Becky Mackenzie has always been a designer with a rare eye. Sold by The Conran Shop and Designers Guild, and featured in Elle Decoration and Living Etc, her work is bold and restrained, simple and sophisticated. Dan May sat down to a long lunch with Becky and, once the wine was ordered, they tried to unravel the eternal question of, ‘How did I get here?’
I grew up with a best friend who quite literally knew he was going to be a Doctor from the day I met him, and he is to this day. I on the other hand despite innumerable opportunities still don’t know what I eventually will be… so today we’ll think of me as a writer. And you… a fevered desire to pot or did you stumble upon ‘that thing for which you are gifted’?
Possibly both! I came to all this rather unexpectedly. At a party I was invited to visit a ceramicist in her studio, and despite knowing virtually nothing of the skills and processes involved I was instantly hooked on the transformation of a damp lump of clay into something beautiful and utterly unique. I immediately enrolled on a foundation course that resulted in my studying for a degree in ceramic design at Central St Martins… but it was still very much a hobby in my mind.
Not a main focus?
No, I was working for Vogue and English National Opera at the time. I think both were hugely influential on what I now create, although then I had no idea what that maybe.
And there was a gradual realisation that you were maybe doing something special?
No… I still can’t see that. I can look at something now and know that it works… it’s definitely very personal, instinctive I suppose. I make things I like but I constantly doubt that it will appeal to anyone else.
But it clearly does. I remember you once telling me that your first customer was The Conran Shop.
Yes, and I’m still in shock. I was exhibiting my degree show and they approached me to ask if they could sell my work, which was nice – and quite surreal!
So you were 26? Just finished studying and suddenly you were supplying The Conran Shop, Designers Guild, London boutique store K.J.’s Laundry and modern home store Mint to name but a few. But six months later you were living in the wilds of Northumberland?
It sounds odd when you say it like that, but I came up to visit friends who had moved up to work with the Northern Sinfonia intending to stay for a week or so, and never went back. That was a decade ago! I carried on supplying my existing customers for a time after I moved but I began to feel uneasy about the style of my work. I was changing and my work needed to change too. I was relatively young and inexperienced still and I lacked the confidence to say: ‘This is what I am doing now. I hope you like it!’ It was important I maintained the honesty of my own voice even if that meant doing nothing for a while. It’s always an enormous gamble though.
I remember David Attenborough being asked once why he never did adverts and he said it was vital people could believe what he said. If he started saying that margarine was like motherhood, people would think he was a talking rubbish. In essence, this is the same argument; if people are to believe in the credibility of individual artistic vision whether in music, writing or indeed ceramics there needs to be a clear unwillingness to compromise that integrity.
That’s kind of right. It becomes easy to just churn out work because it will be readily accepted.
But success can often be important in breeding confidence, so can’t stepping away be in many ways just as damaging?
Confidence isn’t everything though. It certainly doesn’t mean you make more right decisions. I mean, Donald Trump seems very confident...
When I was researching this article I came across a ‘Where Are They Now?’ page on the New Designers website – top of the list was Becky Mackenzie. So clearly the disappearing act you did from London was a success?
When I came north I was looking for a way to creatively be myself. Living in London there is plenty of opportunity but always too much competition, even for the most meaningless commissions – the work that pays the bills but kills any creativity. You are constantly battling to get your foot in the door and that often means replicating things that you know will appeal to the client. There’s a loss of creative control and so by default it becomes less personal. It’s easy for your work to stop representing you. If it makes you feel like a clone of everyone else then it’s time give up and do something else.
So what was that for you, what did you find in Northumberland?
Growing chillies, love, children, marriage and the space to explore the ideas I wanted to develop. If you have become known for a certain style or presentation of your work it becomes increasingly hard to move away from that. The longer you leave making a change the less likely you are to ever do it, I’m pretty sure the same goes for most things in life.
And now you’re married, with three children and settled in the rural North East. How has this altered how you view your work?
I have never stopped working on my ideas. My children have done an amazing job of filling my time but have helped me to prioritise things. I can be really productive with my time now, far more than I ever was as a single woman living in the city. Everything informs what you do. There is far less superfluous decoration in my new work; the form and balance of the piece are their defining characteristics and they are allowed to take centre stage. The work is much more mature and feels, to me, more refined.
So all part of the grand curve of life…
You can’t be impatient. As my Dad always tells me, ‘It’s all about the singing of the song,’ and I have learnt to have faith.
I love the current work. It feels like a new chapter?
I have spent a long time, too long possibly, in refining some seemingly unimportant technical processes that I could never get to the bottom of. But I can now create the ultra-fine bone china pieces that I have always envisaged. Bone china is a pain to work with – no plasticity, desperately fragile until fired and prone to catastrophic deformation and collapse when it is!
It shows every detail of how it was made and it’s certainly the most honest material I’ve worked with. Every piece is completely individual. It is very pure.
So really you don’t know if something has worked until the kiln door is opened?
It’s full of surprises. I can take something out of the kiln and realise that is has gone ‘wrong’, but it looks better than anything I could have intentionally designed. That moment of maker and material almost collaborating on a piece, when it happens, is magical.
Mmmmm, completely. Life isn’t meant to be easy!
This refinement of the work itself is a perfect fit for the Lagom ideology – but how did it come about? It feels like something that motherhood has had a hand in, or at least something of an innately feminine development.
I’m not sure. I don’t really buy into the idea that men and women are that different. We are certainly conditioned to believe that we aren’t the same, but I can’t really tell by looking at a piece whether it was made by a man or a woman. Although the experience of motherhood itself can undoubtedly alter a woman dramatically, I don’t see that the impact of fatherhood is any less. I guess it is more of an intellectual development, a need to strip away unnecessary embellishment. I don’t think it is uncommon though. What was the quote by Yeats about needing to remove the heavy coat his earlier poems wore? I think that is quite nice.
So is this a newly liberated way of working?
Complete freedom is lovely I’m sure, but I choose to place constant constraints on how I work, they are a kind of private set of rules that pressurise the creative process. They are there to make it harder, to force me to make decisions that are carried forward through the work, to remove some of the limitless choice we have in everyday life. It is not necessary to share these rules, but I can see their influence in my work. Of course they are my rules, so I could also choose to ignore them!
So how do you decide what to make and who may like it?
Ideas come fairly freely and in the end I, by default, make everything for myself. If I analysed what it was people liked about the work then maybe I could develop some visualisation of what my client may look like but in reality I am happy for them to all be individuals. My work has quite a specific appeal but there is a very broad church who like those elements. I have currently swung heavily back towards bespoke tableware and away from the small abstract pieces of a few years ago. I am very keen to explore these ceramics in a restaurant setting although their individual nature means it would have to be the right place. And the idea of creating heirloom gifts is appealing – although I can’t quite express why.