Studio and Showroom Organization

by Dick Lehman

As a production potter, I had long wished that I would someday have the opportunity and the means to build a new studio to my own specifications. For years, I had lived within the design constraints of "existing space." I wanted the chance to start from scratch, to design the space my way; however, the cost of construction remained formidable, and the opportunity to build elusive. The devastating news that my studio building had been condemned (in an eminent domain take-over by the County) actually gave me that opportunity — although not on the terms that I had originally envisioned.

Given just 60 days to vacate my studio, I had no time to build. Instead, I hastily moved into a vintage (1890's) brick, three-story factory building (of "slow-burning-mill" construction). The space was completely wide open, so I was able to design the entire studio as I eventually wanted to have it, but had the luxury of implementing the design as I could afford it — incrementally over a period of years.

What has finally emerged is very much like the original vision; however, having the experience of actually working in the developing space of a period of years gave me the opportunity to fine tune many details. In the end, this made the space far more useful and efficient than it would have been had I needed to make all the decisions in the turmoil and disruption of those first weeks or months following the forced move. Let me describe the space, highlighting various aspects that, over the years, have been most useful in maximizing both production and retail sales.

Originally, I shared this mammoth 60,000-square-foot building with only one other business — a hardwood furniture manufacturer. Over the intervening years, other shops have joined us, creating a "collection of producing artists and craftspeople." Today, there are 19 shops housed in what has come to be called the Old Bag Factory.

As customers enter and pass through the Old Bag Factory entryway, a look to the left reveals the 5000-square-foot showroom of the custom hardwood furniture manufacturer. Looking toward the far end of the furniture showroom, customers are able to see directly into my pottery studio. The line of sight takes a customer's eye directly in to my showroom space and back into the well-lighted gallery space.**

Because my 1300-square-foot showroom and gallery space is rectangular, I have located the display units toward the outside walls to maintain a feeling of openness. Part of the showroom utilizes an "old records vault" complete with heavy steel doors and combination locks — just part of the charm of an old building such as this.

The display units, which hold approximately 2500 finished pieces, are made of cherry. I designed half of them with built-in lighting and glass shelving. The rest are lighted by a halogen track-lighting system mounted on the ceiling.

The half-walls and low 30-inch-tall display units that ring the gallery space allow customers to see into the studio space where we potters are working (and, in turn, allow us to see the customers). For the few areas in the showroom that are out of our direct line of sight, I have installed rounded mirrors. These are effective not so much as a security measure or to deter shoplifting, but rather to make it possible for us to be aware of where people are in the showroom and to help us determine whether sales assistance might be in order.

As an interesting aside, I should mention the flooring, which is made up of three rather squeaky 1-inch-thick layers of pecan wood. Aside from their charm, the squeaks generate a bit of marketing information as well. As we have listened to people walking in the showroom over the years, we have learned to distinguish the separate and distinct "gaits" of first-time visitors, repeat customers, shoppers on a mission to buy a gift, and time-killers. While not infallible, these audible clues actually assist us in anticipating just how much and what kind of customer assistance is needed. I should note that all that sales in the showroom are made by those of us who make the wares. I currently employ three other potters. Usually the sales responsibilities are shared equally, although whose turn it is to assist may be determined by something as simple as who has the driest hands. Over the course of the year, the Old Bag Factory has nearly 140,000 visitors. Of that total amount, nearly 100,000 visit the pottery.

This commitment to making and selling has had a huge impact on how the showroom and studio are arranged. All the throwing wheels are situated so that each potter can see, (by looking through windows and doorways) and can be seen immediately by, customers entering the showroom. A smile or nod from 35 feet away may be our first contact with visitors; however, if a customer stays in the pottery for more than a few minutes, one of us will make a more formal contact.

Similarly, the office is laid out in such a way that I can be working at my desk and still, through windows, see the entire showroom and gallery area. Miniblinds in those windows allow for privacy if I am working on something I would rather the customers not see (making a bank deposit, for example).

Often we sit in the back of the studio for lunch, somewhat out of view of customers, but with enough visibility for us to see customers who need assistance. In this way, the studio can remain open over the lunch hour when it is most convenient for many of our local customers to quickly stop by to make a purchase.

The gallery is reasonably well lighted all the time. However, the halogen track-lighting system is activated by a motion sensor. When a customer walks into or near the gallery, the sensors activate lights. I can see at least two benefits to this arrangement: the first is the energy savings achieved by not over-lighting the gallery when no one is in it. Secondly, there is that sort of "taaaa-daaaah" feeling experienced by the customer as the lights come on. And if for some reason I am out of direct sight of the gallery at that moment, the lights alert me to the customer's presence.

The check-out counter is located very near to both the office and the studio workspace. If I am in the office, it is just a few steps out to help a customer with a sale. And, of course, by having the sales area very near the workspace, it gives increased security to the cash register, and eliminates needless extra steps to make sales.

Not shown in the floor plan are the 24x48-inch wheeled carts that each potter uses. There are useful in moving clay from storage to pug mill (we always pug what we are going to use just before we throw with it), and from pug mill to throwing area.

There are at least too other tools, which are absolutely indispensable, that do not show up explicitly on the floor plan: The first is a cut-off tool I made to fit the end of the pug mills. As the pug exits the mill, it moves forward on stainless-steel rollers (found at the local scrap-metal yard for a small price). Hinged above the rollers is a variably spaced series of cut-off wires. These may be arranged to cut at any interval, and are simply tightened in place with wing nuts. When the pug reaches the desired length, the wires are pulled down to cut 4-6 pieces at one time.

For smaller weights of clay, the 4-inch-diameter pug size is a little inconvenient (the slices are so narrow as to be difficult to use). To cut smaller weights, I clamp a wire to the end of the pug barrel, using a kind of "vise-grip" tool. 'This allows me to split the pug into two halves before cutting to length. (for even smaller weights, I clamp on a cutter, which splits the pug into four pieces before it is cut to length.)

The second indispensable tool is a small rolling cart, which holds all of our trimming tools and trimming accessories. At a liquidation sale, I purchased a slide-projector cart (simply a four-castered stand with a small table-top on it). I added a piece of plywood to enlarge the table top and to this glued, in upright positions, a series of PVC pipe of varying heights and diameters to hold the trimming tools that we use. I say this tool cart is indispensable because it takes what is normally a messy, cluttered box full of tools and organized them in a fashion that (while it still may be a bit messy) allows us to see all the individual tools at a glance.

Another benefit to this way of organizing tools is that it also allows us to see when something is missing. More than once we have noticed a trimming tool or metal rib missing, and found it among the trimmings — before it was dumped into the barrel of scraps destined for the hammer mill. (Only one trimming tool has actually gotten into the hammer mill and, based on that one experience, I have ruefully concluded that it is much better to find tools beforehand than to fish out all the "parts" afterward.)

I have tried to put casters on everything in the studio that can reasonably be moved. As a result, all the throwing carts, the ware carts, a glazing table, the trimming tool cart, and all the large glaze buckets are on casters.

I learned about the blessing of glaze bucket on casters from my potter friend Phil Yordy, who works in Saint Jacobs, Ontario, Canada. His studio is located on the ground floor of six connected grain silos. There are no straight walls in his entire space (a problem for conventional display units, etc.); however, when glazing, he simply wheels ware on carts into one silo where all the glaze buckets are within easy reach in a circle around him — much better than a line of buckets. The arrangement saves many steps.

Since I have no silo, I decided to put my buckets on casters and encircle myself for glazing. And it is easy to wheel the

The car kiln is located near the glazing area to minimize movement of pots between glazing and loading. For the same reason, the glaze spray booth is located adjacent to the kiln. buckets back to a storage area when they are not in use.

The photo booth is normally used as a storage room, filled with wheeled ware carts when it is not in service. It is an easy task to remove the ware carts, relocate the castered strobe, softbox and boom, and lower the pulley-controlled photo backdrop. In less than 10 minutes the photo booth is operational, and at the end of the photo session, it may be fully restored to storage space in another 10 minutes.

Having easy access to a photo booth has been a real blessing. It is not a particularly high-tech or expensive arrangement; most of the equipment I have made or have picked up as used equipment at camera swap meets. But the arrangement affords me the setting in which to consistently make publication-quality images.

I also find that I am more apt to keep better photographic records of my work since it is so easy to do. And the economy is astounding. With a consistent set-up, the results are always of predictable high quality. Rather than paying $75-$100 per piece, we can easily set up and shoot 20-30 pots in an evening, for only the cost of the film and processing. (If we are in a rush for slides to enter a show or competition, an evening of photography followed by dropping the film off at an overnight processor can have the finished slides in our hands by 4 p.m. the next afternoon, and in the mail before the Post Office closes at 5 p.m.)

Materials storage, and clay and glaze mixing areas are located in separate rooms on the south side of the studio. An exterior ramp allows clay supplies to be forklifted right to the loading entrance, then quickly wheeled into storage areas. Package services can use the same entrance for the delivery of supplies.

The clay mixer, hammer mill, electric kiln and glaze materials/station are located in the southwestern-most room. This may appear to be an odd combination of items. However, the decision was driven by the need for these processes to have access to the good-quality exhaust system located in this room.

Wet-clay storage occupies parts of three of the auxiliary storage rooms on the south end of the studio. We attempt to keep at least a four-month supply of clay mixed and aging.

Finally, I have located the packing area as far from the production areas as possible. This decision keeps the inevitable mess, which always seems to accompany the use of packing materials (and especially so, since we recycle as many packing products as is reasonable), from contaminating work-in-process and glaze materials.

We do quite a bit of shipping, sometimes for people who come into the studio to purchase gifts for other people, but more often to/for people who telephone in their orders. As a service to customers, I have a toll-free number. The volume of sales that this service generates, more than pays for its cost. And it is, I trust, an appreciated part of our customer service.

I now publish a catalog that pictures most all the pots we produce. So nearly all our phone orders come from previous customers who have visited us here (and have received a catalog). The northern part of Indiana is one of the fastest growing areas in the state for tourism. Consequently, while 70% of total sales are from regional customers, a growing amount comes from tourists. The toll-free telephone number and reasonably-priced shipping are real conveniences for them, and a boon to our business as well.

Your convictions and preferences about sales, marketing, production, space needs and work style are likely to be different than mine. Your personal temperament and budget are likely to imply different organizational decisions. But I hope that what I have shared here will be useful in helping you to make the most of the space which you have to work with.

** (A technical drawing/floor plan and schematic of the studio layout are available in the Ceramics Monthly article listed below.)

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the March 1997 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1997. All rights reserved.