“I was always making…I had an organic garden and even grew my own sprouts….”
Lest you think this comment comes from a granola crunching, earnest but dull as dishwater maker toiling away in their quiet little Brooklyn/Mission/Portlandia-esque basement studio, it doesn’t.
This comes from Connecticut-based Jan Burtz: witty, funny as hell, opinionated, thoroughly girly, and decidedly down to earth. (Proof: the fact that she counts among the five things that define her: lipstick, Chanel boots, and a rolling pin.). It turns out, though, that this lover of great girly accessories also happens to be an amazing–and I might add, extremely successful–ceramist.
She’s a bit of Carrie Bradshaw, but all grown up and with kids. And with a huge walk-in closet full of talent, not shoes. She’s the kind of woman you just want to sit down and have a cocktail and a good gossip with. We laughed all the way through the interview, of course.
Her ceramic tableware line has long been a hit at that Mecca of home design stores ABC Carpet and Home in New York (where we were first smitten with it). No surprise there: it’s perfect tableware for anyone who’s gone beyond the idea of “fine china” and wants to surround themselves with something just as fine, but just a little bit beyond the mainstream.
The exquisite detail in her ultra-thin plates, bowls and mugs, with barely-there sweeps of color just make you want to host a good dinner party. Pasta–with good wine, great friends and beautiful dinnerware. Followed by pie.
How did you get started in ceramics? I took a pottery class in 9th grade. I fell totally in love with it.
While I was in high school I apprenticed for this potter locally. I learned everything about loading, mixing glazes, and about running a business–she was pretty successful. She would sell to local galleries, Rhinebeck shows and I learned a lot.
I went to Boston University–not the School of Fine Arts–but a little school within the school: a program in artisanry. They were the best of the best…that school is no longer there, but it was a fabulous program.
What came next? After I graduated, I was ready to have a studio in Cambridge, but the week before I was supposed to start, it burned down. So I went home, and got an apartment in Manhattan. While I was trying to figure it out, I found a ceramics studio in SoHo on Mercer between Spring and Prince. (Ah, when the lofts were for artists, back in those pre-mall days.) There were six kilns in a co-op there, and a great community that came with it. I learned a lot from the other women there and it was great. This would have been in the 80s … I’m not sure there are any studios still there!
What was good about the co-op was that people from galleries would come through. Bendels was my very first customer, and it all started from there. And then ABC came calling…
What did you do after you started getting noticed? So I stayed in the city, got married, moved to Rye. I wasn’t working, because I had 3 kids in 3.5 years … but then I found a studio nearby in Porchester. It was hard, and I wasn’t really selling, just doing it to keep my peace of mind.
Then we moved to Westport, and after my youngest reached 2nd grade I started work again. My husband built me a studio in the house, which was great. It’s on the other side of the laundry room so its not too detached from things. I have two kilns in there.
Do you work alone? Yes. I do everything myself, though I have interns that help sometimes.
How do you sell your work? ABC Home is my biggest customer, and I also do ABC Kitchen. That keeps me busy but I also feel that I am in the best store in the world. They love artists. They believe in you and they appreciate that it’s organic and handmade and it’s back to basics. I so appreciate what they’ve done for me. They believe in the power of relationships, and so do I.
Others have approached me, and I do turn down a lot of people. At the moment, I don’t sell on the West Coast. I’m also at that point of people approaching me to mass produce me. You need to be careful, though.
Have you had to make any changes to meet demand? The work has changed little. My work has always been thin, but for ABC Kitchen I have to make it heavier because they break. But of course they still break them!
I love that ABC was using your dishes for their wedding registry–that was so unusual but spot on for what I think we all want these days–something unique and special. But did you make your own plates for yours? Oh no. My mother in law made me register…I said I make pots for a living….but I had to. It was Andree Putman so it wasn’t too bad.
What do you like most about what you’re doing? I love working. I really love working. It gives me such pleasure. I love the process. I love while I’m touching the clay. I love opening the kiln: I never know what I’ll get out of the kiln … even though it’s an electric kiln, there are still surprises.
Now I can’t always send it if it’s not uniform, so I donate my seconds to Housing Works in the City.
What inspires your work? I think of food when I make things. I also love color–I love when I can work with color though a lot of my production work really has to be in white, light colors.
Speaking of food, your work is so delicious–it really has that luscious, almost edible quality to it. Why do you think it’s so appealing to your customers? I think because it’s not symmetrical, it’s organic, it’s like it’s done by hand.
I try not to touch it too much, I like it to do its thing, and then try to clean it up a little. You have to know when to stop: you can overwork something.
I pour my glazes on … it looks like a painting. I don’t want it to have that manufactured look. Talk about being ripped off: people could probably break down the glaze recipe. That’s that they do: they’ll take one object, copy it, and make thousands of the same thing. But you can tell a mass produced product: it just doesn’t have that variability, that individuality.
How do you keep yourself motivated? What’s your inspiration? I work a lot of hours. I get up, and go right into my studio. I’m in there all day. I just stay in there!
But to take a break, I used to be an avid runner, now it’s the elliptical. You just have to step away from your life…
And I make dinner. I love it. Everything has to be from scratch: pesto, soup, whatever. In the spring and summer I have a garden with tomatoes, basil.
I have three kids in college and both of my sons have called me for recipes: I’m kind of proud of that. They’re making cookies, pesto, in their little kitchens. How great is that?
Who would play you in the movie of your life? I have to be someone funny. I first came up with Zoe Deschanel or Marisa Tomei.
Which movie? It would have to be funny…I laugh at myself…I think it would be funny that there would be a movie of me…that’s crazy.
What are you reading?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
What are you listening to? It’s Howard Stern in the morning. (Love that! And love that it’s NOT NPR: she says she doesn’t even know where NPR is on the dial, though she admits to loving Rachel Maddow). Then late afternoon I switch to Underground Garage, and music all weekend long. I was trying to get into alternative with my kids and I’m trying to be current, but it’s probably rock, classical vinyl.
Best gift you’ve received? Milo the dog, the gift that keeps on giving.
When are you happiest? When I’m with my kids and husband sitting at the table eating. That’s when I’m happiest, having a little wine and just laughing.
And I like being lost, working by myself.
Name 5 objects that define you.
- Rolling pin: For pies. (What kind of pies? 1/2 blueberry 1/2 apple….but not mixed, just side by side. I love making pies. First pie I made was just a couple of years ago. I was scared of making them when I started out…
- Chanel boots. I could go on and on and on. When I go out I’m dressed really well but all day I work in my PJs.
- Probably a pair of jeans (AGs)
- Probably a really cute black top
All images courtesy of Jan Burtz.