MacKenzie-Childs Ceramics: Handcrafted Individuality
A time-honored craft—producing ceramicware—thrives in the 21st century on a small farm in rural, central New York. From plates to planters, teapots to tureens, MacKenzie-Childs handmade majolica ceramics are alive with individuality. Each piece begins with the most natural and individual of materials: clay. Molded by hand, machine-pressed, or slip cast, the formed clay is fired up to three times, hand-glazed, and decorated. The process is time consuming and takes the special skill of artisans trained in age-old crafts. Since 1983, MacKenzie-Childs has made handcrafted ceramicware, each piece a one-of-a-kind collectible. The company also designs and hand-decorates furniture, glassware, and other home furnishings. An insider’s view of the production process at MacKenzie-Childs is now captured on a video, shown daily at the company’s Visitor Center in Aurora, New York. The following describes much of that process: how common clay is transformed into signature MacKenzie-Childs majolica ceramics.
Green Ware in the Making
In the Mold Shop, artisans fabricate the plaster production molds for every piece of ceramics we create. Hand press molds are used for forming pieces by hand, such as large platters and bowls. Once formed, pieces are set out to dry, a process that takes from three days to three weeks depending on the humidity and air temperature. Hydraulic press molds are made up of two pieces that are pressed together to form clay into dinnerware, knobs, and tiles. Slip cast molds permit the use of liquid clay—called slip—to create hollow pieces such as teapots, mugs, and garden balls. The slip is poured through hoses from large vats into the molds. Moisture is absorbed by the plaster mold, drying the piece from the outside in. The longer the slip is left in the mold, the thicker the walls of the piece will become. Excess slip is poured out when the desired wall thickness is reached; after pieces dry overnight, they are removed from the molds and hand-trimmed. Artisans next add decorative and functional clay pieces—such as handles, fishtails, and rabbit ears—before the clay is fired. The hand trimmer is the first artisan of up to six to stamp the base of a piece with identifying initials. The pottery, formed, drying, and fragile before it is fired in the kiln, is called green ware.
The green ware is carefully stacked onto carts and rolled into the kiln, where it will stay for 24 hours in temperatures reaching 1810 degrees. This kiln firing hardens the green ware into bisque. Most pieces will be back at the kiln for at least one more firing, and some pieces multiple times, after paints and lustres are added.
Wax and Glaze
MacKenzie-Childs pottery has a distinctive unglazed terracotta base or foot. To keep this area unglazed during the decorating process, the bottom on the bisque piece is dipped into a vat of hot paraffin, to coat the desired area. Before dipping, the wax and glaze artisan’s stamp is applied to the base of the piece. Next, the entire piece is submerged in the glaze dip—a mixture of frit (ground glass) and other materials—and then set on a rack, ready for further decorating.
The Decorating Studio
Atop the glaze dip, stains are used for freehand decoration, and it is here that variations in the density and depth of color and in pattern interpretation are introduced. This individuality—evidence of the artisan's hand—is valued by collectors. No two pieces are identical: set a table with MacKenzie-Childs plates and their differences are sure to surprise and delight guests.
Back to the Kiln
In the heat of the second kiln firing, the glass frit in the glaze melts to form an impervious, glossy surface. You may see, on closer inspection, pinholes and other variations in the glaze. These tiny dimples form when natural matter found in the clay explodes through the decorated surface of the product during the kiln firing. It is a personality trait of majolica ceramics. For some pieces, such as Taylor dinnerware, this may be the final firing. For others, there is more to come. The glazed surface can be further decorated, painted, and have decals and lustre applied—a process that changes with each pattern and design. Courtly Check, Cheltenham, and other faux marbled designs are created with china paints, applied on top of the fired, glazed surface. These pieces will be kiln fired again. Decals, made from the same ceramic stains that MacKenzie-Childs decorators use, may also be applied to the glazed surface. During the next firing process, the ceramic stain in the decal bond with the glaze underneath. Platinum, copper, and gold lustres may also be added. These semi-precious metals, suspended in pine oil and camphor, are applied to pieces by hand before the final firing.
The process is time-honored and time consuming; the resulting products, with layer upon layer of artistry, hand-applied to every inch of surface, are uniquely MacKenzie-Childs.
MacKenzie-Childs is a fully integrated designer, manufacturer, and multi-channel merchant of high quality, hand-crafted ceramic and enamel tableware, furniture, and home and garden accessories. The brand is best known for distinctive designs which combine vibrant colors and pattern-on-pattern surface decoration to create a fresh, original aesthetic best described as “tradition with a twist.”
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