Meet Rebecca: Creating unique ceramic giftware for the home
Homes are special places, each containing a unique story within. One of the ways we shape that story is by filling our homes with items that mean something to us, from family photos to living plants to designer furniture.
Recently we’ve been thinking about the people that craft those items - who are they, and why do they dedicate their lives to helping make our homes unique and special? In this short series, we speak with some of those people about their passion and why they do it.
Our thriving arts sector is an important aspect of British culture. But what about our neighbours across the Irish Sea? The arts scene in Northern Ireland has never been in better shape, thanks to its fierce support for up-and-coming home-grown artists.
The action doesn’t stop in Belfast. County Down may have earned its fame as the film location for Game of Thrones, but visitors are also lured here for its galleries, exhibitions, and displays of vibrant arts and crafts. Contributing to this energy is ceramic designer-maker Rebecca Killen, who lives and works in the small coastal village of Dundrum.
Producing moulds from exquisite antique bottles that once existed in past industries, she describes how she aims “to create ceramic products that can evoke memories, a sense of nostalgia, and serve as decorative pieces in the home to be used and treasured for years to come.”
Showing an early aptitude for art, her career path took her to the Belfast School of Art where she studied Fine and Applied Arts, after which she embarked on an artist-in-residence programme. With a short spell of teaching experience under her belt, she completed a business development course and it was during this time, in 2014, that Rebecca Killen Ceramics was established.
Now in its fourth year, she’s developed a number of collections of which the latest, the Homegrown Collection, sees the revival of the old fashioned milk bottle. This has proved so popular that she’s introduced the Bangor Bottle, cast from a mould of a rectangular pharmacist bottle. If only our medicine still came like this.
I’m intrigued to know more about her unique, handmade products, her penchant for experimenting with new surface textures and colours, and just why she’s drawn to local industrial history.
You have an enviable flair for design. Did you discover art at an early age?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved art and it was certainly my favourite subject at school. I owe a lot to my art teacher (ironically, my husband Pol is an art teacher) who was a potter with an infectious passion for ceramics and introduced me to clay. I naturally took to the material. I found - and still find - the unlimited possibilities of clay fascinating. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on ceramics. I come into my own when designing pieces with a final vision in mind.
Taking the plunge and going into business on your own is a gutsy move - what spurred you on?
My fond interest in ceramics and a determination to turn my passion into a sustainable career. After university and studying business, I felt I was equipped with the necessary mix of skills, together with a material with potential and good surface integrity, to build a brand.
Business skills don’t always come naturally to creative people. How have you handled this transition?
My mantra is: ‘Work hard, dream big’. If you work hard enough you can achieve your goals. Everything can be learned, practised and improved upon. I’ve had to seek mentorship and act upon trustworthy advice.
Oprah popularized the phrase: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” Setting up a new business can be challenging - what’s been your experience?
I’ve relished it - the freedom it brings, the great sense of fulfilment and having control over my future. But I can’t deny it’s been without its hitches. I’m a one-woman band, so all decisions lie with me.
What do you believe sets you apart from other similar product offerings?
All my pieces are handmade which means that no two are identical. The distinctive blue and white palette gives them a hallmark that many designers in my field don’t have. And anything can be personalised.
Appealing to a certain audience helps to define my brand. I’ve seen a positive response from female homeowners age 25-plus based in the UK - although encouragingly, a few buyers in America have discovered me - often looking for gift ideas. That said, I’m keen to build up a wider range of products to suit a wider audience with varying price points.
Do you have any favourite products?
The new tall vessels from the Bay Collection, made of marbled coloured clay. And I’m extremely fond of the milk bottles, being one of my earliest designs.
Given your surroundings, I imagine you’re rarely lost for ideas!
My work is influenced by the environment - living in such a beautiful part of the world gives me so much inspiration. The everchanging splendour of Dundrum Bay at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, where we live, was the starting point for my newest collection.
I’m also influenced by nostalgia. I vividly remember drinking from the tiny glass milk bottles at school. The conventional milk bottle is an iconic shape and, along with the traditional blue and white pottery, is reminiscent of my childhood.
Is the blue and white design your signature style?
It’s important to have a signature style and my brand is renowned for the blue and white designs, so I’ve purposefully not employed a wide range of colours. However, I do love colour, hence introducing the millennial pink.
What’s the most satisfying part of the design-make process?
I love it all and find it really therapeutic - from concept and design to forming and firing. The magic happens during the glaze firing when matt black transforms into a rich, glossy blue. Not much beats opening the kiln to see the end result.
Through your creations, you aim to evoke memories and nostalgia – how do you achieve this?
By using traditional iconic shapes that give a nod to the past, but sit comfortably in today’s home - such as the milk bottles and old Irish mineral water bottles.
The Homegrown Collection is continually growing as I’m always on the lookout for beautifully textured bottles that give a glimpse into industries of the past. The quirky, millennial pink bottles and the white and dusky blue bone china bring a fresh approach.
What’s the most unusual thing you’ve made?
One of my earliest projects was a ceramic garden water feature, based on the colours and forms of rock pools close to where I live. Next on my list is a range of functional tableware.
The business has been growing steadily since its inception - what are your plans for expansion?
The business is now at the stage where I can hire some help, and I’m incorporating a dedicated area within my new studio where my products can be displayed and sold.
Longer term, I want to increase my export markets by building on the success of trade shows and introduce my work to stores in Europe and the USA.
My dream is to see Rebecca Killen Ceramics become a worldwide household name. Ultimately, I can’t ever imagine not working with clay.
Let’s talk about your home. We all have different decorating styles and preferences - what’s yours?
I’d describe my style as relaxed, natural, and inspired by our coastal surroundings. I like to fill our home with handmade objects from local fairs and artists, which I enjoy curating in groups. Some of my husband’s art also hangs on the walls.
You’re clearly a country girl at the heart. Can you ever see yourself living in a city or another country?
I lived in Belfast for 10 years and really enjoyed my time there. I’m now drawn to the coast’s natural beauty. I was actually born in England but moved to Northern Ireland at a young age and, while I’d never say never no to living in a different country, for the time being I’m content where I am. It’s possible to manage a business that can have an international impact from a rural location.
This article was written by Philippa Hennessy, an award-winning lifestyle and travel writer and blogger. Photographs courtesy of Esther Irvine.