Potter of Gold
For Frances Palmer, famed ceramist, 2020 had its high points—including a new book
Frances Palmer’s fans have included Martha Stewart and the late Nora Ephron, and her Instagram followers have reached 75,000 and counting as of press time. And it all started when she was a new mom in search of a métier. “I was trained as an art historian, but I didn’t really start making ceramics until I was married and had a baby and we moved up to Connecticut full time,” Palmer says.
“We had moved out from New York, so I was a little bit perplexed about what to do. I was out-out-out in the country with the baby, and my husband said, ‘You’ll just think of something you’ve always wanted to try.’ I decided I wanted to do pottery and be able to make all the plates for my table.”
And what plates they are: Palmer’s collection includes everything from soap dishes ringed by what look like real pearls to terracotta urns, all handmade by the artist herself in her Connecticut garden workspace—and captured in her new book, Life in the Studio: Inspiration and Lessons on Creativity (Artisan, 2020).
Here, insight into her dazzlingly beautiful creative life.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR AESTHETIC AND DESIGN PHILOSOPHY?
I like things that are simple and well-defined, elegant and real. And things that are thought-provoking and teach you something, and show the intention of the artist.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE AESTHETIC OF YOUR WORK?
I want my pottery to be functional. I want people to live with it every day and for the pieces to be part of their daily ritual. I think there’s a common thread to them, which is, again, kind of the same thing about my overarching aesthetic: I want every thing to be well-designed and useful, but I want it to be beautiful, to show my hand and have my spirit in with it, because it goes out into the world. I want people to have this sensibility around them when they live with my pots. I also want the pots to have this serenity and beauty and timelessness and just bring joy.
WHAT DOES YOUR HOUSE LOOK LIKE?
Our home is an 1860 federal-style house in Connecticut, and my studio is next to it. The beams are from the 1790s, and we took them and put up the structure and then put a new skin around the beams, and that’s where my studio is. I don’t like to have a lot of things around, so it’s super-simple. The kitchen has Shaker woodwork; the dining room has essentially one table and a hutch. I just don’t like to have a lot of things around. I don’t require things; I make things.
ARE YOU A COOK AND A GARDENER?
I love to cook. I’ve cooked ever since I was young. I grew up in Morristown, New Jersey, where there are a lot of farm stands and dairies and things like that. We also had a garden, so I was very comfortable cooking with vegetables and all sorts of things. My mother was a great cook. And then when I left home as a teenager, I always cooked for friends and then for my family. So in the book I’ve included recipes I’ve made over and over again through the years, like roast chicken and tarte tatin. They are both comforting and bring people around the table.
WHAT INFORMS YOUR COLOR SELECTION?
In the summer when there are flowers in the garden, I like really bright and happy. But I tend myself to gravitate toward more neutral colors, and oftentimes, when I’m composing a photograph, I reference the paintings of Giorgio Morandi or even Agnes Martin— a neutral background, because I feel that the pots look so strange and beautiful against those kinds of soft colors.
“In the summer when there are flowers in the garden, I like really bright and happy.” — Frances Palmer
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE FLOWERS IN YOUR GARDEN FOR COLOR?
When I plant the flowers, they start in the spring and go all the way through to fall. I love tulips—Ballerina and Akebono—because they can be picked unopened, and as they gradually bloom and then fade, each stage is beautiful. And of course, I love dahlias—Clyde’s Choice, Otto’s Thrill and Cornel—because their color and forms are seemingly infinite. They bring much joy. I really strategize so that I have flowers all throughout the growing season.
WHAT IS ONE OF YOUR PRIZED POSSESSIONS?
A George Ohr terra-cotta pot that a friend gave me. Ohr was an American potter from Biloxi, Mississippi, in the early 1900s, and he dug all of his clay out of the Mississippi River. I admire his work, so to have one of these pots is, I would say, my most prized possession. It’s very simple, but it’s so cool. It is an unglazed terra-cotta and thrown paper thin. I love that you can see the artist’s hands in the forming and dents, and yet he has a production stamp on the bottom. Ohr was an unequalled thrower, and I can sense his presence in the piece.
“I want the pots to have this serenity and beauty and timelessness and just bring joy.” — Frances Palmer
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR LAMP-COLLECTION COLLABORATION?
My friend Chad Jacobs of Bone Simple Design is a lighting designer; he and I decided that I would design the bases and just have a lot of fun. Then he would take the bases and make a shade inspired by the shape of the lamp. I look at a lot of sources. I have my undergraduate and master’s degrees in art history, so I look at ancient Greek pottery to come up with forms that could be intriguing as a basis for the lamp.
WAS IT AN UPHILL BATTLE LEARNING HOW TO DO CERAMICS?
I’ve always made work with my hands. When I was in high school, I had originally wanted to go to school for printmaking but then decided to go a more academic route. I felt that [pottery] was really a natural fit; I sat down at the wheel and realized that this was something I immediately loved to do, and I’ve loved to do it ever since.
IS THERE ANYTHING PEOPLE ARE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT THE PROCESS OF MAKING CERAMICS?
I don’t think people necessarily understand how long it takes or how many steps are involved. For example, if somebody orders a pot online, I make another four to allow for mistakes along the way and things that happen in the process. You have to account for things that happen in the firing that you won’t know about till it’s all over.
WHEN ARE YOU MOST CREATIVE?
I think I was a farmer in another life, because I get up super-early—like 4:35 in the morning. From five to eight in the morning is my best time of day, even if it’s dark out. I have a good cup of coffee, make a list of what I want to do, and I’m ready to go. I can’t think without coffee! My husband gets up super-early too, and we make a cup of coffee and he usually likes to have banana bread. It’s been a little hectic lately; I don’t usually have breakfast for another couple of hours, but I definitely need that coffee to get going.
“I don’t require things. I make things.” — Frances Palmer
DO YOU HAVE ANY SUGGESTIONS FOR STYLING A TABLETOP FOR HOSTING WITH YOUR CERAMICS?
I try not to overthink it. If you have simple plates and cleanly designed flatware, and good linen or cotton napkins, and beautiful glasses (what I tend to use are very simple Japanese glasses; I don’t usually use wine glasses with stems), then depending upon the season you can just have fun with centerpieces. Last Thanksgiving, I just plopped all these different orchids in some of my terra-cotta pots and ran them down the table rather than going out and buying flowers. Sometimes I’ll just take a terra-cotta platter and put moss down it. It really depends upon your mood and what you’re cooking, and it doesn’t have to be so ornate. Decide: What is the mood you’re trying to create? And go from there.