The New New England Heirlooms
Slide Show: New England Heirlooms
Our six-state region is filled with talented artisans crafting beautiful (and functional) pieces for the home. But there are a few whose work is so consistently spectacular–the result of more loving labor than most of us could possibly imagine–that they’ve achieved national and international renown. Even when brand-new, the pieces these artisans produce decidedly qualify as heirlooms. And by heirlooms, we don’t mean those dusty, fusty, unclaimed antiques lurking in attics and moldy basements. These are works we covet. They’re exquisite, timeless, in most cases quite practical, and destined to be cherished for generations to come. Here and on the following pages we’ll take a close look at a handful of creations that are well worth the investment. And we’ll go into the studio with the talented people behind these pieces to find out what makes their work so special, and why they’re committed to doing what they do–and to doing it in New England.
HAND-THROWN, HAND-CARVED POTTERY
Though master potter Miranda Thomas has lived and worked in Vermont since 1983, her voice still carries the lyrical lilt of someone who grew up in Italy and Australia and then trained in her craft in England. She’s become completely devoted to her new home state, however. “Vermont is practical, strong, independent, sustainably minded, and self-sufficient,” she says. “And I love the nature here–I love its being part of my life. I love the seasons, too. They test you, and make you humble.”
Thomas and her team create all their pottery by hand: It’s hand-thrown, hand-carved, and hand-painted, with intricate nature-inspired designs. She compares the process to caring for a cow. “You have to tend it every day,” she says of the multiple time-consuming steps involved in creating each piece. But she wouldn’t rush the process: “When we make anything, we know it can last for hundreds of years–or more. So we have to make it beautiful.”
It’s so beautiful, in fact, that Thomas’s pottery has been given as a gift–and a peace offering–to some of the world’s most prominent leaders. Then-President Bill Clinton asked her to make 16 bowls for him to present during a trip to the Middle East, and later requested her carved porcelain Peace bowl, in white, as a gift for Pope John Paul II. And then, “the United Nations Association of New York asked me to make a gift for then-Secretary General Kofi Annan, and they’ve been giving my pieces as gifts for 10 years. Last year Yoko Ono got one.” In 2007, she created her aqua-and-cobalt Water for Life bowls for the U.N. Association’s Humanitarian Awards gala, and a handful of those limited-edition pieces are still available for sale.
Prized heirloom: Thomas studies the work of ancient potters, and cites an 11th-century Chinese plate and bowl as beloved pieces, along with Japanese tea bowls she inherited from her grandfather. “Pottery is considered a treasure in Japan,” she says, “so when you’re collecting art, you collect pottery.”
Favorite Miranda Thomas pot: “There’s one piece in our showroom in Hanover [New Hampshire] that I’m loath to sell. It’s a black carved Ali Baba vase with a black doe. It’s emblematic of the skill level of the pottery at the moment. When I see it, I know we’re doing all right.”
Famous fans: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, Robert Redford, United Nations Association of New York
ShackletonThomas, Bridgewater, Vermont. 802-672-5175; shackletonthomas.com
SWANS ISLAND BLANKETS
Most commercial wool products are made from fleeces that have been through a rather unpleasant process called carbonization: bathed in toxic chemicals (think hydrochloric and sulfuric acids) to remove the chaff (bits of seeds, hay, and other debris), which also strips away the natural lanolin. Not so with the fleeces used to craft the simple, soft, elegant blankets from Swans Island. “We wash our fleeces in organic soap,” explains co-owner Bill Laurita. This gentle process leaves the fleeces clean and toxin-free, but doesn’t chemically eliminate the chaff; Bill and his dedicated team remove any remaining chaff from each blanket by hand–with surgical tweezers. “It sounds like a joke,” he laughs, “but we really do.”
Following an apprenticeship at Swans Island, Laurita took over the company from founders John and Carolyn Grace eight years ago. He now oversees all operations and design work and is currently working to build a best-in-class all-natural dye house. Laurita insists on using all-natural dyes, derived mainly from plant sources such as lotus trees and indigo plants, for all Swans Island products.
Though he acknowledges that the company’s off-the-beaten-path location presents challenges when it comes to running the business, he has no intention of moving. “There’s nothing like the coast of Maine,” he says. “It’s inspiring. You can go out and fill yourself up with the nature experience, and then if you’re lucky, you have some sort of artistic outlet.”