I love to take on custom work whenever possible, and I thought I'd put together a quick and dirty guide to ordering custom ceramics. What I'm sharing below is based on my experiences receiving inquiries and working with customers over the years. Hopefully it can help you feel that custom work is more accessible than you might have thought and set you up to begin working with a ceramicist to create that unique piece of pottery you've been dreaming about.
Is custom right for me?
Customization can mean a lot of things. It can be as simple as an added or omitted element of an artist's existing design, or it can be a wholly new idea that you dream up, refine, and finalize together. Done right, with good communication on both sides, it can be a really fun and special experience.
Custom pottery may sound too fancy (and expensive) at first blush, but in fact it can be very accessible and may be the perfect fit for you in certain circumstances.
Purchasing custom may be right for you if you admire someone's particular style, have a specific idea of what you want but haven't quite found it out there yet, and/or want a one of a kind item.
Many potters will state in their FAQs whether they are accepting custom projects, but when in doubt, just ask! I highly recommend reaching out via their website's contact form or email (if listed). This is preferable in most cases over direct messages on social media as they are easier to track and your message has a higher likelihood of being read rather than lost.
What should I say?
It's always helpful to describe the piece you have in mind, even if you don't have specific requirements at this point. Something as simple as "a salt dish in the style of____" or "a white vase around X inches by Y inches" is perfectly fine, and discussing the design details later will be part of the fun.
If you really don’t know where to start, you can always reach out and ask the potter how their custom projects work. You can ask about the typical design process, turn around time, price range, and any other questions you might have. The potter can hopefully provide you with guidance for their process.
One specific detail that I always ask for is whether there is a hard deadline by which you'd need your item in-hand. If you have a date, state it upfront so that the potter can let you know whether they can realistically meet it.
Another detail that's helpful for the potter is whether you'd like your piece to be food-safe or simply decorative. This detail informs the glazes available to use since not every glaze is food-safe, though all glazes will be safe to handle and have in your home once fired.
You may want to reference the artist’s existing work in your initial inquiry. Look through their website and social media and get to know their designs and finishes. Avoid sending potters a picture of someone else’s work that you want reproduced near identically. Most potters will not take on this type of request as it encroaches on other artists' intellectual property. However, other work, used sparingly, may sometimes be a helpful reference to share among other images (or even a mood board!) if it's to illustrate a desired element such as a glaze finish.
What to expect
I'll typically have some initial design-related questions for the customer, as well as offer some ideas for them to consider. I'll also provide options for clay bodies to use, glaze finishes, as well as a rough estimate for timing. Pricing isn't something I like to quote until we have a better idea of a final design.
As with any collaboration, be open to the artist's idea but clear when providing feedback. I would also advise plenty of patience because pottery is a waiting game. Time is required between each production step and is impacted by such tiny things as humidity! You can always request that the potter keep you apprised regarding progress so that you know things are moving along.
Larger items will usually be more costly for a variety of reasons. First, labor hours. Second, many potters, such as myself, belong to studios as members and have to pay for each piece that gets fired in the shared kiln. These charges are usually calculated based on the cubic inch so large pieces can get quite costly to fire. They will also take longer to go into the kiln as studios like to be as efficient as possible packing each firing, which means they may wait for more pieces of similar height to pack onto the same shelf.
Another thing, kiln casualties are real, and they can be devastating to potters. Accept that something could happen that impacts your expected timeline. I've had to remake custom items because something happened during a firing that made the piece unviable. For example, a piece can explode during bisque firing if there's any residual moisture somewhere in the clay, items can warp beyond tolerable ranges in either the bisque or the glaze firings, cracks can happen, glazes from other pieces can drip onto your piece, something can attach itself to your piece during glaze firing (since the extreme heat causes expansion and even movement), or the glaze on your piece can drip more than expected and seal the item to the kiln shelf. This last scenario means the item has to be chipped off of the kiln shelf with a hammer and chisel and it's a huge pain in addition to being painful (emotionally) to the potter.
Lastly, when it arrives, don't be wedded to the image you'd formed in your mind. Embrace the unique and handmade quality of your finished piece. No one else has anything like what you've just received - it's one of a kind.