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Mugs at Blue Sparrow Coffee. Cups and plates at Berkeley Supply. Tableware of all sorts at the Way Home in Carbondale and Beckon on Larimer Street. Just one year after leaving his software career for full-time pottery making, Sean VanderVliet has managed to infiltrate design-savvy coffeeshops, retail stores, and restaurants in Denver and beyond with his midcentury modern wares, sold under the Fenway Clayworks brand. Each made-to-order piece is the result of an in-depth collaboration between VanderVliet and his client. We pulled the busy ceramicist away from his wheel for long enough to tell us about his design process and why local chefs inspire some of his favorite work.
5280: When did your passion for pottery begin?
Sean VanderVliet: Growing up, our home was filled with my aunt’s and my stepfather’s pottery. And from the time I was 10 years old, my parents would take me to the Simon Pearce mill—we lived near the original Quechee, Vermont, store—and I would watch the glassblowers and potters there for hours. It was mesmerizing. I started throwing when I was 14 and haven’t really stopped since.
Tell us about year one at Fenway Clayworks.
I’m just at the trailhead of this journey, and that’s exciting. I began working almost immediately with [Colorado Springs candlemaker] Laura Cameron at Made with a Mission on an order for Anthropologie—I threw the vessels, she poured the candles. My collaboration with Eli Cox at Berkeley Supply was great, too; we came up with a line of custom mugs, cups, and plates in super masculine blacks and grays.
How do those partnerships come about?
I tend to wander into shops and restaurants that I admire, with an aesthetic that appeals to me, and ask if I can create a custom line for their brand. That’s how I got to work with Berkeley Supply and Mod Livin’: I asked if I could come up with something specific to their shops. Then I see the space, consider glazes, make sketches, and show them samples. It works that way with individual customers, too.
Which projects are your favorites?
Working with restaurants is the pinnacle of fun to me. When I’m talking with mercantile shops or high-end florists, it’s less about form and more about finishing colors. With a chef, form comes first and you talk about it all: the weight, the shape, the finishing color, but also the texture of the finish. Is it going to have a reaction to cutlery? How will it hold up after two or three uses, seven nights a week?
Any other restaurant collaborations underway?
I’m working with Sapor Coffee & Concepts to elevate their espresso service, and I’ve been talking to Alex [Seidel] about creating a special line of cheese plates for Mercantile Dining & Provision someday. I want to collect clay at Fruition Farms [Seidel’s creamery] and throw with that. The plates would be raw clay, with maybe just a clear glaze and nothing else to take away from the dirt and the connection between the farm’s land and the cheese.
Visible lines of exposed clay have become a Fenway Clayworks signature. Why is that?
It adds a graphic element that I love, and from a nerdy potter perspective, it’s a constant reminder of what the piece truly is. I see the lines and remember that this piece is made out of clay, from the ground, by hand.
Name: Sean VanderVliet
Owner: Fenway Clayworks
Five-Year Plan: Opening a cafe/pottery studio where customers can watch potters at work