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Third Generation Potter Sam Gordon's Off-Grid Studio, On The Edge Of A National Park

Studio Visit

It was a big decision for Sam Gordon to leave the family business he grew up in, after many years working alongside his three siblings at Robert Gordon – the renowned pottery business his father started more than 40 years ago. But the hardest choices often turn out to be the most formative.

Harnessing the knowledge and experience accumulated over years spent in the family biz, Sam has recently started his own small scale ceramics practice, from a studio on his Gembrook property. Here, Sam has forged ahead, honing his own style of hand-thrown functional ceramics, created in small batches. Back to basics!

10th February, 2022

Sam in his studio in Gembrook. Photo – Brook James.

A piece of clay, handthrown on the wheel into a restaurant-grade vessel, ready to be fired and glazed! Photo – Brook James.

The idyllic studio. Photo – Brook James.

After working in a commercial pottery for his whole life, Sam is defining his own style by working only on the wheel. Photo – Brook James.

‘Objects made on the wheel always have a different energy,’ says Sam Gordon. Photo – Brook James.

Surrounded by forest, the earthen nature of the clay is enhanced. Photo – Brook James.

The pieces are minimal and understated, perfect for Melbourne’s laid-back, relaxed restaurant industry. Photo – Brook James.

Sam describes his work as ‘functional art’ – that is to say, it’s constructed to be admired aesthetically, while withstanding the rigours of frequent use. Photo – Brook James.

A very happy ceramicist! Photo – Brook James.

Sasha Gattermayr
Thursday 10th February 2022

‘Objects made on the wheel always have a different energy.’ – Sam Gordon

After growing up in a commercial pottery business, Sam Gordon had an understanding of the machinery, technique and skill that goes into making brilliant quality earthenware.

But now, in a new location surrounded on the edge of the Bunyip State Forest and the raw beauty of the Yarra Ranges – a new elemental understanding informs his craft. Here, under his own name, Sam handcrafts ceramic tableware for restaurants.

Straight from the pottery wheel in his studio, located in the off-grid home he shares with his wife Carrie and their three children, Sam shares his journey to establishing his own practice.

Hey Sam! Let’s start with the obvious, you’re a member of the Robert Gordon family; why did you decide to go out on your own?

Leaving the Pottery after 20 plus years was an extremely difficult decision. For the last 10 years (pre-covid) I could be travelling anywhere from three or four months of the year, sourcing product or at trade shows. Covid hit and it really grounded me (literally and figuratively) to home, and a desire to be creative and be with my family.

In short, the drive to be a creative in my own right and spend time with my family really drove the decision to move on.

The story of my Dad and Mum starting Robert Gordon is very similar: Dad left his parents’ pottery (Dyson Studio) and started Robert Gordon Australia in 1979. My parents have been extremely supportive and encouraging during this time.

It can be hard to define yourself outside a family legacy when establishing your own practice in the same field. Have you settled on a way to describe your practice and style?

I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the Gordon legacy, we are an extremely creative family and it’s something to embrace.

In reference to my own style, I have been very fortunate to have travelled the world for many years and, whilst influenced by the master potters of Japan and the style of Scandinavian pottery, it is my home city of Melbourne that gives me my greatest inspiration.

The restaurant industry is something I have always enjoyed for lots of reasons and I believe there is no greater restaurant city in the world than Melbourne (maybe New York). When I think about Melbourne’s style it is understated, almost muted, however just bloody cool.

We have made a commitment to design, develop and make everything off the potter’s wheel. Objects made on the wheel always have a different energy, one of the best compliments I had recently was from a chef that said ‘every day I eat breakfast from the bowls you made and, honestly, I just want to hug them’.

Was your childhood basically a training ground for your future career?

As my Dad said when I decided to leave, ‘You’ve just served a 20 year apprentice, there’s no one more qualified’.

Growing up, every school holiday was spent slip casting or hand decorating on the glaze tables. Clay has had a constant existence my whole life, I don’t think I had any doubt that I would be part of this industry.

My time at the pottery is probably best broken up into two parts: the first ten years was spent on the factory floor either slip casting and RAM pressing, later running the production; the last ten years feels like a blur of sourcing product and international trade shows.

During these years, in my spare time I would have a pottery wheel at home or take lessons from my Uncle Barry Hayes, who is truely one of Australia’s great potters and his pit firing vessels are just incredible.

Your space borders a national park, which is pretty special! How does nature influence your practice?

The property Carrie and purchased nine years ago was a vacant 10-acre paddock that borders the Bunyip State Park, and merges into the Yarra Ranges National Park. We only finished building the house three years ago. The home itself is 100% off the grid. There are no mains electricity, water or gas connections. We harvest the rain water and have a solar and battery system which has just been incredible and makes us truely appreciate the environment, in particular the weather.

The house is elevated, so we have a clear line of sight to Mt Baw Baw and to the south Western Port Bay. My studio is a 50 metre commute from the house. We have kangaroos, wombats and koalas that are always a constant on the property.

Gembrook is a town that is very special to the Gordon family, and for the first time in 30 years there is again a pottery back in Gembrook. Both Robert Gordon and my grandparents pottery, Dyson Studio, operated out of Gembrook, so it feels like its meant to be.

How would you describe your studio space?

The current studio is pretty humbling considering my previous place of work. The space has everything a studio potter needs and is extremely functional. Burnished concrete floors make it easy to mop up at the end of day, cool vintage lighting, and a large custom work bench built around my wheel.

Everything is set in front of huge windows that take in the view. There is nothing better than having a client visit and sitting down at the wheel in front of the view and nutting out a range!

And the pieces themselves?

The pieces I make I would like to consider as functional art, they are to be used every day, however when held in the hands or placed on the shelf, the customer knows they are special.

With the clay body, I always like to expose a section with no glaze, so you truly feel the texture. The glaze I use is clear, and very occasionally I like to add a small stroke of a bright colour for a contrast.

What’s the process of actually making one of your pieces?

I think I’m a bit different than most potters as I don’t sketch out my pieces during the design process (basically I’m a terrible drawer) however I get the measurements, and on the wheel I find it easier to just make the piece.  100% of what we design or make for clients is off the potters wheel.

The clay and glaze selection is where it gets very interesting, as there are so many options to explore. One project I’m currently working on is for Montalto Restaurant in Red Hill, together with amazing chef Matt Wilkinson. We have burnt the cuttings off the olive trees and also the clippings off the vines. These are burnt down to ash which I’ll use to propose a glaze for the plates I’m  making for the restaurant.

This project will be a month in production, plus the consulting and planning prior.  Projects like this don’t come along often, Matt’s food is just world class and I’ll be proud to be a small part.

See more about Sam’s practice here.

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net