The man who makes pottery cool

The word ‘pottery’ often conjures up the notion of a dilapidated, earth-coloured misshapen piece of crockery, gifted to your mum from her potting-mad friend (probably in the 1970s), and now stowed at the very back recesses of the garden shed. Well, it’s back en vogue… as long as it’s done right.

One of the companies doing it right is Robert Gordon Australia. Three generations on and they’ve proven they can move with the times. They offer a spectacularly diverse range of products, from delicate and demure teacup and saucer sets, to the more avant-garde and modern minimalist. Cafes and restaurants are going wild for their food-defining collections.

Khoollect spoke with third generation potter, Sam Gordon, about his affinity with ceramics.:

A Day in the Life of Sam Gordon

It seems pottery runs in your blood – have you always been interested in it?

My family has been producing pottery for three generations, so yes, it is a passion that runs in the blood. I work with my three other siblings, and we’ve all been running amuck with pottery since the day we could crawl. As kids, every weekend or school holidays was spent working in the family business to earn pocket money. The early years gave us all a great grounding in the basics of pottery.

What aspect of the family business are you most involved in?

There has been a huge amount of growth at Robert Gordon over the last two to three years. My main focus is trying to keep this growth steady and maintain the brand and quality we’re known for, and aside from that my day-to-day focus is on sales and marketing.

Meet Sam Gordon

What’s your most popular range of pottery?

We treat our industry much like a fashion house, so we’re always on the move with trends. However, it’s really nice to see our reactive glaze range, called ‘Saltbush’, top sales for five years running. Saltbush is based on very natural tones. It varies in colour as its base is raw iron, so when fired at a high temperature it reacts in a very organic way. Every piece is individual and a strong sense of craftsmanship is visible in each piece.

What do you love most about your job?

Working with retailers is always good fun and you gain great pleasure in visiting friends and seeing Robert Gordon in their kitchens and homes. Personally, I really love working with restaurant owners and chefs to customise crockery for their venue. There is no greater thrill in my work then walking into a restaurant packed with people all eating off your plates. The chefs who care about the small details in their restaurant, such as the crockery, always end up being successful. They often forget my name and just refer to me as “the plate man”, which I have just learned to embrace.

What’s your biggest achievement?

Seeing our family business thrive to the point where it now employs 50 people is a big achievement. More than half of them have worked for us for upwards of ten years.

I also have an amazingly beautiful and supportive wife Carrie, who looks after our (combined) greatest achievement – our three children. I’m away from home a lot attending trade shows and new business developments, so it’s not uncommon to be gone for several months at a time.

What inspires your designs?

My very talented sisters, Kate and Hannah, head up the design and development team. Throughout the Robert Gordon ranges you will see everything from touches of the Australian bush and earthy dessert-like tones, right through to more classic bone china designs featuring a splash of gold.

Do you have any interesting projects on the go that you can tell us about?

The most interesting project we’re working on the moment is the Chicago Homewares Trade show in March 2016. This is our first time exhibiting in the USA and we’re very nervous. However, we’re also feeling confident that Robert Gordon will be well received. My brother Bobby is an architect and has designed a cracking stand for us – it looks like a potters workshop, and really illustrates that the Gordon Family are real potters presenting quality products.

Best Kept Secrets

I khoollect a few …

My favourite thing to collect at the moment is pieces of my grandma’s pottery from Dyson Studio. Dyson Studio was a small pottery, around during the the 1950s-1980s. You can hunt out pieces on Ebay. The colours and designs have never appeared in the mainstream, however, I’m hopeful they may come through soon. The ranges were made up of bright colourful ramekins and hand-pressed jewellery.

What’s your favourite item in your khoollection?

The most treasured possession would have to be our dinner set. It’s not what you think though. Each piece has been painted by the kids. Some plates have footprints or handprints on them, or a splash of one or many colours. Carrie and I use them every day, but now we’re starting to see their true value and think we should really put them away for safe keeping.

A life lesson you’d tell your younger self?

Certainly a lesson I’ve learnt later in life is that you have to have confidence and back your ideas. Don’t be afraid to have a go at something you feel strongly about. Tell yourself to be humble yet proud.

Always say ‘thank you’ to your customers, and be grateful.

What’s your favourite line of pottery?

There are so many wonderful and beautiful potteries in Australia and around the world. I have a deep passion for the Japanese traditions, however, I really love Royal Copenhagen.

Desert island – what three items would you take?

  • Chef Matthew Wilkinson – he makes the world’s best Cuban sandwich.
  • My wife Carrie because she could replicate the Cuban if needed.
  • My iPhone because I’m addicted…terrible!

Urban Favourites

Where do you call home?

I call Gembrook home. It’s about one hour east of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley.

What do you love most about it?

Gembrook has been home to the Gordon family for five generations. It’s a beautiful little village surrounded by wineries and potato farms. Our family also owns a restaurant here, The Independent, in partnership with Argentinian chef Mauro Callegari. I live on 60 acres of land which boarders on a national park. So, after a very busy day at work, it’s always wonderful coming home to nature at your doorstep.

Your favourite place for coffee?

Melbourne. I know its not a straight answer, but if you manage to get a bad coffee in Melbourne than there’s something wrong! Melbourne has a strong café culture that is now been exported all over.

Favourite restaurant?

Bistro Vue by Shannon Bennett. Consistency is always the top of my list. It’s a romantic setting that is warm and inviting, you can spend hours on a few bottles of red. The food is always outstanding.

Best place to pick up a bargain?

This is no joke, Robert Gordon’s factory outlet has by far the best bargains. When you manufacture ceramics, sometimes the seconds can run at around 10%. So, if we produce around 300,000 pots then there’s going to be around 30,000 seconds. Seconds are never sold with crack or chips in them, the reason is usually there’s a small glazing fault.

Best place to get inspired?

I travel a to Hong Kong a lot, and for me it’s the centre of the universe. The restaurant and retail scene is really expensive, but this is because they offer by far the best quality and service.

Best way to spend a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne?

Having a cocktail at The Lui Bar, on the 55th Floor of the Rialto Tower.

The Bunyip State Park is only a short drive from our home. We pull up next to a small creek and the kids dip their toes in the water while we cook a bbq. Heaven.

Tell us about your own pottery #khoollection in the comments below. Even better, tag @khoollect in a pic of your #khoollection

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Read Sam’s tips on easing into potting at home.

Sam had input into Khoollect’s Melbourne local’s guide.

Robert Gordon Australia

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