When I wrote about Bitossi ceramics recently, Emily from Emilia Ceramics commented that she has visited Aldo Londi’s hometown of Montelupo, and that she imports ceramics from Motelupo for her shop. So of course I had to look up her shop, and not only is it filled with beautiful handmade ceramics from Spain, Italy, France and Mexico, but she has a wonderful and inspiring story of how she’s followed her passions and started her own business. I asked Emily if she would answer a few questions for me about her business, and she was gracious enough to oblige.
What kind of work were you doing before you started Emilia Ceramics? Was there a particular moment when you decided to take the plunge and start your own business?
After college, I lived in Seville, Spain for a year. There is a ton of ceramics in Spain of course, but it was actually on a weekend trip in Portugal that I got the idea of importing ceramics. I met a great Portuguese potter, who invited me to experiment on his potter's wheel (I have taken ceramics classes at various times of my life). The experience made me realize how exciting and fulfilling it is to connect with people from other countries through their artwork. I learned that for most family-run pottery workshops, it's not just about the ceramics itself, it's also about their heritage, family traditions, and culture.
That's where the idea originated, but it was five years later while working in advertising in San Francisco that I decided to take the plunge. I had been back to Spain and Italy to visit and felt increasingly drawn to the laid-back way of life. I really resonated with the way Europeans seem to put people first -- spending hours over meals, enjoying each others' company and the simple elements of life: good food, wine, friends. In my mind, handmade ceramics is closely linked to these values, in that the technique of crafting and painting has been passed down through generations and the intention is that the pieces be used among friends and family. While the ceramic artwork I import makes great decoration, the truth is it is meant to be used... it's functional art. I want it to feel approachable, like the friendly and welcoming cultures from which it comes.
So finally, to answer your question...when I realized that I wanted my own business someday, it suddenly occurred to me that there was no reason to wait. While it seemed a little crazy, I decided it was best to jump into it when I felt the most excitement and the most passion for the endeavor. I knew the only thing I'd regret was not taking the chance.
How often do you travel looking for new artists or checking in on your favorites? Do you have other ways of finding new artists or do you mostly find them through your travels?
I did a lot of research before going on my first buying trip. I searched online, contacted international trade offices, and asked for suggestions from well-travelled friends and relatives here and abroad. It's easy to find the big manufacturers, but I wanted to work with local, independent artists... those that haven't done much or any exporting and are passionate about doing work that is truly original. These artists are a lot more difficult to find, and given their size, they are much more challenging to work with too. But is is all worth it when I'm able to share their beautiful artwork with friends and family here. I love the connections I've made with each artist -- it makes promoting and selling their work easy because I know that I am forwarding the careers of these talented and friendly people, as well as the cultural traditions of handmade ceramics and a slower-paced lifestyle.
By far my best leads have come through my uncle, who is a ceramic artist in Los Angeles and has worked in Italy a lot, and friends who have spent a lot of time in Mexico. Then there are a few that I've just come across unexpectedly on my travels -- those have been the most thrilling moments of my job: discovering an amazing artist at a market in Marseille or when lost in a tiny town outside of Valencia.
At the moment I'm too consumed with the business part of the business to travel as much as I'd like. It all began out of my love of traveling and connecting with the artists in person and I hope that someday that's what I spend most of my time on. But right now, my focus has shifted to learning about websites, photography, online marketing, and accounting.
On your website you mention that you run your business out of your house. I'm curious about how that works - where do you keep all of your inventory?
It's a bit crazy right now. I try to stay organized, but I am fighting an uphill battle. When I get a new shipment, I have to do inventory to be sure everything arrived in one piece and then I have to photograph it all for the website. At that stage my apartment is usually covered in pottery... every shelf, table, and much of the floor space is littered with it. I have boxes stored in a few places, but I keep a lot of pieces displayed in my home for people to see in person. Plus, that way I get to look at it everyday!
So far, what has been the biggest challenge/surprise of running your own business?
The biggest challenge is juggling so many moving parts at the same time. Every day I have to decide where to focus my attention and I know it is all important -- from communicating with my artists, organizing my inventory, updating the website, and gift-wrapping presents, all the way to creating marketing collateral, cold-calling vendors, and updating my accounting. I have learned about 50 new jobs in the last year, but I've yet to master any of them and I feel like there are 50 more that need learning as well. It's easy to feel overwhelmed, but then I remind myself that I'm getting to do exactly what I want to be doing. I wake up in the morning excited about all that I want to and have to get done that day. And I make my own schedule, with no bosses to answer to but myself.
What's next for Emilia Ceramics?
At the moment I'm really excited about expanding my gift registry. A handful of friends have registered for wedding gifts with me and it's been a huge success. Our pieces make a great compliment to the more traditional registry items you find at larger stores. More than anything, people love buying a gift that's unique and personal -- that the bride and groom will remember and cherish forever. I am really excited about the potential for Emilia Ceramics Registry.
Thank you so much Emily for sharing your experience and best of luck to you with Emilia Ceramics!
All of the ceramics pictured in this post (and many more) are available in the Emilia Ceramics shop.