A pottery studio that's grown to be so much more—and how they did it right.
Zoe and James Zillian would be likely candidates for a quiet life. Artists by training, they live with their two daughters on a pastoral slice of the world in Woodstock, Vermont, where they run a pottery studio. But when you speak to either of them over the phone as I did—or better yet, if you were to visit the buzzing brick-and-mortar location of their brand, Farmhouse Pottery—it's very quickly clear that fire, rather than just water and clay dust, is at the heart of what they do.
The couple founded Farmhouse Pottery in 2008, when they started turning a line of ceramics inspired by the agrarian community they were surrounded by, products that recall a simpler time and place but are thoroughly modern in their design. It's a look that seems to appeal to everyone, and the business didn't take long to bloom into a more expansive operation, turning out not just ceramics but decor and furnishings.
We've been fortunate enough to watch the Farmhouse Pottery business grow, and so when Zoe and James let us in on how they got started, their favorite products (the Dipped Clay Plate and a really cute match holder-and-striker), and the new ventures they're looking forward to, we thought you might want to hear how they made it all happen.
Here's what we learned about launching your small business, from the founders of Farmhouse Pottery.
As James remembers it, "Farmhouse Pottery was really created when Zoe bought the dot com and built the website four weeks later," though they'd been making pottery for years. Sometimes when your business is small, getting an online presence doesn't seem essential—but it's often the easiest way for people to find you if you don't (yet!) have a storefront. Eventually, Zoe and James were able to open a joint open workshop and store, but not until they had built up their business enough to justify it.
"We’re a collaboration, the two of us," Zoe says. "We share design and inspiration, James adds and I refine and take away, and we meet in a complementary balance. It wouldn’t be the same without the two of us." James gets to the point even quicker: "Zoe's hot, normal, and smart. You should talk to her—she's more captivating."
The duo is happy to share how the Vermont landscape has influenced their designs, both directly ("we have a collection of hand-hewn pieces that mimic wooden beams, that look like stumps of wood") and also in the broader sense:
"We’re into natural beauty; that’s our thing. Our organic milk glaze, as we call it, doesn’t have organic milk in it. It's just less processed, less filtered, and more hoppy, like an IPA beer. You’ll see that it's not too perfect; it has some little spots and pinholing. We use all-American machinery in our workshops, and all the parts that make our clay and glaze formulas are all American-mined. It’s more expensive—our glaze is probably five times more expensive than a typical one—but it’s scratch-proof, it has no lead, no cadmium, and it abides by Prop. 56. We’re interested in multiple layers of value, which we find that the customer appreciates."
"Every potter in the world seems to be mimicing our cheesestone," says James, talking about the round Dipped Clay Plate that we sell in our Shop. "It has a beautiful design and a brilliant functionality: It goes in the oven, goes in the freezer, stays cold and will keep your cheese cold on a hot day." Instead of being set back by seeing similar products on the market, James and Zoe stand behind their designs, which work and last.
Never ones to stop with what works, Zoe and James channeled their successful pottery line into an expansive brand. "We started off with just a French country bakeware line, and now we have lighting, a textile line, a beautiful store in Vermont, and a great website," James tells me, adding an exciting bit of news: "We're also planning more retail locations in New England." Time for a road trip.
What tips do you have for those starting their careers? Let us know in the comments!
Workshop photos by Melissa Hope; clay plate and milk board photos by Mark Weinberg; beehive crock photo by James Ransom.