Shop the collaboration: Sarah Corbett-Winder x Birdie Fortescue
Meet Gabrielle Smith
IN CONVERSATION WITH
Meet Gabrielle Smith
4th September 2023

We were absolutely thrilled to collaborate with Gabrielle Smith of shopatseed on a stunning collection of handmade ceramics for our AW23 photoshoot, which you can purchase here. We caught up with Gabby to find out more about her design and production process, her career as a ceramicist and her top tablescaping tips!

Q. What does a typical day in your studio look like?

My studio is tiny but I’m lucky enough to work at home so my day doesn’t include a commute - which after years of working in London still feels like a luxury. We have a bit of a menagerie at home so my day starts early with dogs, horses and lots of cups of tea. Sometimes I’ll go for a run too  - I’m so inspired by being outside and the changing seasons in the countryside where we live. I try to start work as early as possible after all the jobs are done as I’m definitely a morning person these days. If I’m working on a collection, I will try to make quite a detailed plan for each part of the making processes before I start working so I have a timetable  for what I’m doing each day and a timeline of when the collection will be finished. I hand build all of my work, so depending on the size and complexity of the piece, the making process can stretch over many days with large pieces being wrapped in plastic each evening when I finish work to ensure they stay the right consistency for working the next day. I have two teenage children, one of whom still lives at home full time, so my working day has tended to fit around the school day. Sometimes if there aren’t after-school activities, I will stop for a break when my daughter gets home and then carry on working until it’s time to cook and eat. I often get up early to work before everyone else is up and I often work at weekends, especially around this time of year when I am planning and making for Christmas.

Q. Where did your career as a ceramicist begin? 

My career in ceramics began quite by chance, when I was introduced to a wonderful and inspiring potter called Amanda Banham. I’d had an idea to make some hanging planters but had never done anything with clay before. We hit it off and she very kindly said she’d teach me how to make pots - so I went to her studio one morning and it was all a bit of an epiphany. She was utterly brilliant – she showed me how to hand build a pot and as soon as I got my hands on a lump of clay I realised it was all I really wanted to do.

It all felt quite straightforward from there really. I didn’t really consider that I would do anything else. I had this real drive to make very specific tableware that was durable, practical, robust – that looked lovely but was completely functional. Amanda was amazing – she taught me, helped me, she let me work in her studio and fired all my work until I got my own kiln. She is now a wonderful friend – and my unofficial mentor. And her kindness and generosity of spirit are things I will always be very  grateful for. I try to keep that in my mind and I’m very happy to offer space, support and encouragement to aspiring potters who want to come and spend time working in my studio.

Q. Who/ what are you inspired and influenced by in your work? 

I’m an absolute magpie and I love collecting images and other treasures – stuff I bring in from outside like moss or stones – I think it drives everyone else slightly mad. I make my own glazes and I’m always on the lookout for ideas and colours or combinations of colours that inspire. I absolutely love artists like Sarah Muir Pollard– the way she uses colour is so phenomenal and local artist Bethany Holmes whose representation of the outside really resonates with me. I’m also heavily influenced by my childhood and the food my mum cooked and the dishes she used which ranged from vintage pieces picked up from jumble sales or passed down by family and things she had bought back from time we spent travelling as a family through Spain and North Africa. 

Q. Tell us about the production process of your pieces. 

Being a hand builder, my working processes are slow. I might work on a piece over a period of anything from a couple of days to sometimes a week or two. I start with an idea and a shape of something I want to make. I always imagine it finished first - its colour and whether the glaze will be shiny and glossy or smooth and satin or whether there will be any embellishment or surface decoration. Then I think about the implications in terms of how it needs to be made. Its intended use will influence the production process. For example, a small rounded bowl for fruit and yoghurt needs to be pinched by my hands out of a single ball of clay - that way I can make sure the shape is just right to sit cupped in a pair of hands. If it’s going to be a larger piece - gently organic and irregular in shape, it will be made from coils of clay and shaped Freeform as it grows. I also use a lot of moulds and templates - some I make myself but often utilising a favourite vintage piece as the basic template.

 It can often be trial and error and I might need to practise and refine the process until I am happy with the result. If the piece needs to be carved or embellished, I will wrap it loosely in plastic until it is leather - this makes it  easier to work with and also the right consistency for carving or adding handles, plinths or little feet or legs. Once I am happy with a piece, I will dry it slowly. This can take up to a fortnight depending on how complex it is. Once it’s thoroughly dry it is bisque fired - this takes around 24 hours and the kiln reaches a temperature of 900 or 1000° C. Once the piece is bisque fired I will glaze it and then fire it again to a temperature of  1220 - 1250° C. All of my work is stoneware and most of it is dishwasher microwave and oven proof.  I feel passionately that my work is for everyday and can stand the rigours of modern living

Q. What’s your favourite thing about what you do?

 This is a hard one as there’s so much I love about making pottery. I think it has to be the way I can lose myself in the process - the less I overthink it, the better the outcome - which is something I wrestle with every day. Also the way that a collection seems to have a life of its own - while I’m making my pieces they can feel quite disparate and often, it’s not until the very end when I put them on a table together that I understand how they work together. I always slightly panic about this and I am always amazed when they look like they belong together.

Q. What are your top tablescaping tips? 

We very rarely dine in any kind of formal way, but my golden rule is to never save anything for a special occasion. Always use your favourite things, get the table linen out and light as many candles as you can. And I am a big fan of dishes at different heights. I think it doesn’t matter what you put in them, even the simplest fresh fruit or the plainest green salad will be elevated  in a dish or platter that’s on legs or a stand! It also creates lots of visual interest to have things going on at multiple levels.

Q. We know your work is influenced by a love of food, what is one of your favourite things to cook? 

In the summer, all I want to eat is salad. Anything that can be heaped onto a lovely big platter or bowl and put on the table for everyone to help themselves.  I love watermelon and feta salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, a bit of watercress and some olive oil and good red wine vinegar. We also eat a lot of more substantial salads with grains such as bulgur, wheat, couscous or Farro.

Q. As an interiors brand, we'd love to know about your interiors style.

Our house is a permanently-unfinished former rectory in Ashdon, Essex. It is chaotic and extremely lived in but it’s an accurate reflection of our slightly messy and busy family life. We have lots of treasured things that belonged to either mine or my husband's parents/grandparents so it’s a bit of a mix of mid-century and vintage with some modern things we bought before we had children.

Q. What are your favourite pieces from Lisboa?

I certainly have a sizeable hit list from the new collection so it’s quite hard to narrow it down. I absolutely love the soft furnishings and in particular the Suzani Embroidered Throw (which has already served as inspiration for my Christmas Decoration Workshop) the Calcada Block Printed Cushion and the Blue Embroidered Sintra Cushion. Another key piece for me is the beautiful floor lamp - we are redecorating our living room in the autumn and I already know exactly where a Green Bobbin Floor Lamp is going to go.

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