Detroit ceramics studio grows, evolves at its own pace
Wisconsin isn’t usually the starting point for a Detroit-based business, but it was for Ryan and Kaitlyn Lawless of Corbé ceramics.
Ryan, a talented ceramicist, was wrapping up graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and trying to think of a good way to thank some dear local friends who’d hosted him, Kaitlyn and Ryan’s daughter many times during his studies. It hit him: He’d create a porcelain serving plate shaped like the state of Wisconsin.
Then he and Kaitlyn thought about it some more: What if they created porcelain serving dishes for all 50 states? They eventually created a Kickstarter campaign to create molds for the campaign in 2013 – 50 United Plates – and the idea took off. They raised $17,000 in the first 24 hours and $85,000 overall.
“It was a heartfelt project and we felt like for whatever reason that resonated with people,” says Kaitlyn. “We were hoping it would and it did.”
Today, a large rack rests against one wall of their Detroit studio with platters for each state organized alphabetically. The campaign has been so successful that the couple, who works side-by-side and will have a booth at the upcoming Ann Arbor Art Fair, has expanded into tableware, vases and more.
They’re also contemplating opening a retail space in a portion of their studio. Classes may come down the road as well.
“It’s a major studio shift to make that (a retail space) happen,” says Ryan. “...We get a request for classes at least once a week.”
But the couple is taking their time, growing their business one step at a time (while also restoring a house in Detroit). After Ann Arbor, they’ll be at the Belle Isle Art Fair in August.
The reality is they didn’t really set out to start a ceramics business. The Kickstarter campaign changed everything. The couple spent a year crafting their message, putting together a special video for their campaign and creating prototypes.
Ryan has been working in ceramics for almost 18 years, more than a decade of which was spent at a pottery shop in the picturesque Orcas Islands in Washington. Kaitlyn, meanwhile, who grew up in Northville and met Ryan through a friend while living in Oregon, has a graphic design background and even considered going into interior design. Going into ceramics with Ryan “was a way for us to meet in the middle.”
Their business started in Washington but soon they were outgrowing it. And they started to think about other cities, and specifically, Detroit.
“We are NPR junkies and there would always be stories about Detroit and about businesses starting,” says Kaitlyn. “It sounds cliche but it had grit and hustle. Sometimes in other cities you don’t feel the entrepreneur vibe is strong.”
Ryan agrees. Other cities seemed too saturated and overpriced: “There seemed to be a lot of opportunity.”
In Detroit, “we felt like we could move here and let things take their course and be who we wanted to be,” says Kaitlyn.
Corbé’s 3,000-square-foot studio, which the company moved into more than a year ago from the Russell Industrial Center, is roughly divided into two sections. One area is for slip-casting, which uses molds for various pieces. The other is for thrown pieces, all of which are on one of three wheels.
On a late spring weekday, two technicians are cleaning up slip-casted pieces, removing rough edges with sponges and water. Nearby Ryan throws one lump of clay after another on a potter’s wheel, meticulously crafting mugs out of each one.
All of Corbé’s pieces are made from porcelain, a finer material than traditional clay.
“It’s a little bit finer material so it’s a little bit harder to work with,” says Kaitlyn. “Ryan has been throwing for almost 18 years so he can also do it in his sleep. It’s nice for him to have a little bit of a challenge. He’s been in it for so long that he’s looking to push himself.”
To get just the right hue, Kaitlyn says they’re constantly testing stains and colorants. “It’s like a constant chemistry class in here,” she says.
And while their aesthetic is inspired by mid-century design, that’s just a starting point.
“We definitely look at mid-century ceramics and housewares to find inspiration and sort of adjust them to fit our aesthetic,” says Kaitlyn. “We don’t make anything that we wouldn’t want to see in our homes or spaces.”
Their next step is to expand with a line of dinnerware. They’re thinking about making molds for some of their pieces so they can better keep up with demand. Right now, Ryan does 90 percent of the studio’s throwing.
“We understand the value of design and what that means in people’s lives and how to make that within reach and affordable. That’s one of the ways we are trying to grow and do what we love but do it affordably,” says Kaitlyn.
On the west side of Michigan, another husband and wife are nurturing a growing ceramics business, at the center of which is a product that pays homage to our culture’s growing obsession with craft beer.
Shay and Maura Church are the owners of Grayling Ceramics, which isn’t based in Grayling but Kalamazoo. They make a wide range of handcrafted growlers for both craft beer and coffee.
“There are so many amazing craft breweries throughout Michigan taking beer to the next level,” said Shay Church, a Saginaw native, in an email. “We want to provide customers with thoughtful handcrafted vessels to put their favorite beer and coffee in. We started selling at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market and noticed right away that people responded to having handmade steins, cups and growlers on their shelves.”
Their growlers and steins come in a range of sizes – 64-ounce and 32-ounce growlers, along with 16-ounce steins and 24-ounce coffee mugs. They have a retail shop above their studio in downtown Kalamazoo, but their products also are available online and at retailers across the country.
“We want to make products that can last a lifetime,” said Shay Church.
Grayling Ceramics is at 213 E. Frank Street, Kalamazoo. Call (269) 290-8138. Go to graylingceramics.com.
Corbé: 611 W. Philadelphia Street, Detroit. (313) 638-2616 or corbecompany.com.
Grayling Ceramics: 213 E. Frank Street, Kalamazoo. (269) 290-8138 or graylingceramics.com.
Motawi Tileworks: 170 Enterprise Drive, Ann Arbor. (734) 213-0017 or motawi.com.
Pewabic Pottery: 10125 E. Jefferson Ave., Detroit. (313) 626-2000 or pewabic.org.
Sugar Hill Clay: 71 Garfield, Detroit. (313) 831-6100 or sugarhillclay.com.