The last week of March may go down as one of my favorite times as a blogger. That Tuesday-Friday I was invited to travel to Aurora, New York to experience an up-close-and-personal view into a brand I've known and loved for years and years: MacKenzie-Childs. This visit (#CampCourtlyCheck) was unforgettable and completely magical for several reasons...
First of all, the town of Aurora is set on Cayuga Lake, it's both historical and quaint, and their Inns are beyond beautiful and comfortable (we stayed at the E.B. Morgan House and it's incredible). The trip was made up of fellow bloggers Lynsey (also based in Dallas!) and Katie of Tomboy KC, Kathleen of Carrie Bradshaw Lied, Marissa of Style Cusp, and Amanda of The Fashionable Hostess. I've been on blogger trips before but I have to say there was something really special about this particular group of women. We all became very fast friends and had some of the most real, honest, and creative conversations I've had in a long time. Being able to experience this trip with them made it even more meaningful. And of course, the behind the curtain look at MacKenzie-Childs was like being in Wonderland. We got to tour their barn studio (where all the ceramics and furniture is created from start to finish), wander through and lunch at the Farmhouse (decorated tip-to-toe in MacKenzie Childs), experience the storybook like grounds (complete with sheep, geese, and sprawling lawns overlooking the lake), and gawk at the brand mecca that is their Shop. I have so much to share it's slightly overwhelming. But I hope you all enjoy getting a glimpse of my trip!
The words I can use to describe MacKenzie-Childs: whimsical, fun, quality, innovative, loyal, community. I could go on, but those do a good job of summing things up. Whether you already know and love the products or have never seen them before today, it’s immediately apparent that they stand out with a look that’s both whimsical and fun. Bold checks, butterflies, colorful patterns, bright florals, playful shapes and forms – I can say without a doubt that within the vast collection, there’s something for everyone. The brand has always been build on a foundation of quality (whether handmade craftsmanship or impeccable factory conditions) and innovation. The founders – Victoria and Richard MacKenzie-Childs – humbly introduced their handmade ceramic creations in 1983 and slowly but surely made their dream-like visions become reality as they introduced furniture and lighting, enamelware, etc. Now, 34 years later, the band continues to create new categories that showcase the timeless “fun!” that makes MacKenzie-Childs so beloved. Speaking of love…it can be easily be seen, felt and realized by the loyal customers and community of employees that support the company. From the fanatic collectors (I’m looking at you, Kris Jenner!) to the artists who have worked at the company for decades – this deep loyalty and sense of community is unlike any brand I’ve experienced.
If I had to pick a favorite part of the trip (at least one that didn’t include food or talking with the wonderful people that work for MacKenzie-Childs) it would be touring in the barn studio and getting to see the artists as they work. It’s easy to walk into a store or set the table with my mom’s collection of MacKenzie-Childs and forget that every single ceramic item is handmade. Learning about the various steps in this craft and watching the artisans as they worked made me have an even deeper appreciation for both the MacKenzie-Childs brand and the pieces they make. In an attempt to explain how the ceramics are made, I’ve tried to arrange my photos in order of the steps below:
- Solid clay is either molded by hand, pressed (ex: plates, platters), or liquid clay is poured into plaster molds used for slipcasting (ex: mugs, cow creamers!).
- Once the clay forms are “leather hard” and able to be gentle handled without losing their shape, they are fettled (all the edges are smoothed, any imperfections from the molding is removed), pieces with handles get them added at this stage.
- These pieces go through a first kiln firing.
- After the first firing, the bottom (or “foot”) of each ceramic piece is hand painted or dipped into a wax coating, then the whole piece is dunked into a base glaze. The glaze covers the item but doesn’t adhere to the part coated in wax – this is so the piece can be placed in the kiln and the bottom part won’t stick. This hand-done process results in a “snake bite” marking on every piece – showing the spot of the tongs used to hold the item when it’s dipped in the glaze (just one of many nods to the hand-done process MacKenzie-Childs celebrates!).
- Once coated in a first layer of raw glaze, the pottery pieces will go straight to being decorated (with a technique called “dipping”) or they fired again then decorated (with China paints).
- The dipping process is done by artisans who hand mix glaze mineral stains and paint directly onto the initial glaze. Each time an artist dips their brushes in the stains they swirl the pigment to keep the powered stain from settling on the bottom. Even more impressive than the constant swirling, dipping and brushing of pigment is the fact that the artist that paint the various designs don’t use a template but free-hand paint each pattern. They do have color guides and finished examples to go off of to insure consistency but no two pieces are identical and small variations can be seen based on the handcrafted nature. (Examples of pieces painted with mineral stains: the Taylor and Piccadilly collections)
- The other painting technique that’s done on top of the the first base of fired glaze is done using China paint. Unlike painting done with stains, this paint process allows artists to wipe off the paint if they’ve made a mistake (the smooth, shiny, white glaze base kind of acts as a dry erase board of sorts). This paint technique is what’s used for the famous Courtly Check. Though it might seem easier for the artists that do this check pattern vs. those that freehand the designs onto raw glaze and can’t really mess up, it’s actually quite complex because each check made involved dragging the brush through several accent colors – resulting in a one-of-a-kind checkerboard that’s anything but boring or flat. (Examples of pieces painted with China paint: the Courtly Check and Parchment Check ceramic collections)
- The Courtley Check ceramics and several others receive another painted treatment of gold lustre embellishment. This application is added after any previous painting done is fired again. The gold lustre (re: it’s 24 karat gold in a liquid form!) looks like a red tint and is brushed or dotted on by hand. To help mask the fumes, the tint has a special lavender scent added.
- Some items – like this heart bowl – get all three decorative techniques! Once fired and glazed, the middle part is painted with mineral glaze on top of the raw glaze, then it’s fired again, and the outside gets painted with the checkered pattern in China paint, fired a third time, then gold lustre is applied, and the piece gets a fourth and final firing. (P.S. watch a Parchment Check teapot go from start to finish via this great video!)
- The amount of artisanal hands that touch one piece as it goes from unformed clay to a completed piece is amazing! To acknowledge the talent and craftsmanship that goes into the process, artists stamp the bottom of each piece with their initials once completed with their process (this teapot has four stamps: 1) for the person who did the felting, 2) for artist who did the mineral glaze, 3) for the artist that painted the check, and 4) the artist who painted the gold lustre.
Aside from the ceramics department, the barn houses also houses a furniture studio. If you’ve ever seen MacKenzie-Childs furniture pieces, you know they’re completely fantastical and range in scale from grand (example: the Ridiculous Bench) to petite (like this petite side table) but none are lacking in character or detail. Each piece – no matter how big or small – is decorated with Mackenzie-Childs signature designs and painted start-to-finish by a single artist. One piece and can employ many different techniques (marbling, appliqué, gold-leafing, etc) and the many hours dedicated to brining each to life. Seeing artist work on various furniture pieces was a very Alice In Wonderland experience…so much fun and fantasticalness in one place.
A quick walk from the barn studio leads to the MacKenzie-Childs Farmhouse. As I mentioned earlier, the Farmhouse is decorated tip-to-toe in MacKenzie Childs. Rather than looking like an overwhelming explosion of the brand, it’s designed to highlight the famed designs, pieces and products (some of which are now discontinued) in a way that’s both thoughtful and fun. Rooms are centered around various collections and themes – expertly executed with everything MacKenzie Childs in the from of furniture and lighting, dishes and tiles, drawerpulls and knobs, rugs, fabrics and wall treatments. I couldn’t get over the level of detail…it was almost impossible to pick a favorite room but the one-of-a-kind finial wall sconce and custom art (Papa Parchment!) were definitely the things I most wanted to steal.
One visit to Aurora and MacKenzie-Childs headquarters is just not enough for me…I have big plans to return back with Sally and our mom. Sally and I grew up revering our mama’s collection of Taylor dinnerware – there’s not a spring or summer I can remember not using it for special occasions – and gave us an early introduction into the whimsical world of the MacKenzie-Childs brand. Now that we’re adulting, creating our own homes and entertaining friends and family alike, we’re both slowly but surely incorporating treasured MacKenzie-Childs pieces into our lives. If any of you are fellow fans of the brand, I highly encourage you to visit the headquarters! Seeing the gorgeous gardens, Farmhouse, and Shop is such a special experience.
Just a few current MacKenzie-Childs favorites…