Ceramic Industry

POTTERY PRODUCTION PRACTICES: Shark Mode

March 1, 2007
Two potters are putting their youthful experience in the ceramic industry to good use by offering not only their own functional tableware lines, but also complete production services.

Brett Binford cleans a lamp form.
Photo by Paolo Deroucher.


Brett Binford and Chris Lyon are not your typical 26-year-olds. They don't exist as mere numbers in Corporate America, chipping away at school loans and passing their free time with video games or trips to the local watering hole. As founder and president, respectively, of Portland, Ore.-based Mudshark Studios LLC, Binford and Lyon are putting their youthful experience in the ceramic industry to good use by offering not only their own functional tableware lines, but also complete production services-including customization-for manufacturing clients. The pair hopes this diverse approach will pay dividends in the future, but for now it means work-a lot of work.

"We live in the studio," Binford says of the demands made by a fledgling, two-man operation. "But our business has done nothing but grow."

"My impression is that we're pretty state-of-the-art," he adds. "We've got the capability to work from blueprints and make a finished, glazed product. I think that sets us apart from any company I know of in the Northwest. Production facilities generally don't do custom work for clients; they're already producing their own lines."

Parallel Lines

Brett Binford grew up in Cape Cod, Mass., where he was first introduced to ceramics through a pottery wheel his father kept in the basement of their home. However, it wasn't until high school that his talent really took flight.

"I pursued pottery more than a lot of other students, so it probably appeared easier for me," Binford says of his formative years. "But I never really considered it as a career option until I was finishing high school and my ceramics teacher said, 'You should pursue this.'"

Halfway across the country in Minneapolis, Minn., Chris Lyon was following a similar path. "My older brother was a pretty good clay thrower, and I was always looking up to him," Lyon says. "I actually got more interested in ceramics in high school, so I tried it and loved it from the first day."

The future partners would continue to mirror each other into college. Following a year of snowboarding and ceramic making, Lyon enrolled at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Binford meanwhile parlayed his high school experience into a scholarship from Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., but the marriage between artist and institution was to be short-lived. Citing a lack of technical education in the school's curriculum, he left after his sophomore year.

"When I was at Alfred, I felt like they were grooming students to be in academia," Binford explains. "The faculty really opened me up to conceptual art, but I didn't feel like they were giving me the tools to make it as a studio potter."

Binford spent the next summer selling his own functional line of dinnerware at craft shows across the U.S. The following fall, he began a six-month internship as a kindergarten teacher in exchange for studio space at Woody Creek Community School in Aspen, Colo., which eventually led to his settling in Steamboat Springs and his first meeting with Lyon when he was hired on at Jonathan Kaplan's Ceramic Design Group (CDG).

Kaplan-who is well known in the ceramic industry as a subcontractor for other producers, as well as for his articles in ceramic magazines and his work for Paragon Kilns-would prove instrumental in the development of his young subjects. Lyon credits Kaplan with teaching him the more technical aspects of ceramic work-mold making and casting, among other things; Binford comes off as slightly more effusive when he says, "I learned exponentially more from talking to that man than I ever learned in college."

Under Kaplan's tutelage, Binford and Lyon soon found themselves entrusted with large production orders for the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue and Napa Valley. They also had the run of CDG's production studio, which featured a jigger, a 60-ton RAM press and several extensive slip-casting facilities.

"Chris and I would do all of the production in the studio," Binford says. "We got a lot of hands-on experience moving products through the whole process, from the design point to deciding what was going to be the most efficient way of producing pieces of the highest quality."

Gratitude notwithstanding, working for someone else-even an artist of Kaplan's standing-was never a long-term consideration for Binford and Lyon. There were still degrees to pursue (Lyon would enroll at Ft. Lewis College in Durango, Colo., in 2003; Binford resumed his education at Portland's Oregon College of Art and Craft [OCAC] in 2004) and the realization of a dream that was born during long, mud-caked hours in the CDG studio.

"Toward the end of our time working for Jonathan, we'd taken on more of a managerial role," Binford says. "Jonathan was able to just do the molds and let us do the production work without really overseeing anything. So at that point we kind of thought, 'Wow, we're really doing everything here. Why can't we facilitate some sort of space for ourselves in the future?'"

Rise of a Dictator: Mao Tse-Tung.
Photo by Stephen Rich.

Mudshark Studios

"I went to OCAC kind of because I missed the feeling of having an art community," Binford says of his move to Portland. "Shortly after getting here, though, I began to realize you can make an art community."

Landing a job at Georgies Ceramic and Clay Co.-a leading clay producer in the Northwest-was a good first step toward this goal. And though he was originally hired for his mold-making experience, it wasn't long before Binford was getting production referrals through OCAC faculty and Georgies management.

"During my last six months at OCAC, I had built up enough mold-making business that I was making rent and acquiring equipment, expanding on my own," Binford says. "But Chris and I had dreamed of opening our own studio for years, so I called him in Colorado and said, 'Hey, there's a demand for us in Portland. When can you get out here?'"

The pair projected six months for Lyon to finish school and make the trip out West, during which time they advertised in ceramic trade magazines to drum up additional business. And, just like that, Mudshark Studios was a reality.

Though initially inspired by Frank Zappa's song "The Mud Shark," Binford is quick to point out the added significance of his company's name. "As far as business is concerned," he says, "mud obviously refers to clay. And then shark represents aggressiveness in terms of what we're willing to take on."

As it happens, what Binford and Lyon are capable of taking on is quite a lot. With 1500 square feet of work space, two Skutt KM-1227-3 kilns, two Lehman Slip-O-MaticTMslip tanks, a Laguna spray booth and a reclaim tank (among other implements), Mudshark offers its clients something unique in the ceramic industry: a complete, one-stop production process.

"We provide mold, model and production services all under one roof," Lyon says. "We can talk to a client, make their model and have them with us every step of the way, as opposed to someone else making the model and passing that off to a mold maker, the mold maker making the mold and then passing that off to the production studio, and so on.  Bypassing the middlemen really sets us apart."

While Binford and Lyon continue to develop their own conceptual pieces, there's no mistaking what brings in the most business. About 90% of Mudshark's current income is derived from a near-even split of mold making and subcontracted production-a diverse blend of services that owes more to practicality than any grand business scheme.

"I think diversification occurred partially out of necessity," Binford says. "In the beginning, if I didn't have a mold job one week and someone wanted me to glaze their work, then, yeah, I was going to glaze it."

Of course, not much has changed in the intervening months. For example, though up to 80% of Mudhshark's total modelmaking work involves making molds for the ceramic industry, the company still picks up jobs for cake decorators who need food-safe rubber molds, or glass artists who need molds shaped to blueprint spec."I don't want to say we'll do anything, but that's kind of our motto," Binford says. "We will try anything, but our clients have to be aware that new processes mean lots of inventing in terms of new techniques and customized tools to facilitate the success of a piece making it all the way through the production process. Basically, new things can be done, they just cost more money."

Mudshark functional ware.
Photos by Courtney Frisse.

Challenges and Goals

Despite a successful first year (2006 saw business branch out of the Portland market and into the national arena), Mudshark Studios still faces its share of challenges. Chief among Binford's concerns is his company's ability to bring in a consistent income. "After a big project one week, we might not have much to do for the next three weeks," he says.

Then again, Mudshark isn't exactly hurting for work. This is evidenced by a recent agreement to produce 400 replicas of a new building at the Oregon Health & Science University to sell to the public and give to donors as gifts. Binford and Lyon are also collaborating with a sculptor to bring a 4-ft-tall reproduction of Mao Tse-Tung to life. "We're probably the only people this side of the Rockies who would take on something like that," Binford says.

And then there's the work the partners make for themselves. "The plan is to start marketing our own dinnerware products to different wholesale outlets," Lyon says. "There are a few stores in Portland that artists can send their design applications to, and there's a big wholesale outlet online called The Guild. That's our first goal, to get into The Guild. From there we'll try to move to the Philadelphia Buyers' Market Show, which is basically the premier wholesale show for the ceramic industry."

Binford and Lyon hope to move their operation to a larger studio (3000-5000 square feet) sometime in the next year. They also plan on hiring their first full-time employees to help carry the anticipated workload.

"A long-term goal, in a warehouse setting, would be to incorporate artists of other mediums," Binford says. "In the past, we've worked with metalworkers and woodworkers to develop tools for specific projects, so it would be great to have everyone under one roof, which, of course, goes back to the whole idea of building an art community."

If Brett Binford's ultimate goal sounds a little lofty at this point, it shouldn't. After all, he and Chris Lyon have taken Mudshark Studios so far so quickly that success in any endeavor seems practically assured. Indeed, Binford and Lyon are not your typical 26-year-olds. They've built so much already, the rest should be easy.

For more information regarding Mudshark Studios LLC, call (971) 645-8611 or visit www.mudsharkstudios.org.

Lyon at the lathe.
Photo by Stephen Rich.

SIDEBAR: Lord of the Plaster Lathe

Model making is a key step in Mudshark Studios' full production process. So when it comes time to bring a client's vision to life, Chris Lyon turns to his model-making weapon of choice: a plaster lathe. "One of the benefits of turning plaster is that you don't have to deal with the shrinkage issues that you would with clay," Lyon says. "Also, when you're making a mold with a plaster lathe, you've got a solid piece. It's not like a fragile bowl or something; it can be dinged up and repaired more easily than a clay model."

And where does one acquire this magical piece of equipment? Truth be told, there is no mystery to Lyon's plaster lathe: it's simply a wood lathe with no modification, though mounting plaster on it can be tricky.

Despite its relative convenience, Lyon says the plaster lathe has yet to gain widespread acceptance in the ceramic industry for a number of reasons, not the least of which is Lyon's feeling that few artists make models to begin with. And then there's the speed factor. After all, a whirring chunk of plaster can be intimidating.

For his part, Lyon remains resolute in his use of the plaster lathe. "Other people might think that using a plaster lathe means you're sort of moving away from the potter's wheel," he says, "but the truth is it allows me to create forms that I normally wouldn't be able to make out of clay."

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