Delicious smells of baking welcome me as I step in to potter Katherine Mahoney’s house.
My photographer friend Harriet Turnnidge and I have been driving for a couple of hours, and a warm welcome into Katherine's kitchen revives us immediately.
There we meet Steve, founder of Clay Cups Australia, already sipping tea he brought back for Katherine from a recent trip to Japan. I add some UNBUSY blends to the mix and we all get acquainted over sips.
Katherine then invites us to follow her through a brick moon gate into her garden and down to her potting studio where the creativity happens.
Steve is tall. He stoops in the potting studio so I suggest we all pull up a stool for the interview while Harriet photographs them discreetly.
Steve, having worked in hospitality for twenty years was aware early on of the pollution epidemic created by single use coffee cups, and he wanted no part in furthering the mess. In 2016, whilst working in his Paddington cafe, he saw Mahoney's work displayed in a nearby store and knew it would suit his re-usable clay cup idea.
A potter for over forty years, Katherine Mahoney exhibited and ran studios in England and then for over a decade in Hong Kong and South East Asia, gaining international recognition. She settled in Australia in 1996 and has exhibited and collaborated with galleries, restaurants and businesses for over two decades.
Steve believes meeting Katherine was serendipitous. For Katherine, Steve’s Clay Cup idea was an exciting proposition.
“It's very nice to have somebody like Steve with a vision pushing you in a direction that you might not go on your own”, says Katherine.
Katherine’s hand making with clay appealed to Steve, “It’s more sustainable than the stuff that's pumped out in the factories off-shore."
He believes it’s like we’re returning to the tech we've used for thousands of years. Clay, being one hundred percent natural is not polluting and once broken gets ground down returning to the earth.
“We wanted to make something beautiful and unique that we can produce in large quantities yet when it breaks we and the earth can afford to replace it. “
Steve tells me about the current market and how the main travel cup brands have done a great job getting this concept to where it is today but ironically, he says, a lot of re-usable cups are still plastic so have an end of life. The hugely impactful documentary series War on Waste hits home with just how drastic our waste problem is.
“They may talk about recycling them but they're still plastic. They're still toxic to our earth. It's all about infinite growth in a finite planet. We’ll kill ourselves if we don't change."
Steve believes his clay cup solution is the next step, the “next generation". “They’re totally environmentally sustainable. “
To start, Katherine got to work producing hundreds of cups focusing on the lip and lid fit as it’s a vital element for both the customer and barista.
“We worked through lots of machinations, we assessed and adjusted. We asked, are we doing the right thing? Is it good? There was a lot of trial and error “ says Katherine.
Being a perfectionist, Steve tells me, Katherine deemed many of the cups “a failure”. To preserve morale and make production more efficient, they decided to work with a larger pottery establishment. Once they were happy with the cup design, Katherine made models and then these were given to a pottery works to make a mold of each using traditional equipment called a jigger and jolly.
Knowing they have this consistency of product allows them to produce at scale and have a better chance competing in a busy market.
I asked Katherine if there was a bridge to cross moving from her prototype creations to engaging a larger pottery works?
“No, not really. They're in larger scale production but the cups are still beautiful. I think we've managed to maintain that romance and authenticity.”
I comment to Katherine that the dimensions and the colours of the cups alone sells them even without knowing the ethos behind them.
“Thank you! I'm delighted to hear that. That's what we've spent so much energy on. “
In the seventies, industrial scale manufacturers tried to replicate the "hand thrown" look and cottage style designs that were once the realm of the individual ceramists. As a result, small pottery businesses died away.
But now, Katherine believes because we’re glued to our devices and not having a very tactile lifestyle, we’re needing to get back to the unique and the humanistic.
“I think that’s why there’s been this new surge in ceramics. And I think it’s here to stay.”
“But also”, says Steve, “Katherine’s designs are a thing of beauty and that gives our cups a level of cachet that helps them stand out amongst our competition.”
For both Katherine and Steve, creating the Clay Cups business has changed their behaviour. Katherine says she’s now far more conscious of her impact on the environment with her own packaging consumption and recycling.
Using clay cups, Katherine says,”It’s a metaphor for how it could affect everyone.”
“I can't get rid of fossil fuels and I can't build solar panels, Steve says, “but this is my expertise. This is the little thing that I can do to change my part of the world."
We walk up through the garden to sit on Katherine’s veranda. We eat slice after slice of her delicious home made cake, sip tea and chat in the glorious sunshine; how UNBUSY.
Photographs by Harriet Turnnidge @harrietturnnidge
Shop for Clay Cups HERE.