INTERVIEW! Michael Wainwright

At Misto Lino, we love getting to know our vendors on a personal level, and sharing that vendor love with our customers. This week we caught up with the always gracious, ever-fun, insanely talented Michael Wainwright! Read on to get to know Michael, and how his iconic tabletop brand came to be.

You live and work in the Berkshires, Massachusetts. Did you grow up there?
I was actually born in Miami but we moved when I was four. I was raised outside of Annapolis, Maryland, and then moved to D.C. when I was a junior in high school. I also lived in New York City for 15 years; my wife had lived there for 19 years before we decided to move here to the Berkshires. 

Michael's studio and storefront in the Berkshires

You and your wife Leslie have two children. Are they interested in your work? Any artists in the making?
For better or for worse, yes, they are creative! Leslie, my wife, graduated from Julliard in dance. We have a 14-year-old daughter, Annika, and a 16-year-old-son, Andrew. Both are interested in the arts and music.

When did you become interested in art?
I've been working in clay since I was seven, and then really got into it in high school. My original major in college was music (piano); then in my sophomore year I really pushed into visual arts.

Trinket boxes from the "Tempio Luna" collection

Where did you go to college?
I did my undergrad work at Ohio Wesleyan University, they had a dynamite art program; I received my BFA in Studio Arts, as well as a BA in English Lit. For grad school I went to NYU, where I got my masters in Fine Arts. They put me in charge of the studio: I fired all the kilns, took care of the whole studio, and in return, NYU paid for my education , gave me a place to live, and paid me a weekly stipend. What a great gig that was! 

Back in the day! Michael at Ohio Wesleyan art show, circa 1986

Did you get one big break or memorable opportunity that launched you, or was it more gradual? 
I worked for a ceramic artist, Patrick Loughran, (who now lives in Paris), and learned the techniques I still use for production. That was an invaluable experience and he was highly influential with regard to what I do now. But I think what “made” me was doing shows and street fairs. I mean, when you graduate with a masters in clay sculpture, what do you do in life? Street fairs!

Carafe from the "Il De Re" collection

How did you first get your products into a retail store?
I was living and working in a large Brooklyn loft; I made everything, and took my things around to craft and street fairs. My dad had sent a letter and a plate that I had made to John Loring, senior VP at Tiffany’s, He ended up buying from me, so my first real account was Tiffany & Co. Then, a friend told me that Henri Bendel was doing this thing on the first Friday of every month, where you just show up and buyers will take a look at your products. So I went, waited two hours in line, and they bought. In fact I remember the buyer saying to me, “This is exactly why we do this.” So now I was in two of the best 5th Avenue stores and still doing street fairs. My pieces didn’t sell all that well at Tiffany’s, but did great in all 9 Henri Bendel stores. In 1995 I stopped doing street fairs and started showing at the New York gift show in the handmade section, which turned out to be great because it introduced me to both independent and national stores. I started selling to Barney's which was a whole new level. Then my work just took off and I got into Bloomingdale’s, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, and Marshall Fields, among others.   

Wainwright at his Brooklyn studio with his assistant, late '90s

Is that when you started looking to outsource production instead of making everything yourself?
Yes, it was getting pretty crazy. We were doing everything in-house, I was cooking lunch for my staff of five while we all sang loudly; it was fun, but getting hard to sustain! I ended up finding a guy who supplied the bisqueware to places like the ones where you paint your own pottery. I needed his production and in return I taught him how to glaze and do metal work. Unfortunately that relationship ended seven or eight years ago, when Starbucks decided to invest in U.S. production, and chose him to make their ceramic mugs.

Bowl from the "Giotto" collection

Lenox now owns the Michael Wainwright brand. How did you get involved with them?
I was growing 30-40% each year, but the business was still relatively small. When we moved to the Berkshires, there was a group of investors who took notice of me. The thought was, if I'm growing at that rate on my own, imagine what I could do with investors. It was a big change as now I had to report to lots of different people. It’s safe to say I probably wouldn't be where I am now had it not been for that group,  but it was time to move on, and I was able to create a partnership with Lenox. They’ve really allowed me to expand. Change is inevitable, but I'll ride this ship for as long as I can.

Much of your art is travel-inspired. Which places in particular did that inspiration come from? 
Florence! I did a semester abroad there when I was at Ohio Wesleyan, and have been back a number of times since, as well as to Pisa, Siena…we also spent our honeymoon in Italy. What inspires me about it—the artwork, architecture, colors, smells, contrast of colors, the way the bricks in architecture form. I guess it all kind of formed in the old brain and plopped out of me.

Nut bowl from the "Panthera Indigo" collection

What is your favorite medium and would you say you have a signature style?
My favorite medium is clay, I just love the versatility. It’s so tactile, and c’mon, it’s just fun to be able to sink your hands into something, fire it, then it lasts forever. As for signature style, I like to think of myself as one of first with hand-making pieces with uneven edges, fingerprints, then putting (24k) gold and platinum on them. I like to describe what I do as wearing jeans with a sport coat.

Wainwright display at Misto Lino - Lafayette

Do you work at a home studio, or actually go somewhere to work?
Yes and yes. I have a wet studio at an outside location, which is a retail store, my studio, and my office. I’ve got three big kilns at home, glazes, gold and platinum. It’s all in the garage. I’m basically a garage potter.  

Wainwright's "Truro Gold" collection (pieces also available in platinum)

If you weren't an artist/designer, what do you think you would have done for a career?
Boy, that’s a good question. Well, my mom wanted me to go to medical school—I always liked math, so maybe an engineer? Honestly, I’ve been doing this for 28 years professionally now, so that’s really hard to answer. But if Lenox and everything else went away tomorrow, I’d still do what I’m doing, even if it meant I ended up going back to street fairs. This is just what I do.

Canape plates from the "Mezza" collection

We hope you enjoyed getting to know Michael Wainwright better! We invite you in to our stores to check out his unique collections...they're modern, beautiful, and truly inspiring. Just like Michael!

Michael in the house! (with the author)




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