Can we talk about mugs?
SPECIFICALLY THE PRICE OF MUGS….
If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you can't have missed my recent rant about the pricing of mugs. I'd just spent a whole week working on over 60 mugs, and was attaching handles at 10pm at night when it occurred to me that there was no way my mug prices were enough to cover the work involved. In fact, most potters I know are not charging enough for mugs - on average prices are around £20 - £25 - for possibly one of the most complex and difficult, yet well-loved forms we make.
This blog post attempt to unpick some of the rationale behind my feelings on this.
A huge number of potters and customers commented on my post (over 200 comments), giving really valuable insights into pottery pricing trends. I thought it might be useful to go through the comments and pick out some of the key points raised. This was the original Instagram post:
“Most people don’t realise how difficult mugs are to make. For a potter, they are probably one of the trickiest things to get right. Mugs take a lot of work and the rate of failures is high. Size issues, warping, handles popping off, S-cracks, crazing... just to name a few of the issues which seem to plague mugs. Anyone learning pottery will tell you that handles are the hardest thing and take years to master. So why then are they one of the cheapest handmade, artisan items you can buy? I am still perplexed by this
In my first year of trading I went on a pricing course with @thedeigntrust At this point I had priced nearly all of my items far too low and was encouraged by Patricia, our very experienced course leader, to put my prices up but I was dismayed to discover there is a ceiling price on mugs - you can’t really charge more than £30-£35 for a mug - £40 at a real push maybe for a big mug or something extra, extra, extra special. There are many other items in pottery which you can charge more or less whatever someone is prepared to pay (e.g. vases can be priced at thousands of pounds) but not the humble mug, maybe it’s because there is so much choice out there, maybe because of the perceived value of a mug
For something that has a function, you can use every single day multiple times and is beautiful to look at - if you look at cost per use - mugs are an absolute steal!...how much would you pay for a handmade mug?”
Why am I talking about pricing in the first place?
First off, I know some potters wouldn’t even dream of writing a blog post about their pricing, they just have their prices and that’s it - if you don’t like it, don’t buy it - and that’s fair enough. I must say, when I put my thoughts on pricing in print it almost felt like I was apologising for what I charge. Some would argue I shouldn’t have to justify my prices. But I feel that opening up dialogue about pricing can only be a good thing. Educating customers on why pottery costs what it costs can only benefit both parties - those that buy my mugs will treasure their unique pieces even more than they already do and I will be able to charge what my work is actually worth (and be able to feed my cats and pay my electric bill ;-)
So, why do many - if not most - potters undercharge for their mugs?
When I look at pricing my work it can be really difficult to know where to start. At the beginning of my pottery career things generally took longer to make than they do now - so I couldn’t really charge by time at that point. So, like most potters I know, I looked outside of my processes to see what others in the market were charging - and maybe that’s how the undervaluation starts. I felt like I couldn’t go above the status quo - why would anyone pay £30 for my mugs when someone else is charging £20? Worse still, at times I’d look at what people were paying for non-handmade mugs and would consider whether I should be trying to compete with that.
Joanna from @bluebearvendingco comments:
I think potters charging less than even £30 for a handmade mug is doing a disservice to the whole craft, it is sending the wrong message entirely. The average I pay is around £45 for US potter’s work (and then obviously I have to add shipping to that too) - I have paid as low as about £18, and as high as £80 - one artist I love charges the equivalent of £150 for a porcelain cup - I would be sad if I broke it, but also as the customer I need to recognise that a replacement doesn’t come instantly, it takes a lot of hard work. When I eventually make some of my own to sell, I’ll charge no less than £35.
Is the market saturated with mugs?
You can pick up mugs for £1 in Ikea. Charity shops are full of them. They are on our supermarket shelves. We can pick up a mug from just about any high street store. Is this what lowers the price of our handmade loveliness?
Any economist would say most probably. However, from my perspective this just indicates how much the world obviously loves mugs! What I need to do as a potter is separate out the handmade from the mass-produced. I should stop trying to compete with commercially made mugs, in fact I shouldn’t (and would argue that no potters should) even look at how John Lewis or even (dare I say it) Emma Bridgewater - both high quality yet factory-made brands - have priced mugs. We need to educate our audience to how much work, experience, skill, and emotion goes into the handmade object - I know that a mug is not something I can rush or produce on any kind of scale - my handmade mugs are all unique works of art. A factory produced mug can be great, but it is not the same.
Let’s take a look at value
Before I became a potter I worked in footwear - for ten years I marketed shoes. Our customers would part with £100 - £200 every single year for a new pair of boots. Admittedly it was a significant spend that wasn’t undertaken lightly. Although not handmade, the boots were well-made and if cared for they could last for a year or two regular wear before looking tired.
A handmade mug on the other hand can be used every single day - for life. Seriously, a well made mug, when cared for (i.e. washed by hand and not accidentally broken) - can be used multiple times a day - forever. If we are talking cost per use then I would say that was pretty spectacular value. I can’t think of another item which offers quite such excellent value for money.
Think about how much you spent on the last pair of shoes you bought? I bet it was more than the last handmade mug you bought. I’m not suggesting we all start charging £100 for mugs (although if you believe your work is worth that then go ahead), I’m merely pointing out we should be mindful about the lifetime value we are getting with a handmade mug.
Labelling is a problem
There seems to be a huge disconnect with the effort involved in producing a mug, and the pricing of it. Transfer, sublimation, screen printed or decal mugs can be labeled as handmade, which I feel can really confuse consumers. You know the ones? These are mostly white bone china with a slogan/graphic/illustration printed on them. These mugs are nearly always made in a factory using the slip cast method and bought in by a maker who then adds graphic transfers by hand. I’m not saying that this makes these mugs any less lovely of course, they can still be beautiful & high quality but are made using a very different process than mugs thrown on the wheel from a ball of mud - and therefore they can be sold at a lower price without the maker being out of pocket. I think this reminds us that we need to be open about our processes and describe them as much as possible.
I’m not alone...
From the conversations that followed my post on Instagram its clear that potters who have a deep understanding of the processes involved in producing a mug will pay substantially more for an item, but unless us potters just want to circulate our money around and around within our own industry and subsequently stunt any kind of growth we need to encourage spend from outside of it too.
Tom Demeranville on Facebook put it nicely:
“There is a premium on 'art' purely because it's useless. Functional items suffer the curse of being useful and therefore, cheaper. Art is never priced by the amount of effort spent creating it. Still, I'm glad it's true. It's the only way I can afford to buy other potters work. A Lisa Hammond production mug is 30ish quid. A Lisa Hammond teabowl more like £300. You pay more for the lack of handle. Capitalism makes no sense.”
Is this because Lisa Hammond herself would not have made the production mugs? They would have been made by one of her apprentices - therefore what you are paying for with one of her tea bowls is actually for the makers touch - her years of experience, knowledge of her craft and the many, many, many pots which had to fail before she put that tea bowl out into the world. Still it doesn’t make a lot of sense when in most other industries we price by effort, time, quantity of materials. Maybe it’s because pottery spans both craft and art - which is a whole other argument.
Location location location
Price is also location-dependent it seems. In the USA, Canada and Denmark - mugs are priced much higher. It’s not unusual for mugs to be sold for $50- $70 (£54 - £39), and I am not 100 per cent sure why this is the case - if anyone can shed light on this I would love to hear from you. Likewise mugs for sale in a gallery or a ceramic specialist market are often sold for higher prices than mugs in at generic craft market. Is this due to the patrons of those places being more likely to be informed about the making processes involved and therefore more willing to spend the amount the piece is worth?
People don’t cuddle up with a butter dish
Bruce Swan from Bruce Swan Ceramic Stuff on Instagram [@bswan61] puts my feelings about mugs into words beautifully:
“It’s funny when you understand that a mug or a cup is usually the most intimate of functional objects. On a cold morning a warm mug is actually cradled in ones hands. A drinking vessel is one of the few pieces you own that not only touches your face, but is actually kissed in the process of it’s use. People often have a favourite, comfortable mug that they go to over and over. Most of the mugs I make might be similar, but I like to make them as individual as I can. I think that enhances their value as an art work and enables me to promote them as such. Sometime(s) I think potters devalue their own work as “only a mug” because its a piece they seem to ‘mass produce’. Rejoice in your mugs and promote them. They’re awesome. People don't cuddle up with a butter dish.
So what does it take to make a mug?
Comments on my post revealed, to my surprise, that many potters don’t even make mugs as they are just too hard and they lose too many to faults or failures during the process. Mugs are one of my most popular items so I can’t imagine not making them - but I have certainly lost a few dozen in my time.
So, for any non-potters out there who may not know the amount of work which goes into one of my mugs allow me to briefly explain the process.
After I prepare the clay, I throw the mug on the wheel (it took a good few years to become good at keeping the walls of the mug thin and even - and that’s after months of learning to throw anything at all!). It is important to get the size right at this stage (clay shrinks 10-20 per cent on firing) so unless I want to make espresso mugs it is important to make the mug 10 - 20 per cent bigger than the final piece at this point.
The mug is carefully cut off the wheel, ensuring it is not warped in the process and left to dry to go leather hard. After a few days, I put the mug back on the wheel for the base to be trimmed and tided up. In the meantime I will make the handles to fit the exact dimensions and volume of each mug perfectly - an over sized handle can look off-balance and clumsy but an undersized handle can be weak and be difficult to grip. Any potter will tell you - handles are extremely difficult to make well. A lot of mugs never make it past this part of the process (hence why decal mugs are cheaper- the handles are made by factory processes)
The handles are carefully attached one by one using ‘slip’ (clay glue) and carefully adjusted into position. The joins are worked together very carefully so the two pieces of clay become one - if not joined correctly the two pieces of clay will likely pull apart upon drying and cracks will form. The mug is then control dried very slowly - probably for about a week - allowing the moisture to evaporate evenly. If drying is uneven the mug is likely to warp, distort out of shape and again crack.
Once bone-dry the mug is put into the kiln for its first firing - normally to just over 1000 degrees. This takes about 36 - 48 hours. Once the mug is cooled it can be decorated and glazed - depending on the design this might take minutes to a couple of hours.
Most of my glazes are hand painted on to the bisque as I prefer the control this gives me - however this is more time consuming than dip glazing. The mug is then left to dry again, before being put back into the kiln and fired a second time to 1200 degrees centigrade, usually taking 24-36 hours. The mug will be taken out of the kiln and inspected and the bottom lightly sanded to make it smooth. If all is well during the second firing then voilá - you have a mug!
A shot of joy
Mugs are an everyday item - we open the cupboard in the morning and there they are, waiting to give us the first sustenance of the day. That’s why we should be filling our cupboards with special mugs which give us a shot of joy before we’ve even properly woken up to the world.
Alyson Blamey hit the nail on the head for me with her Facebook comment:
“Mmm well seen as though this is a nice sharing caring group, I will admit to having paid substantially more than £35 for a mug or Japanese tea cup in the past. I cannot bear having a cup of tea or coffee in any old mug (sorry), I have to feel some form of connection to the mug. That might be about colour, shape or size but I know it when I feel it. Admittedly because I develop a strong connection to a mug, if it does get broken or chipped I am devastated. But better to have loved and lost.... I have a strong connection to your stormy blue green mug, hence why I bought one of your tea sets- I would have paid more because it is lovely.” (Sic)
We all have our favourite mug - in fact I have several - all of mine are from potters I love. I think of the maker every time I use them, I wonder how they are doing, what they are making that day. I think about the moment that mug was pulled from the kiln, the relief, the smile on the maker’s face when they realise it’s beauty, and I hope that you will now too.
My thoughts on mug pricing is still complex and I don’t have all of the answers - the impulsive side of me thinks all potters should put up their prices by at least £10 immediately - £20 to account for back-payments ;-) there is little doubt in my mind that I will be putting the prices of my mugs up a little over the coming months. However, the more pragmatic part of me feels that I should continue to offer folks a way of accessing handmade pottery via the humble mug - offering such high quality, beautiful work at an affordable price will only mean customers will fall head over heels in love with our craft and hopefully become life long converts, only ever buying handmade from that point onwards.
If you have got to the end of this blog post - I thank you and congratulate you ;-) The last and probably the most important point I want to make is this - handmade mugs offer connection. Connection to the form, connection to the glaze colours and most importantly of all connection to another human being - the maker. As social animals that is what we all crave on a human level - one-on-one connection. A mass produced mug can never offer that.
If you have any thoughts on the pricing of mugs I'd love to hear them.