Pattern Players: "Functional Ceramics" and Why Handmade Matters With Sean Vandervliet of Fenway Clayworks

We've never been ones to shy away from the bright and the bold; more is more is a philosophy that resonates deeply in the H&W ethos. But when clean, simple minimalism is done well, it is so good. Every home—especially those covered in pattern—needs a place for the eye to rest; a beautiful foil to the visual stimulation of wallpaper, textiles, and home furnishings. And few things are more magical than when that resting place takes the form of Sean Vandervliet's stunningly simple-in-the-best-way-possible pottery.

Sean's Denver-based studio, Fenway Clayworks, is the birthplace of his functional works of art, from vases and mugs, to plates and lamps. Whether he's working small or large scale, every piece that Sean touches has that impossible-to-replicate handmade quality that our home decorating dreams are made of. His delicate touch and eye for design make each object a statement piece that whispers instead of shouts, and we simply had to learn more about him and his craft. Keep scrolling for a peek inside Sean's story, how he finds hygge, and a perfect pairing between his newest creation and one of our very own patterns.

Hygge & West: Tell us a little bit about your background and how Fenway Clayworks came to be. What is it about clay as a medium that you're most attracted to?

Sean Vandervliet: In 2000 I took my first wheel-throwing class as a freshman in high school and I haven't stopped since. After taking the two classes that my school offered, I designed and pitched independent study curriculums my junior and senior years to be able to keep busy with clay. I really owe a lot to my school for recognizing that this was something I cared about and finding a way to let me pursue that. I went on to college and continued throwing, majoring in Anthropology and Studio Art. I moved out to Denver and wound up working for tech startups for about eight years before I finally decided to leave that all behind and start up Fenway Clayworks full time. It's been less than a year that I've been doing this exclusively.

I think the reason I love working with clay so much is that it's honest. You can't fake being a good potter. There are no shortcuts, and I know this because I've tried them all. Clay is a material that commands respect. If you try to dry pots too quickly to meet a deadline, they'll crack. If you forget to compress the base on a large centerpiece it may very well crack weeks later in your glaze firing.

Daydream Indigo wallpaper | Julia Rothman | Hygge & West

Sean's vase pops against Daydream (Indigo)

H&W: Why is handmade so essential, especially today? What do handmade goods offer or bring to a home that mass-produced or machine-made can't?

SV: I think the things that we surround ourselves with define who we are and what we stand for. So, having things in the home that tell that story is important. For me, that means having watercolor paintings and woodcut prints by dear friends, ceramic pieces by mentors, and handmade furniture by local makers who have now become friends. Coming home to these things and appreciating the people who made them is what makes it special to me, and that's something I really don't get from mass-produced and machine-made objects.

H&W: On your website you mention "functional ceramics"—or pots with a purpose. Why is it important to you to create art that's about more than just beauty?

SV: I think it's important to me to provide function in my work largely because that's what I was around growing up. My family had all kinds of handmade bowls and cups in the house, and when they broke it wasn't a big deal. It felt more like a celebration that they had served a purpose, and then you moved on to finding a new favorite mug. It's a tough question—I'm currently trying to do more things that really walk that line of function and art, but it's just something that's difficult for me. I've been working on wall installations with thrown disks, but even those can be pulled down and used.

H&W: Before you landed in Colorado, you lived Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. How, if at all, have these different places influenced your work? And what inspires your work today?

SV: It's not so much the places that have influenced my work, but the people, mentors, and artists that live there and make up the community. I look back at my work from the early 2000s and I can draw a direct line to the influence that Simon Pearce, a local pottery and glass-blowing studio, had on my work then. Now I'd say that traveling and being outside influence my work more than anything else. In traveling I'm always keeping a close eye on what potters are doing; I specifically noticed some interesting work in Vancouver and Australia over the last year. In being outside I notice natural colors more and more, and try to incorporate those into my glazes.

Product + Pattern | Fenway Clayworks | Wood Gray wallpaper | Askov Finlayson | Hygge & West

H&W: What product and pattern pairing did you choose and why? What is it about this particular product and the pattern you've chosen that makes them work so well together?

SV: I chose one of my latest pieces which I worked on with a local woodworker who lives just north of Denver. The Park Slope table lamp was my attempt to make a simple, modern, and timeless lamp—all by hand. I feel like it pairs perfectly with the Askov Finlayson Wood (Gray) design. The wood in the wallpaper echoes back to the walnut components of the lamp and the colors pair well. I've been very into black recently; after a life of leaning towards bright colors I'm really starting to appreciate black more.

H&W: The Danish concept of hygge is all about finding coziness and comfort in life's small pleasures and simple joys. What brings you hygge, especially in the cooler months?

SV: A clean house. Overcast skies. Waking up later than usual and making coffee. Not having anywhere to be. Reading a book out loud with my wife. My Faribault wool blanket. A sweatshirt that's too big. And watching our dog, Walter, sleep.

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