Shelley Simpson is the founder and creative director of Mud Australia – one of Australia’s longest standing and most successful craft-based businesses. Founded in 1994, Mud gathered momentum in the early 2000’s, building a cult following both at home and internationally. Today, more than 20 years on, they still make every plate, bowl and vase by hand in their Sydney factory.
On the eve of opening their newest store in Los Angeles, we speak to Shelley about the rise of her iconic Australian brand.
There’s a LOT to love about Mud Australia. Founded in 1994 by Sydney ceramicist Shelley Simpson, this is a truly iconic Australian design brand. Today, more than 20 years on, Mud has grown to a team of over 60 people, six retail stores (include international outposts in New York, London and soon LA) and remarkably, they still make every single product by hand in their Sydney factory.
Mud’s unique offering, of course, is a sleek, lightweight yet surprisingly robust range of handmade porcelain tableware and vessels, in an eye-popping array of colours. These supremely photogenic pieces gathered momentum in the early 2000’s as they became a favourite amongst editorial food stylists. At around the same time, Donna Hay magazine launched, propelling a uniquely ‘Australian’ style of food photography. Mud was a big part of that. It felt as thought Mud was in every beautiful food photoshoot for at least a decade!
Made from Limoges porcelain, sourced directly from France, each Mud vessel is tinted through the porcelain itself, resulting in a super-matte exterior finish. The range evolves ever-so-slightly each season, with the addition of new shapes and colours.
It seems long overdue, but today we finally chat to Shelley Simpson, Mud’s incredible founder and creative director, in the company’s Marrickville headquarters.
Tell us a little about your background, and how it has influenced what you create today?
I grew up in Melbourne living near a pine forest, so I was always outdoors building cubby houses and adventuring. I also loved music and singing. After school I worked in a variety of creative jobs when I discovered my passion for pottery. My flat mate at the time had a kick wheel and I taught myself how to throw a pot, finding I had an instinctive feel for it. Making a pot is a lot like mediation, you have to be centered and give the process your total concentration.
I moved home and found a garage which we developed as a studio. To pay the rent I worked as a nanny and in hospitality. I developed my first range and starting selling the pieces at markets and direct to restaurants. There was a real gap in the market for something handmade, simple and timeless.
How would you describe your creative practice, and what influences the style of the pieces you produce at Mud Australia?
The range really developed from personal needs; the first products were those I wanted to use myself. For this reason, all of the pieces are very practical and usable (oven and dishwasher safe and designed for everyday use). The baking range was developed because of my own love of baking, and I designed the hat light when we were renovating a 1920s Arts & Crafts style apartment.
The mud australia products are designed to be outside seasonal fashion trends and to last – through the quality of materials, skilled production and design aesthetic. We rarely discontinue products or colours as we want to be able to continually service customers who have committed to their own mud australia collection. We love the that fact that people come back year after year, as their family grows or their house changes!
Can you give us a little insight into your creative process?
New product ideas are always forming, but they take a long time to come to fruition.
With 80 products and 19 colours already in the range, we don’t rush into making new products; an idea needs be really special or fulfill a special function we don’t currently have.
Concepts will start with a conversation – what do we need and how will we use it? Then a hand sketch is made with a lot of consideration about proportions and usability. We’ve got a long-standing relationship with our local mould maker and we work closely together to prototype, review and refine the design.
The collection has a common thread in terms of design aesthetic so new designs echo products that already exist, which makes them feel instantly familiar.
Mud was founded in 1994, how much has the business changed over the decades?
The current design language and look of mud australia really started about 2000 when my old business partner left and I started working in porcelain. The early years were a very different aesthetic; we were using earthenware and more decorative painted finishes.
Working closely with feedback from local chefs like Donna Hay and Neil Perry in the early years I refined the designs – creating tableware which really showcased food and allowed it to become the hero.
A major change to the business occurred when my partner James Kirton came on board as business manager. It’s proved to be a positive and complementary partnership – James manages the brand, sales and marketing so I can concentrate on the creative and retail direction.
Another big change was our move from wholesale into our own retail stores – we started with a small destination store in Woollahra (Sydney) back in 2007. Today we’re on the cusp of opening our sixth store, in Los Angeles (June 2017) with our existing stores in Double Bay, Mosman, Fitzroy, London and New York. Launching our own stores opened up new creative avenues with opportunities for display and visual merchandising. I love spending time in the stores and gaining that first-hand feedback from customers.
I realise I started this business, but it’s now so much more than mine.
We are part of a large team, a family of people who are all working together to make the best ceramics we can. Our team is constantly growing with 60 plus team members and most of them based in our Marrickville studio.
Mud’s range is entirely hand-made in Sydney. How have you managed to stay competitive and in-demand in the face of globalisation and increasingly industrialised manufacture?
We are passionate about Australian manufacturing, it’s the foundation of our business. People are drawn to our product because it’s got a real honesty to it which you can’t replicate with machines and you can’t manage from afar. By keeping production under one roof we’ve been able to stay consistent to our process and the visual identity of the product.
Last year we started an initiative called ‘Mud Club’ which launched as part of London Design Festival. We wanted to celebrate the creative practices of our team members and share their identities with a wider mud audience. This exhibition toured the mud stores globally and many of the works sold out. Our customers loved seeing the faces, reading the bios and seeing the work of the personalities behind the brand.
Which other Australian designers, artists or other creative people are you loving at the moment?
Design Office – The multi-disciplinary design practice of Mark Simpson and Damien Mulvihill. We work closely together to implement our brand into unique retail spaces; they’ve demonstrated great insight and integrity into the key elements of our brand. More recently they designed our home which is a such a joy to be in.
Angus Gardner – The ceramist is one of our talented team members. At mud he works in the area of large specialty pouring but he’s also a ceramist in his own right and definitely one to keep an eye on. He recently had a sellout show and we’re proud to have his work in our home.
Petrina Tinslay – Such a pleasure to work with, she’s photographed our store in London and I can’t wait to team up with her again.
What are some resources that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
I’m pretty old-school when it comes to inspiration. I’m basically just taking it in wherever I may be. I love a well-curated art exhibition and have been fortunate enough to see some great ones recently. I also get inspired being immersed in different cultures: The colours in Morocco, or small vessels used in different Japanese dishes. While I’m travelling I always visit local galleries for at least a day – it transports you to a different time or place. And just hitting the pavement and walking around a neighborhood looking at the different architecture and landscapes can be one of the most inspiring things!
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
Opening our first international store in New York in 2012 was such highlight. We were able to extend the full mud australia vision to another continent and have a little bit of Australia in SOHO! Looking back, the real pride comes from the continued success of the store over the past five years, not just the launch.
What would be your dream creative project?
I’m living it! I get to work with a great team and we’re achieving great things.
The Mud range evolves seasonally with the addition of new shapes and colours. What can we expect for winter?
Our range is more a stable of classic designs, it’s not seasonal or trend focused. But we do have a fabulous new piece: the pebble bowl extra large (51cm diameter) it’s really the ultimate mud table piece, and is available in all 19 colours.
What’s next for Shelley Simpson and Mud?
We’ve expanded our premises, which will allow us to keep on making in Marrickville for at least the next five years, and we’re just about to open our sixth store this June, in Los Angeles. We’ve got a great following in LA as the Californian lifestyle is so similar to Sydney – fresh colours, alfresco dining, and similar obsessions with healthy food. I’ll be heading over for a month to work with the team on fit-out and operations. Come visit if you’re in town – 8216 West 3rd, Los Angeles.
Your favourite Sydney neighbourhood?
Marrickville hands down. It’s such a thriving suburb with its positive mix of cultures and creative, community-minded people. Our favourites are Two Chaps for coffee, cake or dinner, the Marrickville Markets on a Sunday for fresh produce, Feather & Bone for ethical and sustainable meats, the cultural feast of the Portuguese tennis club (a mud team favorite), or watching the sunset with our dogs in Henson Park.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Sydney?
Rising Sun Workshop in Newtown – their summer menu was delicious, mmm grilled peaches with tofu and cocktails.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
We’ve just finished rebuilding our house so we’re really enjoying spending weekends at home; pottering in the garden, cooking for friends, walking the girls (Cavoodles Nicky & Paris) in Camperdown Memorial Park or popping into Pentimento for a new book.
Sydney’s best kept secret?
We live near Enmore Road and I know it’s not a secret but wow, there’s literally a new fantastic place opening every other week at the moment. Cairo Takeaway has just opened and it’s fabulous. So many places definitely worth a visit but try and time it for a night that doesn’t have a gig at The Enmore Theatre.