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Success made from scratch

Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas' work goes from the woods to the world.

May 29, 2010|Susan Salter Reynolds reporting from Bridgewater, Vt.
  • Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas founded their company in 1987.
Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas founded their company in 1987. (Jeff McNamara )

This is the story of two craftspeople working in an unpredictable economy, keeping their passion alive while running a successful business — a challenge even for them, artists whose furniture is sold all over the world, whose pottery has been in the White House and the homes of Hollywood elite.

Charles Shackleton makes furniture. Miranda Thomas, his wife, makes pottery that presidents Clinton and Obama have given to visiting dignitaries, that is owned by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kofi Annan. Their workshops, side by side in an old textile mill by the Ottauquechee River in Bridgewater, Vt., make you want to leave the city and start working with your hands. But it hasn't been easy.

Thomas was a surf chick from Australia whose grandfather designed the interiors for the Ritz-Carlton in Paris. She met Charlie Shackleton, whose great-uncle Ernest was a famous explorer, in Surrey, at the West Surrey College of Art and Design. She studied pottery; he worked in wood, glass, metal and ceramics.

There, in the 1970s, the talk was all about craft — relationships with raw materials, making useful, living objects with as little ego as possible. Their influences were Japanese and medieval, perhaps in response to the ornate Beaux-Arts style of their grandfathers' generation.

Everyone warned them: You will never make a living at this. But they have, using what Thomas calls "a bit of art, a bit of science and a bit of business."

They came to America (independently at first), two kids with strong accents, to Vermont, a place that reminded them of the west of Ireland, a sort of last land, a place where people lived as they used to live.

They went to work for the Irish glass blower Simon Pearce, who had set up shop in an old mill building on the Ottauquechee River in Quechee. After a few decades of hard work, he was making it. His glass and the work of potters like Thomas could be purchased in Saks Fifth Avenue. Efficiency became more important in his workshops; craftspeople would work on one part of a product, the throwing, say, for the glaze. Thomas started as a thrower, then designed her own line. Shackleton worked as a glass blower and later started making things in wood.

In 1987, Thomas and Shackleton split off to create their own shop, different from Pearce in two important ways: Each piece would be made start to finish by the same person, and almost everything would be made by hand. Some things, particularly in woodworking, would have to be done by machine.

Twenty-two years later, their company, ShackletonThomas Inc., is going strong, though profit is sometimes elusive. They employ roughly 15 people, and they have a pleasant, flexible lifestyle. In 1995, they bought a wing of the old mill building in Bridgewater, on the same river that inspired Pearce. Thomas' pottery is in a building just a few steps from the main mill. Shackleton's workshop occupies four floors in the original mill building. Both pottery and furniture are displayed on the main floor of the mill. The overall impression is one of tranquillity and simplicity, but there is also a sense of refinement and, if not luxury, certainly material well-being.

When there are limited dollars to spend and even a table looks like a luxury, buyers want a table that will last, maybe even a table with a little history. They also want, Shackleton says, a tactile antidote to "the mind-blowing sterility of their lives." Eco-cheap has become fashionable, but the studio model that Shackleton and Thomas brought from England isn't cheap.

For the first 12 years of business, finished work was sold wholesale to 15 shops around the country, but Shackleton and Thomas preferred to sell directly to their customers.

"We really liked our customers," Thomas says. "We wanted to know them, to be able to picture where our pieces would be used and by whom."

Selling craft for the sake of craft was over, Shackleton says. He wanted to deepen the context, to think more about the lifestyle around the object, to make things that strengthen the connection between human and earth.

Chris King, a 23-year-old woodworker, has been working in the studio for more than a year on wooden bowls designed by Shackleton.

"I could see his passion," Shackleton says, "and it reminded me of when I was that age. I felt I was getting worn out, losing passion. How could I get that feeling back, to put into furniture the same joy I felt making bowls?"

Shackleton went back to the beginning, asking himself what it was exactly that put the life in inanimate objects, gave them meaning, separated the dead, silly things from the necessary, community-creating, life-sustaining things. What to do, short of giving it all up?

Every morning at 7, the staff meets to discuss the day's work. "This is how we have weathered the last six months. That and the dream of making something that is worth something, that gets people at a deeper level," he says.

So much of the skill necessary for woodworking and pottery involves repetitive movement. This alone accounts for some of the dropouts. The work requires a humility that must evolve beyond the need for self-expression. But financial burnout is even more insidious.

For Shackleton, enlarging the community he worked with made the business more bearable. He wanted to know the foresters and millers and loggers who provided his workshops with wood. He started a project called "The Naked Table," in which participants pay to come together for a weekend and make their own dining tables. They visit the forest, meet the people who cut and milled the wood and, finally, set the tables end to end for a community meal of locally grown food. So far, the weekends have sold out.

"It's thrilling to see people making these connections," Shackleton says. "Like connecting cows with milk."

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