TRUE A DISTINCTLY AUSTRALIAN TAKE ON FRENCH PORCELAIN ENSURES A LOYAL INTERNATIONAL FOLLOWING FOR MUD CERAMICS. TO FORM
LOVED THE SYNERGY of selling my Limoges porcelain pieces back to the French at Le Bon Marché in Paris,” says Shelley Simpson, director and designer of Mud Australia, a brand whose organic-shaped table and cookware has roots in Sydney but a worldwide reach. With stores in Sydney, Melbourne, New York and London, and international stockists from Amsterdam to Chicago, Toronto to Zurich, Simpson’s “beautiful but functional” pieces can be found gracing the tables of Gwyneth Paltrow, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Philippe Starck and even our own Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Bill Granger and Donna Hay were early fans; Sydney chef Guillaume Brahimi uses custom-made versions in his Paddington restaurant. Simpson’s love of ceramics started 22 years ago, when a friend she was house-sharing with encouraged her to give a pottery kick wheel in the back shed a spin. “Being untrained and inexperienced meant I never worried about pushing anything too far,” she says of discovering a natural affinity for working with clay. Her big break came in 2000, when chef Neil Perry commissioned a series of black earthenware plates to go with a signature squid-ink pasta dish. “But I kept feeling uncomfortably anxious they weren’t going to last.” Swapping her base material a year later to Limoges porcelain imported directly from France not only gave her the hard-wearing quality she longed for but marked the beginning of the distinctive finish Simpson can call her own — a lustrous interior (like the inside of a seashell) and a slightly chalky textured outside that becomes smoother with use. To her plates, bowls and beakers, she has now added teapots, cups and vases, cookware ( pie dishes, baking pans and mixing bowls) and pendant lights. Most pieces come in a range of 18 colours and varying sizes. All produced at Mud Australia’s headquarters — a lightfilled, high-ceilinged factory in Sydney’s Marrickville, which Simpson runs with her husband, sales and marketing director James Kirton — each piece is unique thanks to her technique of slip casting the vessel’s shape and then working the inside on a banding wheel to give it a hand-finished feel. The clay is tinted with colour before it is fired to give it an extra depth of colour (if it chips, you’ll never see white). “Every piece is touched by so many sets of hands,” she says of the process, where, once dried, it is bisque-fired, sanded, hand-glazed, fired again and then artfully wrapped “to ensure they arrive safely wherever they’re going around the world”. Smart cobalt shelving that lines the factory floor heaves under the weight of tall cylindrical vases in blue, slate, steel and plum; there are stacks of cheese platters in wasabi green and the large ‘Pebble’ bowls that Simpson herself always uses to bake the family’s Sunday roast chicken. It never occurred to her that people didn’t know they could bake with her dishes. »
« “I was in one of the stores and I was surprised when a customer remarked on how fragile the pieces were.” Being on the shop floor gives Simpson the chance to develop a dialogue with customers, when she can explain and expand on the range. “We like to look after people the way we want to be looked after.” The harmonious colour palette allows customers to have fun with mixing and matching, whether it’s according to a favourite colour or room scheme. Some of the best shades have come from the biggest mistakes, admits Simpson. “Our steel blue was meant to be black! It’s all trial and error,” she says. “I’ve had to make a lot of mistakes to learn, but no one’s ever told me not to do it the way I do.” A really rich saturation ratio of almost 20 per cent pigment to clay was used to achieve just the right shade of red. “Finding a true, crisp red was really important to the range.” Not one to rest on her laurels, alongside the recent opening of a London store, Simpson is currently working on a custom-coloured range for Paltrow’s ‘ lifestyle brand’ Goop and a collection for ABC Carpet & Home in the US. “It will be totally matt,” she says. “I like to shake things up a bit.”
“I’ve had to make a lot of mistakes to learn, but no one’s ever told me not to do it the way I do”
A selection of Mud Australia ceramics, including water jugs, carafes and ‘Nest’ bowls.
clockwise from top right: stacks of ‘Pebble’ bowl moulds. Simpson prepares moulds for pouring. The Marrickville studio shelves are stacked with bisque ready for glazing.