The Memphis Maker Behind Ceramics Studio Paper and Clay
Photo © Justin Fox Burkes
It’s no secret that ceramics are having a major moment, with numerous talents popping up from shore to shore. Down South, Memphis-based Brit McDaniel has risen to the top of the heap with her studio Paper and Clay. Not only is she a fireball talent who’s able to combine an old-world charm and quality with forward-thinking design, she’s also proven to be business savvy, starting Paper and Clay through crowd-funding platform Kickstarter in 2013 and getting it off and running in just two months.
In the past year and a half, she’s gone from selling to local craft markets to being picked up by international retailers. We caught up with her in the midst of moving into a new studio to ask about her journey, craft, and the city she calls home.
Photo by Annabella Charles Photography
What did you originally think that you'd be when you grew up?
I think as a kid I fantasized more about where and who I’d be than what, exactly. I remember wanting to be a veterinarian for a time (I was also obsessed with horses for a few years like most young girls), but I don’t think I ever had a clear idea of what I might be as an adult. Heck, I didn’t figure it out until I was nearly 30!
I loved to read, especially stories with a strong female protagonist—I was very fond of the Little House on the Prairie series as well as the American Girl books following Felicity (the one who liked horses). I was always very curious and quite bold at times. That’s come in handy as an adult.
Tell me about your Kickstarter campaign. How instrumental was that process for you?
I decided to run a Kickstarter campaign because I needed to quickly fund the start of my studio (a kiln, a wheel, basic supplies), and I was afraid to take on any more debt. Student loans were already a major source of stress and still are. I had seen a few people have success with the platform, so I did my research and launched my project. It was a big undertaking, but I honestly don’t know how I would have gotten started without it. It was exactly what I needed. I highly recommend the crowd-funding route to other creatives. I will say that it was far more difficult than I expected—definitely worth it, but hard, hard work.
Photo by Annabella Charles Photography
What has informed your work?
My style and aesthetic have been very influenced by Scandinavian design, and to some extent by minimalism. I’m very interested in finding a balance in my work (and life!)—form and function, color and texture, accessibility and rarity. Answering this question in full would take hours— many people, places, experiences have shaped my work. I think the most important thing to me has become an effort to always be conscious, always be present and open, and to allow new experiences and knowledge to shape and improve my work.
Tell us about how you've been able to bring your work to a bigger market. Your products are sold through Anthropologie now. That’s pretty incredible.
I remember the first time I felt a glimmer of hope that I could make a career for myself as a ceramic artist. I had seen an Anthropologie catalogue spread (2011, maybe?) featuring a young woman—I believe it might have been Molly Hatch—who made and designed modern ceramic wares. I thought, “This is what I want.” Before that, I don’t think I really knew what I wanted because I couldn’t see past the traditional path I’d been taught in undergrad. I knew that I loved ceramics, but I hadn’t found the right outlet until then.
Flash-forward a few years, I was really lucky and incredibly excited that Anthropologie reached out to me through Etsy. 2014 was a very experimental year, my first full calendar year in business, so I’ve been learning a lot along the way. My main focus has been on quality of my work and engaging the creative community through social media. Most of the wonderful things that have happened this year grew very organically, and I think that has been a really great experience. I’m always trying to improve my work and my brand, and I’ve found that my energy is better spent focusing on self-improvement rather than promotion. I don’t really have a specific strategy; though that’s something I want to think about for the coming year.
Photo by Annabella Charles Photography
What's your dream project or collaboration?
There are so many amazing brands out there that I’d love to partner with. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Son of a Sailor (Austin, TX) and I have a new collaboration coming in March with Lucy & Co., a curated online dog shop. I’d love to work on a licensed project where I have the freedom to design without the constraints of my very small studio. I’m still pretty much a one woman show, and that can have a lot of limitations. I’m working to grow, but want to do so slowly and sustainably.
Who are some designers, makers, or independent businesses that you find inspiring and why?
I have some serious love for so many of my fellow makers. Here’s a tiny list of current favorites:
Herbivore Botanicals (Seattle, WA) The first thing that caught my eye was the impeccable branding, but the quality of their products is seriously amazing.
Sapling Press (Pittsburgh, PA) Gorgeous letterpress greeting cards that always make me laugh.
Board & Bread (Nashville, TN) Emily Brock is a third generation woodworker, and her pieces are absolutely stunning. My collection is steadily growing.
Molly Hatch (Florence, MA) Molly is a ceramic artist who has managed to burst through the barrier between fine art and craft. She’s true to her work while remaining flexible to her surroundings. (I really recommend listening to her interview in the Red Clay Rambler podcast.)
What makes Memphis the best place for you?
Memphis is an incredible place to live. It’s full of character, diversity and a grittiness that is uniquely Memphis. It’s really the best of both worlds: big enough to enjoy the city and all it has to offer, but affordable enough to live a comfortable life with a modest income. I’ve lived in a lot of different places (most notably, I lived in Austin for about five years). While bustling cities like Austin, Portland, Nashville are really attractive to creative entrepreneurs, the cost of living in those well-established areas make it difficult to nurture a creative career (especially since most of us have to start small). I love living in Memphis and being a part of our growing maker community.
So Memphis is home of the King. How's Graceland?
I sadly wouldn’t know! The honest answer, weirdly, is that a lot of locals haven’t ventured to Graceland proper. I know! I need to go!
What district is a must for people who are visiting?
Oh, that’s a tough one because I have so many favorite areas in the city. The Broad Avenue Arts district is probably the hot spot right now—there are some really exciting things happening in this revival zone including the curated handmade shop City & State (opening soon), a fabulous local bike shop called Victory Bikes, and my very favorite Memphis restaurant Bounty on Broad (get the scallops!). The area has also long been home to a handful of small galleries, the kitchen of the yummy Muddy’s Bake Shop (open during Broad Ave events), and Wiseacre Brewery & Taproom. So much to do!
Photo of Remed's Broad Ave. mural by Memphis CVB
Tell us about some new local upstarts that have impressed you.
I’m really exciting to see the local brand Question The Answer growing rapidly. Lauren Carlson is a jewelry designer and maker who creates gorgeous gold and silver pieces that toe the line between edgy and delicate. I want everything she makes!