Tony Sly

Tony Sly: Master of Craft

Reading Time: 10 Minutes

Renowned New Zealand potter Tony Sly is best known for his signature domestic pottery which is hand-thrown in a boat builder's shed on Raglan Wharf. The beauty and simplicity in each piece is what makes Tony Sly Pottery a favourite for many, designed to be used every day and for food to look good with. Zara Overton spoke with the man behind the scenes to find out how it all began, what inspires his making and the Newmarket outpost.

NEWMARKET. How did you first discover your passion for pottery?

TONY. I completed a night class when I was 20 and that was it; I was hooked and never looked back! Our teacher connected me with Elizabeth Woodfield, a local potter who needed an assistant, and Elizabeth taught me clay preparation, throwing, and glaze- making. I learned my studio practice from her.

N. Can you tell us what gave you the idea to start the Tony Sly brand?
T. I never set out to create a brand - I just wanted to make a living from doing the thing that I loved. The journey to “brand” has been like so many small businesses in New Zealand; you start by making something you want that isn’t available, or that you can’t find. I made my pots and sold them at markets, then I started selling whole ranges to shops, and then I managed to open my own store. Good business is about consistency over time, and about building trust with your clients. Do things properly and before you know it, you’ve got a brand!

N. Raglan has become a very well- known part of the Tony Sly story. Has your work taken inspiration from this landscape? If so, how?

T. Absolutely. I moved to Raglan from Hamilton about twenty years ago. It felt quite natural because I used to come here a lot. I loved the relaxed vibe and I loved walking the beach. It just felt obvious to base the studio in this lovely place. There’s something powerful about the way the natural environment nurtures you here. It’s very grounding. So, the pots I make have been influenced by that. Very simple and straightforward. The colours come from the landscape and the sea – greens and blues and chalky whites. I look at the harbour every day - the studio’s right on Raglan Wharf - and every day I pinch myself. It’s so beautiful here.

N. Tony Sly pottery is known for being rustic, artisanal and unique with small batch production. How long would it typically take to make a piece and what is involved in the process?

T. We always have a lot of work on the go and the key is to optimise the rhythm and flow of the studio by working as a tight team. It’s a bit like being the head chef in the kitchen of a busy restaurant. I’m the first step in a long chain. I personally hand-throw each piece on the wheel before passing it on to the team for finishing, bisque firing, glazing, and then firing again. When the pieces come out of the kiln for the second time each one needs to be checked for quality before being priced and sent to Auckland, or to our Online store, or to the shelves in our Raglan shop. Each piece takes me just a minute or so to create on the wheel, but then there are 24 steps over 3-4 weeks before it’s finished and ready to be sold.

N. How would you define your style of work and how did it develop?
T. My work developed from my interest in cooking and food. I wanted to make things I’d use in my own kitchen. Simple shapes with a beautiful glaze, and in colours that food would look good against. The creativity of the customer is important; the pieces really only get finished when they get used. I like to think that they make cooking a bit more interesting and satisfying. In fact, I’m sure part of the business’s success is around the fact that the pieces aren’t sitting in the backs of cupboards not being used. People often tell me what they use particular pots for, and I love hearing those stories. We’re selling pottery to the second generation of customers and cooks now!

N. Are there any colour trends/styles that we can expect to see coming through this year?
T. I don't want to over-promise and under-deliver but I’m working on some new colours to complement the sage, lime and milky white pieces in our Modern range. Watch this space.

N. Can you tell us about your workshop space?
T. I work in a big boat builder's shed on Raglan Wharf. It’s a dream really - light and airy, perfect for drying pottery, and with an amazing view across the harbour. It’s a double- height space that we’ve filled with pottery, furniture, accessories, and homewares and it’s all a little bit unexpected on the end of the wharf. When people come in the door there’s good music playing, and it feels relaxed and homely... and our team at the shop are lovely and look after you!

N. Did you come from a creative background?
T. I didn’t grow up in a creative environment, but my hands were always busy making things. I grew up in Mangaweka and Te Kuiti and as a child I would spend a lot of time in my grandfather’s shed. He was a plumber, and I used his cast-off materials to beat out little copper bowls or little driftwood sculptures, always in multiples. I made dozens of those copper bowls. Not much different from today really!

N. When you are not creating, what can we find you doing?
T. I live in the countryside outside Raglan where I have a two acre garden that I’m trying to develop. Being outdoors is a lovely contrast to the long hours over the potter’s wheel. Weekends in Auckland give me the important city fix.

N. Where do you look to for creativity/ inspiration?
T. Living in the country, the changing seasons and the shifting light are always inspiring. My Instagram feed is filled with gardens and interiors and it’s always about the feeling of the images rather than the look. My partner Tim is a gallerist, so I feel very lucky to be able to meet the artists and collectors from his world. It’s a real privilege to look at great art and spend time with it. It’s an education.

N. The colourways of your pieces are quite distinctive with signature rustic greens, neutrals, earthy tones, and more recently, turquoises and yellow – how did you develop your own colour palette and has it changed with time?

T. I put a lot of effort into developing our glazes. There’s a lot of trial and error involved in achieving not just the correct colour but the correct tone. We want to retain a sense of cohesion within the range and the colours are inspired by the environment here in Raglan; earthy tones, watery blues and greens, misty whites. I’m in the process now of developing some new glaze colours that I hope people will enjoy, but having said that I don't actively set out to make new colours just for the sake of it. It’s more of a natural evolution. One thing leads to another. And always in the back of my mind is the fact that food needs to look good on it.

N. Alongside pottery, your Newmarket store also boasts a selection of olive oil soaps, kitchen utensils and linen. What is important to you when deciding on products that will complement your pottery?
T. That’s easy. I only offer things in the shop that I’d want to have at home. It means the whole range is coherent, considered and edited. Everything goes with everything else. It’s been a slow but very satisfying process building the range. I hope people like it.

N. As well as your Raglan and Newmarket stores, you also have an online store. Has establishing your online presence changed the way you do business? If so, how?

T. Online is a natural complement to the two stores, especially as we no longer have stockists around the country. People can order our pottery from the comfort of their sofas or kitchen tables, and we ship overnight. When you need a gift in a hurry the overnight service is useful!

N. Opening a store outside of Raglan must have felt like an exciting step. What made you decide on Newmarket as the location for your Auckland store?

T. We have clients all over the country, but Newmarket has always been the go-to destination for visitors from outside of Auckland. Most of our neighbours on Teed Street are independent owner-operators, so there’s a great boutiquey feel to the neighbourhood. We couldn't hope for a better location. I still remember the night Tim and I saw the For Lease sign in the window as we came out of a movie at the Rialto. It’s funny to think of such a small event having such huge impact.

N. What is Newmarket’s best kept secret?
T. Do you mean apart from Tony Sly Pottery?! Personally, I love Osborne Lane and the Rialto film festivals.

N. What are your most popular items?
T. I can never make enough Pasta bowls or Coffee mugs. The French linen and British pepper grinders fly off the shelves too.

N. Do you have an all-time favourite piece?
T. Simple is best and I really enjoy throwing our vase shapes. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of filling it with an armful of flowers from the garden.

N. You’re hosting a dinner party for friends. What do you serve?
T. Like my pottery, my cooking style is pretty simple. I love hosting friends at home but I’m most likely to make comfort food like roast chicken, or fresh fish from Raglan Wharf with a salad from the garden. I suspect my friends are a bit tired of my Apricot Flan by now.

N. What’s next for the brand?
T. Now that we’re established in Newmarket, we’re expanding our capacity with a new kiln. We’ll also be relaunching our Online Store. I’m enjoying the business challenges but at the same time I’m always searching for the next beautiful shape or the satisfaction that comes from finally getting a glaze right. We’ve noticed that restaurant chefs are looking for more authentic hand-made serving-ware and increasingly we’re being asked to supply restaurants with whole ranges of plates and platters. The things you see on the shelves when you come into our stores are the same things you’d see in my own kitchen. And we’ve always been about natural evolution, with one thing leading to the next, rather than big shifts of creative direction. My shops are quite personal. When people visit, I really want them to feel as if they’ve visited my home.

18 Teed Street |