We had the good fortune of connecting with Nicola Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Nicola, other than deciding to work for yourself, what was the single most important decision you made that contributed to your success?
Working as a ‘one-woman-show’ has been a true rollercoaster for the past few years and I would say that other than making that truly important decision to start out on my own, the second most important decision that I feel has directly aided in the success of Kilnhouse is to continually show up for my business. No-one else is going to show up for me regardless of how hard the day has been or how tired I am. This does complicate the whole work-life balance, however with KH being a little older and larger (with two staff members), things are getting easier to manage.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Kilnhouse began as a little passion project on instagram to document my ceramic journey and if you scroll right down to my first posts, you’ll see how its grown from a woman and her wheel to 3 full time staff working on orders for all over Africa and most recently some parts of the world.
I believe that what sets us apart in the industry is that we’re a studio primarily focused on wheel-thrown ceramics which gives us quite an advantage with customization of orders. I realized quite early on that the market – specifically the coffee and restaurant industries – were lacking customizable, locally made, ceramic goods. Everyone was importing from all over the world and I wanted to bring the focus back onto South African soil and highlight the incredible craftmanship SA has to offer and in this way, we have seated ourselves as a proudly South African brand that is authentic and quirky whilst remaining design orientated.
I would say that Kilnhouse has gotten to where it is now because we have always kept our standards high and have truly moved mountains for our clients without losing our authenticity and creativity.
Running a creative business in any economy, let alone a post-covid one (I’m not even sure if I could say post), has been an uphill struggle at every stage. Thinking back to my hobby classes, I had no idea that I would be here just 4 years later. Finance has been one of the hardest hurdles to get over – I’ve always wanted to keep KH as a sole proprietor and so slow growth has been our way forward. From each cup and bowl purchased, a new piece of machinery was purchased and the garden studio was built. I have learnt to take a breather every now and then, when things get tough, to think back with gratitude – past me would be so proud of where KH is now and taking the time to celebrate that has helped a lot.
In saying that it has been tough, I truly wouldn’t have wanted it to happen any other way. I have learnt so much from the struggle of it all and it has changed me for the better. I have learnt to accept that sometimes my best is not good enough in some cases. I have also learnt to own the ceramic process and settle into a ‘less than perfect’ is perfect mindset – you simply can’t control what happens in the kiln and although we create products that are great quality, its a hand-made process which we a so passionate about.
Kilnhouse started as an idea, it was never a considered decision to run it as a business. Order by order, I learnt to proficiently throw on a wheel and make what the client asked for whilst retaining KH’s authenticity and aesthetic. I started only knowing how to throw a cylinder and ended up supplying my first restaurant after 9 months. No matter how small the budget is or how unskilled you feel – you can always better yourself and no-one can take that away from you. Your progress and resulting success is your own, for me – that keeps me going.
Fast forward from just one wheel and kiln outside on my parent’s stoep (porch) to a full studio, multiple wheels, 5 kilns and a team I love to work with each day – How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Johannesburg is a melting-pot of cultures, its dynamic, fast paced and interesting to explore any day of the week. My go-to hang out for food would definitely be the Melville and Parkhurst areas. Imagine streets lined with food and the coolest stores to shop for designed South African goods. A drink at Saint or Marble is always a treat, their bartenders know what they’re doing! Rand club, Ghandi Square – good food is everywhere.
In terms of things to do – 44 Stanley is right up there. Its a collection of converted industrial buildings housing restaurants, bars, design stores and the Bioscope an independent theatre in the heart of JHB.
Other more out-doorsy things would be hiking at Melville Koppies, Hartebeespoort and Rock climbing at the various crags in the Magaliesburg. A tour of the Ponte tower and heritage buildings is also a must!
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I started out with little to no experience, going to a 4 lesson hobby-pottery class at the Bryanston Pottery Studio. It was a chance for me to use the little extra I had at the end of the month with my first paychecks to do something creative. 4 classes wasn’t enough and I started taking classes on an adhoc basis as I could afford them. My instructors – Michelle Legg and the late Colleen Lehmkuhl kept my classes at the same rate despite multiple increases and really took me under their wings to teach me as much as I could know about ceramics in the short time I was there. The skills and techniques they taught me are still daily things that I do and have done for many projects and orders since.
I value the time I was able to spend with them so highly, I really wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their absolute passion for ceramics and teaching.
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