Maker: Whitney Smith, Owner and Creator of Whitney Smith Pottery
Homebase: Oakland, Calif.
The Scoop: Whitney Smith's career as a ceramics artist has been filled with affirming moments, but the one that occurred last spring in Paris might be tops on the list. While vacationing in the City of Light, Smith strolled into a trendy Parisian shop and saw her very own work displayed for sale — marking the first time the 40-year-old Californian got in-person proof of her growing international reach. "To be in such an amazing city and to see my work featured in a store there, that was really cool," recalls Smith, who has dedicated the past 12 years of her life to creating the clean, whimsical pottery designs that have made her an Etsy superstar.
Smith discovered her passion for pottery early. "I'd always had an artistic bent, but when I took a pottery course in college, that was it for me," she says. "I was obsessed with pottery from that point on."
Another Smith obsession, flowers and forms found in nature, fuels her designs. Take, for instance, the enchanting little birds that have become a veritable signature of Whitney Smith pottery. Inspired by some dishes she saw at an antique store, Smith introduced the bird motif in 2005. "A wonderful pastry shop, Miette in San Francisco, purchased several of my cupcake stands with birds perched on the edge, and from there the whole thing really took off," Smith says.
Today, Smith works out of her production studio in the Bay Area and sells 80 percent of her work online. The rest is sold to stores across the country and as far away as Australia.
When Smith isn’t throwing pots, she loves doing yoga, eating dinner with her husband “every single night” and drinking wine with friends. Sound dreamy? We thought so too, and we couldn’t wait to learn more about Smith’s approach to work, life and “making.”
What does “making” mean to you?
WS: “Making” is doing things that other people could be doing for you. It’s like me with my ceramics — I make the dishes that I eat with. It’s having the interest and patience to create things yourself. “Making” teaches us that immediate gratification is actually not that pleasurable because it’s so fleeting.
Do your friends value “making” as much as you do?
Yes! Most of my friends are makers: bakers, canners, fermenters, sewers, crafters. A big trend in the Bay Area is “don’t buy it; make it.” What’s great about having friends who are also makers is that we swap our creations. This year, before the holidays, I’ll have an open studio just for my friends. They’ll bring me something, and they can take whatever they want. The last time I did this, I wound up with hand-knit mittens, homemade caramel corn, invitations to friends’ homes for dinner… I received all of this wonderful, useful stuff, and I got rid of a bunch of stuff that wasn’t useful to me anymore. I loved that.
Your business is booming. How do you get everything done, especially around the holidays?
I try to stay focused and not get caught up in the bedlam of the season. And I write everything down. Before I leave the studio at night, I sit down and list the first things I need to get done the next day. Another sanity-saver is limiting my computer time with a timer. I don’t allow myself to have unfettered time online. When the timer goes off, I’m done.
When you’ve been creating all day, do you still like to cook dinner?
If my husband and I aren’t making dinner from scratch, we’re enjoying something from the slow cooker. I really love my slow cooker. It’s so great to come home and have food already done. My slow-cooker favorite is beans with a big chunk of salt pork — easy, yummy and healthy!
What’s the secret to the success of Whitney Smith Pottery?
I think my work is equal parts beautiful and functional. To me, that’s really where the value comes in. Yes, you could put my nesting lotus bowls on a shelf and just stare at them, but you can also use them. I think people should use them. No matter how pretty or delicate my work might seem, I want you to eat off that plate and put flowers in that vase. When you can use something, it makes it really easy to love.