WORDS Bob Doerschuk
Over the past seven years, since Melodie Grace jettisoned her career in corporate sales and committed full-time to her pottery art, her clientele has expanded steadily, drawn by her distinctive aesthetic and innovative techniques.
But come August, word will spread beyond any expectations she might have had, due to her exploring new possibilities in Japanese raku—thanks to West Elm, part of Williams-Sonoma, Inc.
Just a few weeks from now, the quality home furnishing chain will unveil its Melodie Grace collection at stores nationwide. This arrangement is significant on several levels, being Grace’s first collaborative project as well as her first work with any national brand.
“They first contacted me in July 2016,” Grace recalls. “My first thought was that this was spam, like someone saying they wanted to send me an inheritance. I thought, this can’t be for real! But I researched the email and it was legitimate. So of course I said, ‘Yeah!’”
As with all opportunities, this one came with challenges that Grace hadn’t yet confronted. First was the most fundamental step in collaboration, to agree on a plan that would suit both parties’ needs. Luckily, she says, “They were fantastic about that, so generous and understanding about what I wanted to put out into the world. They wanted to stay true to the brand while also putting it into their brand. We came up with a really good blend of the two.”
The first step was to find a design that would identify her line in their stores. “So we started with my shapes, which are very . . . bulbous,” Grace says with a laugh. “And because I work in a very small scale, we agreed that I would follow my design but give each piece a bigger physical presence.”
What followed was a period of sending suggestions and ideas back and forth. “I sent them prototypes so they would have form and color in person,” she explains. “Then they would work on their prototypes and send them back to me for approval. I don’t want to say it was hard to work like this. It was actually really fun. But as a visual artist, it was hard not to be hands-on and to rely on a more verbal communication of ideas over the phone and email.”
West Elm did have one priority: Unlike all the pottery Grace had created beforehand, the vases in this collection had to be functional and watertight. As a result, they couldn’t be made through the raku process but with a more traditional firing technique, while finding a glaze combination that would retain the aesthetic of her copper raku work.
“My pieces have always been visually functional,” she emphasizes. “They’re like paintings: You buy them for their beauty. For West Elm, we had to come up with a three-dimensional item in a form that would also be functional in a more traditional way.”
Soon they settled on three designs to be reproduced, one for each of three sizes. Each featured a shiny green gloss with individually distinctive variations within its glaze, contrasted with a metallic, burnished gold surface that had more of a matte quality. These would be produced by one of West Elm’s family-run pottery production facilities, all of them numbered and signed by Grace.
“Although there will be 600 pieces total, each is one of a kind,” she explains. “That’s really exciting to me because in my regular daily raku I sign and name each piece individually. I love that we’re continuing that concept with this limited edition.”
This uniqueness of each piece is essential to all of Grace’s work. The key, she notes, is in her firing process. She makes her own glazes with the intention of inducing a distinctive pattern of cracks. In her naked raku, a slip and glaze covering is applied before the piece is super-heated in her kiln and then removed and placed on paper, which as a result catches fire. Smoke then fills the cracks that have formed in the covering, so that once it is removed a dusky pattern remains.
“These black-and-white pieces are mainly about texture,” Grace points out. “It’s about trying to capture something very special, knowing that every single piece will hopefully create a different experience for the viewer.”
Taking it a step further, both her naked and her color-rich work incorporate a degree of chance that mirrors the flow of life within and beyond artistic expression. “I’m doing something very precise but also letting it go,” she notes. “That’s like a life lesson: You do the best you can and then you find the joy that comes from the process. That’s why I believe I learn something from every single pot I make.”
A celebratory launch of Grace’s line will take place in August at Nashville’s West Elm store in Hill Center. Check www.melodiegrace.com for updates on date and time. You can also find the collection online at www.westelm.com.