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From fashion to form

Clothing designer turned potter, Deborah Sweeney takes the wheel.

Fashion followers who miss Deborah Sweeney’s label can rejoice in the news that the talented clothing designer has turned her talents to creating covetable homewares. Today, instead of designing seasonal collections and showing at New Zealand Fashion Week, she is happily sitting at a pottery wheel or creating pieces by hand from New Zealand clay. And, just like her fashion label, her homewares are in hot demand.

Photography Niels Meyer-Westfeld

Sweeney took a sabbatical from her 15-year-old label to spend more time with her youngest son Romeo before he started school. During this time she did some clay workshops and fell in love with the process.

“I was keen for a change of pace and ceramics offered me that,” Sweeney says. “It was getting harder to make the overseas sales trips, overseas trade shows etc with the collection and two young boys. Ceramics meant I could work from home, spend more time with my boys (Lars, 10, and Romeo, 7) and still be creative.”

Husband Niels Meyer-Westfeld, a talented artist and photographer, has always been her biggest supporter. “I had the label for 15 years…and

I loved it. Niels and I worked together and we travelled a lot. We had so many great experiences and fashion was really good to us. We have no regrets,” she says.

She admits it took her a couple of years to let go of her fashion label completely but now she couldn’t be happier with her change in direction.

Meyer-Westfeld recently completed the build of her home studio, which means getting part of the kitchen back!

One thing she has discovered about the pottery community in New Zealand and around the world is how open it is. “I’ve found it really encouraging, welcoming and inclusive,” she says. “There are plenty of people willing to help out either through the clubrooms I belong to here in Wellington or other potters working away in their studios. It’s a really special craft and I’m incredibly grateful to be doing what I love.”

Photography Niels Meyer-Westfeld

What inspires you in your work?

We live in what our friends describe as a treehouse. So with nature all around it does inspire both Niels and I in our work. I’ve always loved mid-century design and have been an avid vintage collector for some time now – you can see some mid-century influences in my ceramics too.

How does it work having two creatives in the house?

Thankfully he’s a very organised and relatively tidy artist. I make a fair bit of creative mess! So we are a pretty good team and it’s so good to be able to bounce ideas off each other. Niels has a studio on our top deck here at home and is building me one underneath. We both love our home and feel privileged to be able to work here amongst the trees with views over the water. It’s really a special place.

What type of kiln do you work with?

An electric New Zealand-made Cobcraft kiln.

Do you do all your firings at home?

I do now… lockdown advanced my home studio plans with the purchase of my first wheel and kiln.

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

My work has been described as warm and wholesome. It’s textural, organic and modern. The colour palette is soft and of the earth. All the matte glaze colours I have especially developed. Quality workmanship is a big focus for me too – I’m always looking to allow myself to take the time to improve and advance my work.

Photography Niels Meyer-Westfeld

What type of clay do you work with and why?

I work with New Zealand clay as much as I can – grogged or ungrogged. I hand-blend it with New Zealand volcanic sand and it creates a random speckle that I absolutely love when fired at high temperature. New Zealand clay, New Zealand sand… I like to think my customers have a handmade organic little piece of New Zealand.

How did you learn to do pottery?

I did several workshops through Wellington Potters Association. It is a wonderful club here in Wellington where I have been lucky enough to be mentored by some very talented and experienced potters.

Photography Niels Meyer-Westfeld

Are there any particular potters or artists you most admire and why?

Being a fan of mid-century design, some of the artists I admire from this period are Barbara Hepworth, Valentine Schlegel, Hans Coper, Lucie Rie. I love the organic and simple forms, the glazes and texture these potters/sculptors achieve in their work.

What do you love most about working with clay?

I love the endless possibilities of working with clay. The mindfulness of wheel-thrown pottery and the challenge of hand-building where you can shape and manipulate the clay to change it from something quite rough to a finished and more refined piece of work. It’s really a privilege to slow down and create by hand. I’m extremely grateful to be able to make a living from my pottery. I also love the simplicity of pottery – it’s just you and the clay. There’s never any waste – whatever is trimmed or left over is recycled and reused.

What do you find the most challenging?

Physically pottery is more demanding than most people realise. I always have a long list of pieces to make and try to keep a balance between pottery, regular exercise and family life. It can be all-consuming – in a good way …but one of the reasons I took up pottery was for a change of pace – more time with my family so I’m always looking to achieve this balance.

Photography Niels Meyer-Westfeld
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