MacKenzie-Childs Puts a Twist on Tradition

When MacKenzie-Childs began producing ceramics in 1983, no one could have guessed it would put a small town like Aurora on the map. Yet now, three prime locations for the sale of MacKenzie-Childs products exist: Aurora being the primary, and the other two placed in the heart of luxury shopping in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.

The elegant, handcrafted lines that branched out from ceramics include enamel tableware, furniture, glassware, and home and garden accessories. Described as “tradition with a twist,” MacKenzie-Childs products are known for their distinctive designs characterized by vibrant colors and overlaying patterns.

“It’s hard to make analogies with MacKenzie-Childs,” said company CEO Lee Feldman. “It’s not French country, it’s not modern contemporary. We have a unique style that’s really creative, very fun, whimsical and colorful.”

When a design team hoping to secure teaching positions at Wells College started the company, it was a one-room operation beneath a small bar in Aurora. Over the course of a few years, MacKenzie-Childs expanded into a refurbished dairy farm about a mile up the street, where it sits today on a 65-acre plot of land, complete with gardens and streams.

Since the early-to-mid ’90s, Neiman Marcus has helped MacKenzie-Childs make a name for itself, dedicating a section of more than 40 stores to the product. “One thing I tell people is that when you walk into a Neiman Marcus gift gallery and you look around, you might not immediately be sure what you’re looking at,” said Feldman. “You turn over some plates and you look at the brand. But when you see the MacKenzie- Childs department, you know it’s MacKenzie-Childs.”

Shifting appreciation
“I think people like the fact that when things have sort of homogenized, MacKenzie-Childs has really remained unique,” Feldman added. He also feels people can now appreciate the craftsmanship of the product more so than ever. “I really believe that luxury has been redefined as we’ve gone through this economic recession. Over the last 10 years, luxury was really about charging the high price and putting the really fancy label on things, but now, people are asking, ‘What are the materials?’ ‘Is it a unique design?’ and ‘What kind of handwork has gone into this?’”

People value the hard work that goes into a single dinner plate, he noted. “It’s handmade with terracotta clay on a beautiful farm in Aurora. It’s hand-painted. It might have had 12 different people work on it. It could have been fired four times. It may have taken several weeks to produce.”

People understand the price-value relationship when it comes to MacKenzie-Childs, “There are a lot of very talented people spending a lot of time on each product,” Feldman pointed out.

But consumers may go one step further when considering a company’s product, he thinks. They wonder, “How does this company interact with its community?” “Are they charitable?” “Do they believe in sustainability?”

“I think we score well on all those points,” said Feldman. And that’s why he believes that even in a tough economy, MacKenzie-Childs is still doing quite well. “People continue to be attracted to the product.”

Although he’s has only been with the company for a little over a year, Feldman has quickly become very involved and passionate about MacKenzie-Childs products. When Twin Lakes Capital, a private equity firm based in New York City and Rochester, learned the owner of MacKenzie-Childs wanted to sell her business last May, a deal was negotiated, and Feldman became full-time CEO. “We have a little bit different approach than your typical private equity firm,” said Feldman. “We’re very active in management.”

A quality customer for a quality product
It didn’t take the 14 months Feldman’s been CEO for him to realize MacKenzie-Childs has an amazing customer base. “Lots of companies try to come up with some strategy to create community,” said Feldman, “but we really do have a tight community of collectors.” And if Feldman didn’t believe it before, he clearly saw community support at the annual barn sale held in early summer. “Aurora is not that close to any major populations,” Feldman said, “and we had 9,000 people show up over the weekend.”

The people who attend this once-a-year sale where seconds and discontinued items are sold really believe in the brand, he said. “It’s not just another consumer purchase. They really look at it as building a collection. They like to talk to each other about what other people have collected. How they’re setting up their table. How they’re using furniture.”

Feldman said MacKenzie-Childs customers are people who “surprise and impress every time they invite guests to their home or serve a meal. They have rejected mainstream furniture and tabletop offerings and seek the extraordinary.”

Like almost anything else, he feels word-of-mouth throughout the community is the “primary medium for how information is disseminated.” However, the company website, which is almost as fancy as the ceramics MacKenzie-Childs creates, doesn’t hurt, Feldman said. Other parts of their “elaborate direct business” include mailing a lot of catalogs, having dozens of high-end independent home furnishing retailers carrying the product, and of course, owning three retail stores. “The word is out.”

As far as the other MacKenzie-Childs retail shops go, locations are based on pure luxury. “New York City is probably the shopping capital of the world and really the center for home and fashion and beauty,” said Feldman, “and we thought as an important luxury brand, it was crucial for us to have a real presence in New York City.” And MacKenzie-Childs achieves that presence, located on 57th Street, just off 5th Avenue. “It’s really the center of the center for shopping.”

So why Florida when the other prime locations for the sale and production of MacKenzie-Childs products are in New York? “Historically, we have had a very strong customer base in South Florida,” Feldman told me, “and Worth Avenue is one of the primary luxury retail shopping areas in the world and we thought it was important to be there.”

While the Palm Beach store opened just a few years ago, MacKenzie-Childs has been impressing shoppers in New York City for a long time.

Designing to dazzle
And impressing people is one of MacKenzie-Childs’ key elements to the success and longevity it enjoys. It may astound a potential customer to realize the exquisite hand painting they’re viewing was accomplished without the use of a stencil. It may astonish someone to learn a single ceramic may have taken weeks to finish. “Each piece begins with the most natural and individual of materials: clay,” reads a MacKenzie-Childs press release. “Molded by hand, machine-pressed or slip cast, the formed clay is fired up to three times, hand-glazed and decorated. The process is time consuming and takes the special skill of an artisan trained in age-old crafts.”

Feldman said MacKenzie-Childs artisans are “students of traditional home furnishings,” as a lot of designs are based around the idea of the old English tea settings or traditional furniture pieces. “Then we kind of put our own MacKenzie-Childs unique, updated twist on it.”

Even though those who make the products at MacKenzie-Childs must have exceptional skills, there is no established training program. “You’re trained by other people in your department,” he pointed out. “It’s really kind of an apprentice-type approach. Coming into furniture deco where you’re hand painting furniture, it can take you up to a year to really get up to speed.”

From mold to sold
With the amount of handwork that goes into each piece, artists get a substantial amount of training rather quickly. For example, the process that goes into making a signature MacKenzie-Childs majolica ceramic is not an easy one. A press release details the method.

“The Mold Shop is where craftsmen make plaster production molds for each piece of ceramic. Different types of molds are used to make a wide range of items. Hand press molds, for example, create large platters and bowls, while hydraulic press molds fashion dinnerware, knobs and tiles. Liquid clay, or slip, is used to make hollow pieces like teapots, mugs and garden balls in slip cast molds.

“The thickness of the walls of a piece is directly related to the time it spends in the mold. After pieces fry overnight, they are taken out of the mold and are hand-trimmed. Before the piece is fired, decorative and functional clay pieces are added, including handles, fishtails and rabbit ears. The base of the piece is then stamped by the hand-trimmer, who becomes the first of perhaps six artisans to mark it with identifying initials.

“After the pottery has been formed and before it reaches the kiln, it is called green ware. At this stage, the green ware is stacked onto carts, which are rolled into the kiln, where it stays for 24 hours in 1,810-degree heat. When it is removed, it has been hardened into bisque.

“The terracotta base or foot of each MacKenzie-Childs piece is unglazed, so before any decorative touch is added, it is dipped into a vat of hot paraffin, which coats the desired area. The piece is then placed in a glaze dip mixture of frit (ground glass) and other materials, and finally set on a rack to await more decorating.

“Stains are then used for freehand decoration, and unique qualities emerge. It is here that variations in the density and depth of color and in pattern interpretation are introduced,” reads the press release. “This individuality – evidence of the artisan’s hand – is valued by collectors. No two pieces are identical.”

“When the piece is fired a second time, a glossy, impermeable surface is created as the glass frit-filled glaze melts. For some pieces, this is the final firing, while others have several more to come. The glazed surface can have more decoration applied, whether it be china paints, decals, or even platinum, copper or gold lustres.”

For MacKenzie-Childs’ Creative Director Rebecca Proctor, it’s all about design sensibility. “The layering of patterns and textures, the playfulness and sense of humor, and the element of surprise are all qualities of the work that make it very distinctive and unique,” said Proctor.

Although many companies would love to imitate the beauty and intricacies of MacKenzie-Childs products, the level of craftsmanship makes them extremely difficult to reproduce. “Our designs are complex and therefore nearly impossible to imitate well,” said Proctor. “Most imitators can’t be bothered with the level of detail that is in all of our work, and so their attempts look like cheap knock-offs which is exactly what they are.”

Production for ceramics and all of the hand painting of furniture is accomplished in Aurora, while other products in the line are imported. Glassware comes from Spain, while enamelware is imported from Asia. MacKenzie-Childs sends people to train those in other countries to make the product, so, Feldman says, deep relationships are formed with other firms the company is sourcing.

Still thriving despite economy
But when economic times are tough, luxury items are usually the first things to take a hit. “The current recession has impacted practically all luxury manufacturers and retailers,” said Feldman. “However, relative to the market, we have performed quite well.” Distribution has even expanded to include places like Harrods in London and Amen Wardy in Aspen, Colorado. Although MacKenzie-Childs did reduce some production capacity in Aurora, it is now in a position to begin adding back production hours to meet demand. Nearly 150 people are employed at the Aurora site, which occupies 110,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space.

Also on that 65-acre former dairy farm overlooking Cayuga Lake is a three-story farmhouse built in the 1890s. Originally the homestead for the dairy farm, it served as MacKenzie-Childs’ reception area and showroom until its multimillion-dollar restoration in 2003. Tours of the farmhouse, offered daily, allow visitors to experience the “blending of MacKenzie-Childs home furnishings with a variety of interior styles.”

A video about MacKenzie-Childs production can be viewed, along with a live demonstration of hand-painting ceramics. The property is also “home to a herd of Scottish cattle, birds roosting in the Gothic Revival-style Chicken Palace, a duck pond, an antique horse barn, a 1930s greenhouse, spectacular and ever-changing gardens, and lovely rolling pastures,” according to a press release.

A visit to the Aurora site allows a passionate customer – or even first-time buyer – to discover how the picturesque location is translated into the exquisite beauty of the products created by MacKenzie-Childs.

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by Kimberly Price

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