A little over a decade ago, Schoolhouse Founder and CEO Brian Faherty decided to bring one of his favorite vintage sconces back into production. Known as the Alabax, the fixture had originally been for sale in an old GE lighting catalog and had long since been out of production. But making it in today’s world required finding an expert in the field of ceramics that could produce at our volume and standards of quality. While many companies would have turned to factories overseas for this production, we found out that there was a shop right here in Portland that could meet our needs. It just so happened that they were some of the best at what they do anywhere.
At their Southeast Portland production facility, workers transform humble clay into elegant sculptures that will last a lifetime or longer. Their main processes, which include slipcasting and RAM production, allow for the creation of extremely precise and consistent shapes at a speed that would be almost impossible to reproduce by hand. Getting these processes just right, though, takes a degree of artistry and skill that you can only acquire if you have a true love for ceramics. It’s no wonder that many of their workers are ceramic artists themselves.
Mudshark Studios, founded in 2006 by Brett Binford and Chris Lyon, practices what has become a dying art in the United States: producing custom ceramics at high volumes that are made to exacting quality standards. The company specializes in working with clients to take a drawing, blueprint, or idea, and making it a real product they can offer consumers.
“We had worked with other ceramic studios in the past,” says Director of Operations Andrew Bohl, “but the Alabax was a complex piece and we had trouble finding someone to meet our demands of volume and quality. One of the best things about working with Brett and Chris is that they’re gung ho about figuring out technical challenges. They weren’t going to let any barriers slow them down.”
For the slipcasting process, a worker pumps liquid clay approximately the consistency of pancake batter into a plaster mold containing a hollow form of the final product being produced. The plaster absorbs water from the clay creating a membrane of dryer clay around the mold’s interior surface. Excess wet clay is then drained away and when the remaining clay within the form is “leather hard” (meaning hard enough to work with but pliable enough to trim) the piece goes off to be trimmed, dried, fired, glazed, and then fired again. The RAM process is much simpler. A worker places a lump of solid clay into a two part mold contained within a large press. When the machine is activated, the bottom of the press rises up and pushes the two halves of the mold together with the clay inside. After releasing the press, the worker takes the newly formed part off the top of the mold and trims the excess clay before sending it off to dry.
Brett and Chris perfected these processes when they were working at the Ceramic Design Group in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 2000 as they trained under master ceramicist Jonathan Kaplan. “Brett had studied ceramics at Alfred University, and he came to the Ceramic Design Group to expand his experience in mold making,” says Chris. “I had studied fine arts and business, and approached this new experience as a passionate hobbyist.”
While working with Kaplan in Steamboat Springs, Chris and Brett realized that they could use the unique skills they were learning to start their own business. They moved to Portland and it wasn’t long before Mudshark Studios was born.
This was something of a risky endeavor. Starting out in the basement of a Portland home, the duo originally did most of the production themselves. Just making simple deliveries presented its own challenges. “In the early days, Brett would actually just strap like ten Alabaxes to the back of his moped and would deliver them to our factory,” says Andrew. “It was quite a thing to see.” But their dedication eventually paid off. As the craft movement continued to gain traction, they quickly outgrew their humble beginnings and purchased a home to facilitate the increased demand. “In one year, the company tripled from eight to 24 employees and we found ourselves in need of a production facility to support our growing team and business,” says Chris.
Today, their studio continues to grow and diversify. In addition to their custom production studio, they now operate Portland Growler Company, which produces high quality ceramic beer growlers. They also operate the Eutectic Gallery, a fine art gallery that specializes in sculpture and ceramics. But at the core of everything they do is a true maker spirit, the same spirit that allowed them to find success in a business in which so much production had gone overseas. “We just want to support clients and grow the appreciation and value of ceramic work,” says Chris. “All of us here at Mudshark are designers or makers in our own right, so we get excited to challenge and expand our understanding of the medium.”