A Studio Tour of Pigeon Toe Ceramics

July  8, 2016

Makers are at the heart of the Food52 Shop, and we love to share their stories, so we partnered with our friends at Pure Leaf Tea House Collection to feature a few in their Traveling Tea House. From July 13 to 15, join Pigeon Toe Ceramics in downtown Portland to sip tea and see their wares.

If you happen to live in Portland, Oregon, or maybe you frequent our site, you're probably familiar with the simple, beautiful work of Pigeon Toe Ceramics. Founded in 2009 by North Portland designer Lisa Jones, a "once-reluctant ceramicist who finally gave into her true calling," Pigeon Toe makes utilitarian little beauties, from finally-attractive spoon rests to bowls with just an inch extra in character.

Lisa in the middle of throwing on one of Pigeon Toe's wheels in the studio. Photo by Mikola Accuardi. Courtesy Portland Supply Co. and Pigeon Toe Ceramics

And their studio—an artists collective, really—reflects that mindset. An old railroad building from 1912, Pigeon Toe's space is 7,000 square feet. When they purchased it four years ago, they quickly decided to split things up: Pigeon Toe kept 3,000 square feet, while the rest of the building was divided up into studios for the likes of letterpressers, jewelers, and welders.

"The bigger picture was to be surrounded by people who were completely like-minded," Samantha Hough, Lisa's sister and the co-owner of Pigeon Toe, says. Her and Lisa wanted to house a community of artists who complemented each other's work, and served as a skill share.

The bigger picture was to be surrounded by people who were completely like-minded.

What followed was a light renovation, one that kept the minimalist, industrial spirit of the building intact—it is a workspace, after all—while adding a few touches with the Pigeon Toe hand.

Left: The exterior of Pigeon Toe Ceramics, and right: Prototypes on the conference room shelves when you first walk in. Photo by Courtesy Pigeon Toe Ceramics

First things first: When you walk in, you're right in it—the conference room, pictured above, was the original showroom but now serves as a mini one, with prototypes, since Pigeon Toe opened a proper showroom in downtown Portland. When they bought the place, Samantha says there was 1970s shag carpeting all over this room, but were told that there were beautiful planks underneath like in the rest of the building. But once they pulled the carpeting up, they found plywood instead (it had been glued on top). They left them, then, as they did the rest of the building—those wood planks are visible everywhere else.

The flooring could have easily been redone, Samantha mentions, but they wanted to keep things as minimal as possible.

Left: Pigeon Toe's popular ceramic string lights hung in the company of an original sliding door, and right: The shades up close. Photo by Mikola Accuardi (left) and courtesy Portland Supply Co. and Pigeon Toe Ceramics (right)

The same goes for a few sliding doors throughout the building. These were originally where cargo was loaded from onto trains, but now they offer tons of natural light. In the photos above, you'll see one of Pigeon Toe's most popular products: The ceramic string lights. They were Lisa's idea about 7 years ago, when she couldn't find properly pretty string lights—so she made them herself by attaching handmade ceramic shades above each light. The lights hang languidly inside or outside, a little touch of whimsy even in a production facility.

Pouring and shaping one piece at the Pigeon Toe Ceramics studio and collective space. Photo by Mikola Accuardi. Courtesy Portland Supply Co. and Pigeon Toe Ceramics
Lisa on the wheel. Photo by Mikola Accuardi. Courtesy Portland Supply Co. and Pigeon Toe Ceramics

From the conference room you enter into the photo studio, which is separated off by a big, glass roll-up door. (It's a nice perk for artists to use for products.) In general, all of the workspaces can be closed off by big doors; since people are working regularly, things can get a little dirty. After the photo studio, you'll enter the Pigeon Toe workspace, where there is slip-casting and wheels.

Utilitarian metal carts used for storing and moving pieces around. Photo by Mikola Accuardi. Courtesy Portland Supply Co. and Pigeon Toe Ceramics

This is also where you'll find finished, or almost finished, work being stored on large, metal industrial carts, which we immediately admired and started cataloguing how they could incorporate into a home. (Open kitchen storage, tidy shoe storage in the mudroom, outdoor plant platform, and more!)

"We buy them from U-Line!" Samantha says, laughing. "They're probably $110 and they last, they're well-built, American-made, totally utilitarian."

Shelves on shelves on shelves in Pigeon Toe's glaze room. Photo by Courtesy Pigeon Toe Ceramics

The glaze room at Pigeon Toe is glorious, all shelves and natural light. We're big advocates of the standards and brackets system and this seals the deal or should encourage you to try it out. For Pigeon Toe, the shelving was born from necessity—to hold pots that need to go for a second firing—but it doesn't have to be so at home. This kind of shelving can let you put on stage all those little trinkets you've collected from travel, books, and even house plants or pretty kitchenwares.

Left: The kilns at Pigeon Toe; there are 8, and right: Finished bird houses, plant hangers, and wind chimes. Photo by Courtesy Pigeon Toe Ceramics

Something that was essential to running the space at an optimal level was updating the electrical to handle all the clay firing in Pigeon Toe's eight kilns. "We still can’t run all the kilns—at any given time, we'll run half of them," she adds. Their goal with each fire is to fit as many nubs of clay, small and large, into a kiln as possible. Samantha says that their kiln loader, George, is brilliant at this—"He can probably get 50 to 100 pieces in per kiln"—and they generally process about 300 to 400 pieces per week, in and out of the kilns.

The weaving wall, as Samantha calls it, is in the mix, too—this is one of her favorite little nooks of the entire building. It has inspired Pigeon Toe to get more experimental in their work with its colorful, textural elements, and sports the same reed that's woven into some of their work.

Samantha's favorite room: The weaving room. Photo by Courtesy Pigeon Toe Ceramics

Finally, after getting the lay of the production space, you'll find a corridor of offices for the other artists who make work there. They range from pretty small (350 square feet) to the size of a pretty roomy one-bedroom apartment in New York (800 square feet). But they tried to keep the space as minimal as possible. "We make beautiful things but people are working. It gets beaten up," Samantha explains. She calls the design of the space utilitarian with a modern edge—just the right mix, we think.

Find Pigeon Toe's work in our Shop, and at the Pure Leaf Tea House Collection Traveling Tea House on 6th Avenue in downtown Portland from July 13 to 15.

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