I am an honorary architect and recent Chairman of the Design and Craft Council of Ireland. For 20 years, I have been involved in the architecture and design sector in Ireland, overseeing some of the most culturally important developments. I have worked with architects most of my life—The Irish Film Centre by O’Donnell + Tuomey architects was my first big project. More recently I was Project Director for the new Mater Hospital by Scott Tallon Walker in Dublin, which has made a real improvement to the lives of the staff, patients and visitors who use the hospital. My experience at the cutting edge of architectural development has helped me to inform the Arran Street East aesthetic.
The search for a simple, hand-thrown pot in interesting colors led me to experiment in throwing pots over the last few years and this is how Arran Street East started. I learned to throw pots in Schull with the master potter Pat Connor and developed passion for craftsmanship and skills involved in throwing at the potters’ wheels.
The idea was born in late 2014 and by January 2015 we showcased our first collection at the trade show in Dublin, where we received fantastic response and won Best Tableware award at the show. Subsequently we were featured in Elle Decoration, Vogue Living, Wallpaper, The Gloss, Image Interiors, and The Irish Times. In the ultimate public endorsement, in December 2016, Arran Street East won the publicly voted Best Tableware category in the Image Interiors Design Awards. In 2019 Arran Street East was named Home Category and Overall Winner at the Irish Made Awards by Irish Country Magazine.
As a small artisan pottery, Arran Street East needed to distinguish itself in a densely populated homeware market in both Ireland and internationally, and to increase revenue by developing more routes to market. Working in tandem with these business goals, a concerted marketing communications effort around a unified aesthetic with an authentic message, powered by agile digital marketing on a shoe-string budget, saw incredible growth for Arran Street East in 2016 and 2017.
Starting with just a small team of part time makers, over the years the making team has grown and we now have three, full time highly skilled potters and glazers.
In May 2016, our Dublin studio shop was successfully launched, and people could come and visit our production space and buy our pots directly from us—we then employed our shop manager to also manage the highly anticipated online shop, which launched in December 2016.
I like working with passionate, dedicated and talented people, and am always looking for talented creatives. We’re a multinational, predominantly female team, made up of full and part time potters and glazers, studio manager, shop manager, and workshops teacher.
My role as Creative Director is to set and lead the artistic direction for the company. I work with the team on new collections, original colors, and additions to our product range. I’m interested in exploring new trends, setting the vision and encouraging the team to search for new inspiration and striving to be innovative. I work closely with Dobrawa Brach—Arran Street East General Manager. I met Dobrawa through Irish Architecture Foundation and Irish Design 2015 where she worked as head of events and exhibitions. We both share the love for contemporary architecture and expertly made and carefully designed craft. Dobrawa has a background in arts and design and experience in managing strategic projects and is responsible for overseeing the running of the studio, production, clients and growing the business.
Arran Street East employs experienced potters—graduates of the DCCoI Ceramics Skills and Design Course in Thomastown, Kilkenny, and the shop team has an extensive knowledge and experience in business, administration, and events, and we met through their involvement in the Irish Design 2015, a year celebrating design in Ireland, of which I was executive chair.
Our Head Potter, Marta Ozog (Shown throwing pottery in photographs), is responsible for ensuring the quality and smooth running of the production. Marta is a brilliant potter with passion for excellence. She is joined on the wheels by Paul MacDarby, hugely talented potter. The glaze section is headed by Anthony O’Flaherty, color-sensitive artist. Gayle James is running our throwing classes and group workshops—she is amazingly patient and passes on her love for ceramics onto hundreds of people who come to our workshops every year.
Our pots are all hand thrown on a wheel in our studio in the heart of Dublin, and each takes a week or more to make from beginning to end. Our pots start their journey in an elemental form, as raw clay pulled from the earth. Once it arrives in our studio, we cut it to size for the individual pot, jug, or bowl being made. The clay is cut to size using “harps”—specially made tools that cut earlier prepared clay into equal chunks for each specific shape.
Throwing on a wheel is a skill learned over time. We throw every piece by hand to pre-determined geometric shapes. We think of ourselves as architects in clay, and the tessellating shapes of our pots and mugs are a cornerstone of our identity.
We also know that everyone has different preferences when it comes to how hot their tea or coffee is, and our in and out shapes solve that: the out shape allows you to drink at a cooler temperature; while the in shape keeps it warmer for 20% longer.
Left overnight, the clay becomes leather hard. After measuring and applying each handle, this is when we stamp each pot with our signature “A”, inspired by the old-Irish A on the Arran Street East street sign. At this point, our pots go through their first firing: the Biscuit firing, where the kiln gradually rises to 1000 degrees celsius, and back down again, to take any moisture out of the clay.
The next day, when they’ve cooled, the base of the pots are set into molten wax to get their perfect unglazed straight line. Once the base is waxed, we glaze inside and out, to give the pot its color.
We spend time developing and mixing our own glazes, in subtle shades drawn from our Markets Area home and Dublin city architecture. The glaze and wax won’t mix, so we keep that nice smidgen of unglazed pot visible.
The pots then return to the kiln for the second time and are fired slowly at a temperature above 1250 degrees, to achieve a matte and semi-sheen finish and seal, making them safe to eat and drink from.
Once they cool, and have been thoroughly checked for imperfections, they’re packed and ready to make their way to their new homes.
For years my business had been based in Dublin’s Markets Area, which is alive with color and sound from very early in the morning. An early concept which became the touchstone for the project was the idea of an “open studio” where visitors could connect with the making process—a unique opportunity to experience a traditional craft taking place in an urban setting.
The studio is at the back and below the shop, so visitors to the shop can catch a glimpse of the mesmerizing process of making if they wish to.
The conversion of the Arran Street East studio and shop on Little Green Street led to renovation and fit out of an 18th Century Dutch Billy building in the Markets Quarter.
Reflecting the simplicity of our aesthetic, the palette of materials introduced is restrained and muted. Black steel-framed glazed screens fill the openings to the south and east.
This language is also used to separate the retail and production space, allowing light and views into the working studio. The power-floated concrete floor runs throughout and, with the galvanised steel pipes used for ducting, quietly nods to the industrial aesthetic of the area and its history. The production space is designed around the movement of the pot, from delivery of the clay right up to the point of sale for customers. The restoration of the upper floors reinstated sash windows to original detail, with the rooms now being used as design studios and for pottery courses.
The architectural team at M.CO designed the shop and studio for Arran Street East using a restrained material palette and inventive spatial design. They created a space that is efficient, refined and sympathetic to both its context and the brand identity, increasing the brand’s revenue and profile in the process.
The brief was to renovate and ﬁt out the ground ﬂoor and basement of a 19th Dutch Billy corner building in Dublin’s Markets Area, which had previously been in use as a fruit and vegetable wholesalers.
The pottery studio required a variety of spaces to accommodate all of the steps in the production process, including space for preparing the clay, throwing the clay, glazing the pots, ﬁring them and packaging them. Given the limited ﬂoor area available, we undertook a lean-led design process to organize the production area of the studio as eﬃciently as possible.
The retail space has also given a physical presence to the brand, reaffirming its identity and enabling a customer experience that was not possible before. It has been well received by both the design community and the wider public and recognized by the industry when we won the Grand Prix Fit Out Interior Award in 2016.
A contemporary wood-burning stove occupies a corner of the retail space, referencing both the firing of the pots, and the monolithic chimney which rises from the floor above and so epitomizes the uniqueness of the building, the area, and the activity which happens within.
We sell our products through our dedicated ecommerce website. The customer can buy directly from us and we ship internationally. In order to reduce waste and become more efficient we now “make to order”—customers can select from our wide range of shapes and colours and pick what they like, and we will make their collection especially for them. We also carry a small selection of “ready for you” items that are available for immediate dispatch for people who are in a hurry to get their gifts on time to their loved ones!
We have taken part in Showcase in Dublin, London Design Week, New York Now!, Maison et Object, Paris Fashion Week, Milan Design Week with huge success. Through our presence at tradeshows, we increase our brand awareness and expand our reach to international audiences. We target specific shops in cities with a reputation for design and connect with our growing international stockists and client base.
A typical day at Arran Street East is quite busy. We look at our order lists and prioritize the requests. The potters cut clay to size for each individual pot, jug, or bowl—depending on what object they will be throwing that day. They each sit at the wheel and spend a day throwing every piece by hand to pre-determined linear shapes.
In the glazing department the team sets the base of each pots into molten wax to get their perfect unglazed straight line. Once the base is waxed, they glaze inside and out, to give the pot its color.
On Mondays we prepare the Biscuit firing—it takes about 2 hours to fill both our kilns with pots—we stack them carefully and fill the kilns to the rims. On Wednesdays and Fridays, we prepare glaze firings—carefully fettling each pot and inserting it into the kiln cautiously so they do not touch each other—otherwise the melting glaze will stick! Every week the team meets to discuss tasks at hand, improvements, and ideas. Every day we pack and send out online orders—the pots leave our Dublin studio and travel to homes around the world.
Something central to our story is our neighbourhood—this frenetic place called the Dublin Fruit & Vegetable Market. The patterns, the colours, the heritage of the place—it all combines to influence and inspire what we create, as you can see around you in the colours of the market and the cityscape collection. We are very proud that we’re able to bring people here, to this relatively undiscovered part of the city, and that we’ve built a brand that is allowing this little corner of Dublin to travel the world.
The Victorian Fruit and Vegetable Market of Dublin, where our studio and shop are based, is a big inspiration for us when it comes to color and pattern, while architectural forms influence our shapes. Our identity is deeply connected to our sense of place. The “A” of our logo comes from the old Irish A on the Arran Street East street sign, and the pattern and color of our market area home is a big influence on how we design and make, with our first color collection, Markets, inspired by the color of the fruits and vegetables for sale in the market. It’s an area of Dublin that, we believe, is worthy of more attention, and we hope that by being here, we can help to attract more people to this part of town.
We are always on the lookout for inspiration from the material world. Building on what we love in pattern, texture, and color, we design, and sketch, and redesign, and then make and prototype again and repeat it again and again until it’s right. Sometimes things click straight away, but more often than not they take months to mature nicely.
The business challenges facing the small team at Arran Street East at the start were the need to distinguish ourselves in the densely populated homeware market in both Ireland and internationally and to increase revenue by developing more routes to market, to allow the business to become sustainable, including increasing our stockists nationally and internationally, developing our own shop, and building an eCommerce offering.
The challenge is to find talented and highly skilled makers and to keep them engaged and inspired by giving them time to develop creative ideas at the same time to ensure keeping up with production and meeting the demand and fulfilling the orders on time.
We are very honored to be loved and appreciated by people all around the world who share their love for our pots with us on Instagram, via private messages and by voting for us in people’s choice awards. Anyone who loves simple, hand-made, functional and beautiful objects is our target audience. Our customers appreciate good design—pieces that are useful, useable and beautiful and so we produce pottery that is useful—it is for the everyday; it is useable—it performs well in keeping tea or coffee warmer or colder depending on which shape the customer chooses; and it is aesthetically beautiful.
Our customers like products that have a strong provenance and are ethically sustainable and our products are sustainably and ethically produced and are entirely traceable back to the point of production in our Dublin studio.Our customers are purchasing for themselves as an investment in their own home, or they are purchasing as a gift. We have a strong client base in Dublin, but only last year we shipped to over 200 locations internationally from our shop in Dublin.
Since August 2016, we have been running introductory throwing classes in our dedicated, light-filled classroom where we have 11 wheels, and cater for total beginners as well as people with some pottery experience. The response is always surprising and heartening. Most come with no experience and the expectation of having a few bowls made by our first tea break. Our mornings can look chaotic as everyone grapples with centering clay. By the time we return from lunch there is a real sense of determination to master the art of throwing. The room fills up with pots and the potting bug takes hold.
We’ve responded to a growing demand with more workshops, longer workshops to build skills, and a glazing workshop every month for those who want to have created a piece from mud to finished product. To see the progression of students has been great and it’s exciting to see how much they learn. We have also recently opened our studio to Members—people who have done workshops with us and want to master the art of wheel throwing by having more free access to wheels and kilns.
What are the 7 most important hardworking pieces of advice that you could give to another small business artisan entrepreneur? What have you learned that will help them to work smarter and not just harder?
1. Sometimes it feels overwhelming to start and run a business. Do not feel you have to do everything at once. Make a “plan for a plan” – write down a list of things you need to do and then look at each heading and make a detailed plan of how to achieve it.
2. Expect the unexpected – the plan will always change, be ready and do not feel you’ve been doing it all wrong.
3. Stay on top of your finances and KPIs. Review them weekly and regularly. Get to the bottom of your expenses and analyze sales. It will give you the confidence that you are in charge and will allow you identify and address any issues early.
4. Delegate – identify things you shouldn’t be doing yourself and assign them to people you trust will do it. Check they’ve done it!
5. Find a mentor – someone with experience, perhaps even from outside your sector – who will provide you with perspective or will be good at listening. Meet with them regularly – make a habit out of it, even when it feels there is nothing to talk about.
6. Say yes to opportunities. Say “yes” more often than “no”.
7. Take care of your team. Meet them regularly, listen to what they have to say. Share your visions and plans with them. Don’t just expect they will follow you.