Mazama — Ceramic Drinking Vessels
Any Portlander will tell you that to live in the Rose City is to live to drink – IPAs, ales, coffee arabicia. But despite the city’s endless assortment of artisan drinks, six local designers had a hard time finding mugs and cups of matching quality. Since no one was producing the types of vessels the group wanted, they decided to make their own.
This sparked the creation of Mazama Wares, a new Portland-based business that handcrafts ceramic drinking vessels tailored to the city’s no-frills drinking spirit. Mazama’s collection features cups and wine sets unified by a muted color palette and vessel shapes that rely on utility rather than embellishment for their appeal. Consider the top-selling mug set, which consists of two hearty mugs and two embossed coasters made from Tanner Good’s leather. “We wanted the pieces to be special,” says Meghan Wright, one of the creative directors. “But also easy, like coffee with a friend.”
Mazama Wares is the brainchild of six partners, including Meghan Wright, former apparel designer at Adidas and graphic designer Meagan Geer, who teamed up in 2013 to create a project based on their enthusiasm for Portland’s beverage culture.
“We wanted a business that revolved around the two things we love: drinking and craft beverages,” recalls Meghan, who sports thick rimmed glasses and clogs during our interview. She says that despite Portland’s reputation as a liquid city, hops heads and java junkies had a limited selection of drink ware to choose from. Boutiques sold either mass-produced cups or mugs described by Meghan as “cottagey.” This lack of clean, sophisticated products created an untapped niche in the market that Mazama hopes to fill.
The second task was to select a material for the collection. Luckily, a solution lay in the hands of Paige Wright, Meghan’s artist sister. “Because she had an M.F.A. in ceramics,” says Meghan, “clay seemed like a great choice.” Paige, who earned her Masters from Ohio University, has made a career out of sculpting everything from anatomical parts to bespeckled pottery. She quickly signed up for the project.
With creative partners Tory Cross, Sam Huff, Casey Keasler and Connie Wohn completing the sextet, the team began brainstorming. They rendered sketches, tested prototypes and perfected some of wares’ trademark features, like the exposed-clay bottoms. “Since we’re all designers, we threw all our ideas into the hat. We designed it out to here,” says Meghan, extending her interlocked hands forward, “and then refined everything from there.”
The designers listed Mazama on Kickstarter that October when it became a runaway hit, raising $24,000, nearly double the original goal. Next, Mazama unveiled the line at Content, the annual design showcase at the über-hip Ace Hotel in Downtown Portland. But once the night ended, the real work lay ahead: to hand-make, package and export the 1,200 pieces supporters had ordered.
On the afternoon I meet Meghan, the final pieces of the collection are in production when we tour the studio. It’s here—at the 2,000 square foot facility in North Portland—that all things Mazama spring to life from imagination to materialization. The space feels modern and industrial: high ceilings with exposed wooden beams; cool chrome kilns; cinderblock walls studded with racks of unfired pottery. There’s a feeling of camaraderie among the three employees, Sam Kashuk, Paige Wright and Daniel Granias, who, despite having completed nearly a thousand mugs and cups, show no hint of exhaustion.
A bearded Sam and platinum-blonde Paige are stooped over two orbiting potter’s wheels in the corner of the studio, the clay workshop. Sam explains how he’s centering the moistened clay, which in potter-jargon means he’s forcing it upward into a conical mound before the clay can take its final shape. Between finger trickling filmy drops of water to the surface, Sam explains how the unshapely mound will eventually become a large mug.
Paige is trimming the outside edge of what is clearly a mug. The vessel is held upside-down and centered above the wheel by a three-pronged metal tool called a Giffin Grip. After the wares are finished on the wheel, they are left to air from a few hours to a maximum of one day, until they reach a semi-stiff, leather hard consistency. At this point, Paige will trim the excess material from the ware to give it Mazama’s characteristic shape. From there, it will be kiln fired at 1,945 °F.
“After it gets fired once it becomes bisqueware and it gets this nice ting to it,” says Meghan, snapping her index finger across a sand-colored cup, which produces a tinny echo. Meghan tells me that once a vessel has been bisqued, it has the porosity to hold the pigmented glaze. One of Mazama’s four glazes will then be hand poured inside the bisqueware to create a liquid-safe interior. Glazing the exterior of the bisque ware, however, is far more hi-tech.
What resembles boxy medical equipment in the corner of the room is actually a spray booth: a white cubicle with an attached hose that Daniel, who is clad in a respirator mask, will use to airbrush the bisque pieces with glaze. In lieu of hand glazing the bisque, items are placed on a banding wheel and then coated in the glaze as dispersed by a neon pink spray nozzle. Daniel demonstrates the process by shooting the atom-like particles of the off-white Cloud glaze onto the surface of a tumbler, which shifts from sandbox tan to ivory tusk in seconds. Blink and you’ll miss it.
When asked how the team selected these glaze colors, Meghan laughs, “It was a lot of trial and error. I have boxes of all the testers!” The team currently uses four tones, Glass, Cloud, Ink and Ash, with more variations to come. But refining these simple colors and even the firing temperature for the glazes is a precise matter. “If we fired them at too hot a temperature, the wares became too shiny. If the temperature was too cool, they became speckled like 80’s acid wash jeans,” she says. Today the team has reached a happy medium and the exterior now boasts a semi-shiny surface called matte-satin.
As I leave the studio, Meghan offers me a souvenir from one of Mazama’s racks. I select an unassuming off-white mug. It’s neither too glossy nor reminiscent of a tacky denim fad. Perfectly plain for a black coffee drinker, right? Though I don’t use it until the next morning in my apartment, it does, in fact, change my drinking experience. I enjoy feeling its weight in my hand as I carry the mug. My drink feels secure – its importance has been elevated. And I can, for a moment, forget I’m a college student drinking Safeway-brand coffee.
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