Mud Australia is as iconic of a brand as you can get when it comes to table and kitchenware. Known for its unique combination of a matte exterior and glazed interior, it also offers dishes in a range of colors including bright tones such as yellow and ink blue. Both the simplicity and myriad of colors of Mud Australia’s tableware channel the country’s image of laidback optimism. When you buy a piece, it’s as though you are bringing a little bit of that into your kitchen. As big fans of the brand, we were thrilled to speak with the company’s founder and director Shelley Simpson to find out more about her trajectory building the brand and what makes each Mud Australia piece so versatile.
Tell us a little bit about the early days of Mud Australia – what did your pieces look like and how were you set up?
I first picked up clay in 1994, after moving into a share house which had a tiny pottery shed in the garden. I was encouraged by my flatmate to try it on a warm day in spring and discovered a connection with clay that completely changed my life. Within a year I started my own business selling products at local markets on Bondi beach. At this time, everything we made was hand thrown and decorated. It was incredibly labor intensive, but it gave me a platform to have direct contact with my buyers and to fully understand their wants and needs. I used to make all of the products in one location, which meant driving (fragile) greenware to a hire kiln, firing it, and then picking it up at the end of the week.
How did you turn your small niche business into a global brand? Was there a specific decision that made a big impact?
I think it took 20 years (a very quick 20 years) to become a global brand. The Australian market is comprised of about only 20 million people, so I knew I needed to increase the size of my consumer base and venture outside of Australia. This realization led me to take a trip with my daughter and partner James to the US, where a fellow expat living in Chicago helped me connect with wholesale accounts. It was a big turning point for the brand when James formally joined the business a year later in 2001. His involvement gave me the space to be more entrepreneurial and grow.
How did you come up with the iconic style that Mud Australia is now known for? Specifically the matte exterior, the glazed interior, and the colored porcelain.
Before working with porcelain, I worked in earthenware with a beautiful satin matte glaze (inside and out), which people loved. When I started working with porcelain, there were no commercial glazes that allowed a matte finish, so I started experimenting with leaving pieces unglazed. I then added the glaze to the interior of the piece for a purely aesthetic and tactile reason.
As for the colored porcelain, I wanted to replicate the color pallet from the earthenware range while avoiding the labor-intensive process of applying multiple levels of glaze. It was so exciting to add pigment to the body of the clay and experiment with color intensity.
Why Limoges porcelain? What is special about it?
Limoges has a reputation for being the highest quality porcelain, and we wanted to make the highest quality products. All these years later, I still don’t think there is a better clay body out there to use.
What makes your pieces durable and usable?
Durability is really a direct result from the type of clay (Limoges) and the firing temperature. The durability doesn’t come from the thickness of a piece— it comes from the amount of air in the clay. As Mud products are vitrified porcelain when they are fired to 2240 degrees Fahrenheit, there is no air left in the clay.
Initially, we took pieces home and tested them with our family. They’re designed for everyday use and are oven, microwave, and dishwasher safe. We love holding our annual #BakedinMud social media competition because it encourages people to get their beloved Mud pieces out and cook with them.
Is there something that you should avoid with your Mud Australia pieces?
Extremes of temperature can cause thermal shock, so avoid putting very hot dishes in very cold water. However, we use our products every day with children, plants and dogs – the material is incredibly practical and beautiful to work and live with.
Mud Australia has always been ahead of the curve – you were creating handmade dishware before it was popular to do so – how have you stayed up on top?
I think we’ve been too busy producing our own products to pay too much attention to trends. We have great relationships with food stylists and value their feedback and ideas. The art of listening is a powerful tool. It’s always interesting to see how we inspire other brands.
You have stores all over Australia, in London, and in New York and LA – do you have plans to open up shop anywhere else or add to the Mud Australia retail experience?
We had a big year last year, and as we fund our own growth we’d like to let the dust the settle with our 4 new stores (Los Angeles, Brooklyn, ABC Carpet & Home in Manhattan, and Sydney). We’d love to look into the possibility of new stores in Melbourne and San Francisco in 2020.
What are some of the most innovative plating or entertaining examples using Mud products that you’ve seen?
I’m always surprised by the combination of colors and shapes in our customer’s orders. Part of the Mud experience is that you can play and curate your own dinner setting by choosing from different profiles and colors. For example, we had a customer in the Middle East who ordered our platters as individual plates, which works well with that cuisine. I love layering Mud with highly decorated classic tableware – you can do anything with our pieces, it’s meant to be fun!
Which item would be your top choice as a gift to give a family member or friend?
At the moment, the water jug: it’s incredibly versatile and I love using it at home.