanks. The water in the tanks is then pumped into small room that houses a filter press. There, all the clay is filtered out, and the water is cleaned and sent back into the system.

The EPA also required that a backup system be put in place in case the original system ever fails. To comply with this requirement, MacKenzie-Childs installed underground tanks with a 2,000-gallon capacity and contracted with a local hauler to take the wastewater to a local facility to be recycled if necessary.

Even after all this, however, Richard isn’t bitter. “It’s not that difficult—it’s just time-consuming, and you really do need to plan it out.” he says. “I found that it’s just like anything in business—if you work with people honestly and sincerely, these agencies are great to work with. They have tons of red tape, and all the things that everyone says they do, but they’re very helpful if they know you’re sincere. If they think you’re trying to get by with something, I think that’s when the situations you read about occur.

“We all live on earth, so why would we want to purposely try to ruin it? I just don’t understand that mentality. Even if you could sneak by, why would you want to?”

This idea also carries over into every other aspect of the MacKenzie-Childs business, from raw materials to glazes to the work environment.

“From the beginning, we’ve always looked at what we’ve used just to keep any concerns at a minimum,” says Richard. “We’ve always used unleaded glazes, and we’re really careful about cleanliness. If you keep the place clean then you don’t have a lot of problems with dust and other things that can end up being a big problem. And a lot of the problems that companies have is because they wait until the problem surfaces to do anything about it rather than being proactive.”

A Bigger Purpose

MacKenzie-Childs Ltd. has come a long way from teacups. Its products are sold nationwide, through large department stores like Nieman Marcus as well as outlet stores in New York, San Francisco, Dallas and Beverly Hills. It’s gone from two employees to more than 300, and it continues to grow.

“We don’t have any sense of limit as far as how big the company can be,” says Richard. “But the biggest growth will probably be in work we do outside of Aurora. If [this studio] gets any bigger, I’m afraid we’ll lose something. I think that Aurora, what’s here, will remain what it is, and will become even more precious, and that other things will grow in other ways.”

The company is looking to expand into products that it designs but doesn’t manufacture—products like wallpaper, paint and upholstered furniture. The company’s motto, “Bringing homeward complements home, to reveal freedom, jubilance and purity,” remains a driving force in the development of new products and ideas.

“Our goal is to remind people that life is wonderful,” says Richard. “That’s the overriding motive behind everything for us, whether it’s building a new building or planting a new garden. It’s really for a bigger purpose; otherwise, the work wouldn’t be worth it.

“People are often amazed when they notice that we’re often here from seven in the morning until well after midnight. ‘Don’t you get tired?’ they ask. And I’ll say ‘No. What else would I do? What else would I want to do?’

“Every part of it is exciting.”

For More Information

Contact the studios at State Route 90, Aurora, NY 13026; (315) 364-7123; fax (315) 364-8075.

SIDEBAR: The Supplier Search

When Victoria and Richard began their business in 1983, they were fortunate enough to know a number of suppliers. As their experience grew, so did their exposure to what was available. But from the beginning, the two qualities they looked for most in any supplier were service and quality.

“Service and quality are the two most important aspects a supplier can offer,” says Richard, “and we’ve been really fortunate in that regard.

“For instance, all of our clays come from Sheffield Pottery, and their service is great.

There’s actually a different clay company not far from here but we found that the service was terrible. If there was a problem it was ours, it was never theirs, despite the large volumes of material we buy.

“Sheffield is opposite. They’re very responsive, and when they say they’ll be here on Tuesday, we know they’ll be here on Tuesday.”

Responsiveness is often key in determining whether to purchase from a particular supplier. When MacKenzie-Childs developed its new Wittika™ line, for instance, Richard tried for weeks to achieve a particular yellow glaze color that he had in mind. Finally Julia Butkis, MacKenzie-Childs’ pottery technician, gave Fusion Frit a call. “They were able to provide exactly what we needed,” said Richard. Some of the company’s other product lines include colors from Mason Color and Ferro.

“For most of our materials, we go through a bid process with several suppliers that we feel would give us good quality,” says Richard.

SIDEBAR: Kiln Selection Counts

Several years ago, MacKenzie-Childs Ltd. needed a new kiln. They were using one Keith kiln at the time, but needed more capacity. The company priced a variety of kilns, and decided to try a less expensive model from a different manufacturer. Unfortunately, that decision proved disastrous.

“That kiln was a joke from the day it was built,” says Richard. “It was very expensive, considering it collapsed on the first firing. It was a nightmare from beginning to end. We kept it limping along for a number of years because the investment was so high, but then the company disappeared and it was an unpleasant situation.”

Having learned a valuable lesson, Richard approached Keith with a request to build another kiln. The second Keith envelope kiln MacKenzie-Childs purchased went on-line in September 1999, and has provided trouble-free operation since then.

“The second Keith kiln came on-line even better than the first one,” says Richard. “It arrived, and once it was assembled, we turned it on and the performance has been great.”

According to kiln operator Dale Dziuba, anywhere from 400 to 1000 pieces go through the kiln each day, depending on the size of the pieces. Glazed pieces are fired at 1850ºF, and luster pieces are fired at 1450ºF.

“One of the nice features of the kiln is that, with its motorized drive system, you don’t have to push it back and forth by hand,” says Dziuba.

Keith’s kilns are designed to meet the specific needs of each customer. MacKenzie-Childs Ltd. had specific kiln size requirements and also required a relatively short firing schedule.

“We get our electricity very inexpensively at night, so the kilns have to go on at a certain time and off at a certain time in order to get the cheaper rate. There is such a cost savings that it’s essential that we stay within that specific time frame,” explains Richard.

Keith was able to meet all of MacKenzie-Childs’ kiln performance requirements—and then some.

“They did a really great job designing [this kiln],” says Richard. “We’ve tried a variety of different kilns, but the Keith kiln has much fewer maintenance requirements and far greater reliability than any other kiln we’ve used.

“And Keith is a great company to work with. We can call them and ask them questions as often as we need to. Their level of service and the quality of their product are both really, really good."

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