Interview has been edited for clarity and space.
How long have you been making ceramics?
My first class was a little over three years ago. I was going to school for graphic design, and I had a hard time not doing the fun classes first. I did calligraphy, photography, charcoal, painting, drawing. I took a hand-building class first. It was fun to learn how to attach things to clay and not have them pop off in the kiln. I did a wheel throwing class, and three classes after that, because I decided that I loved it. I decided I was going to get good at it and keep coming. Then I was like, “I need to buy a wheel.” I had a whole studio set up. I took over our entire apartment and then I was like, all right, I have a business. I get really into things once I decide I like it.
You’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit.
Mmhmm, when I was a kid, I would sell suckers. I’d buy the bag for like $2.99, and sell each sucker for fifty cents. I was making big money. I had a slogan too. “Mary’s store, the place you want to shop.” I think I might put that into my current store: “Mary’s ceramics, the place you want to shop.”
Were cups always your thing?
It started with planters. At the first Portland Night Market, I noticed my cups were flying and the planters were selling at a normal rate. When I ran out of cups, I realized that cups are what people wanted. I started taking the body style of the planters and adding handles, merging my two styles into one. Good Coffee asked for cups, then Kainos Coffee [both in Portland, Oregon] asked for cups, and then suddenly, people were like, “Mary Carroll, she makes cups for cafés.”
How long does it take to do each mug, from lump of clay to first fire?
I listen to music when I throw, usually Beyoncé or Harry Belafonte. From when I start the lump on the wheel to when it has become a cup, it has to be done before the song is over. I do about one cup per song.
What are you inspired by?
I went to Painted Hills in John Day, Oregon, last summer, and I was like, “Oh man, I really want to make cups that look like this.” I also try to add color as much as possible because of my childhood love of Lisa Frank. My dream mug would be a cross between Saved by the Bell and Lisa Frank. I’m also inspired by those retro camp mugs that we all used to drink out of—the splatter and speckle that’s on a lot of the cups is inspired by those.
How much control do you give cafés over design?
I give them the clay options, and they’ll give me some inspiration as far as colors. I meet with them and we decide what they’re into within my aesthetic. We come to an agreement of something we both feel really good about. There have been times where I’ve said no. I don’t want to do hundreds of cups in a style I don’t really like.
What should café owners know before buying from local artisans?
Know that although everything is going to be meticulously made, there are going to be natural flaws and areas where it looks handmade. Nothing is going to be 100 percent perfect, because I don’t want it to be. If you’re a local company that wants to order handmade stuff, embrace when it looks handmade.
Do you have advice for a local artisan in a different market who might want to do what you’re doing?
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. My friends will ask me how I got my stuff into shops, and I think you just have to not be afraid. There are still times where I think to myself, “My stuff’s not even that good, why do people want to buy it?” I think my stuff is good, but there’s always this doubt—you always wonder if it could be better. There’s a level of quality that you have to get to before you sell, but once you’re consistent, be willing to take a chance. Also, never burn a bridge. Most of the places I’m in, it’s because I have a connection with that person. I like to keep really good, healthy relationships.
—Rachel Sandstrom Morrison is Fresh Cup‘s associate editor.