First Container From France

Our first container from Rob’s orders in France this past September today arrived this morning around 9.  Though we have imported close to 50 containers (a container being a steel box 40 feet long, by 10 feet wide, by 10 feet tall) over the past 15 years, I have yet to get over the thrill of that big truck pulling up.  A container arriving is exciting.

It took this driver 6 passes to back down our narrow driveway-fewer than most. There was a little ceremony regarding the cutting of the bolt.  Only I can OK the opening (unless US Customs decides to get involved).  This is a perfect moment that I have had the good fortune to experience multiple times.  What I imagine about Rob’s order is about to become a reality.

Rob shopped artisanal poteries in France this past September, with special orders in mind.  We engaged a European agent this time, for the first time, to oversea the making and the packing of those orders; Rob has known her for years.  He waved off all of my objections.  He wanted someone knowledgeable to look after the manufacture and packing of our order.  This proved to be a good decision.   

Some of the very large pots we ordered exploded in the kiln. Some pots cracked.  CM  saw to getting certain pots remade.  She advised us of possible substitutes.  She had ideas about what might fill the small spaces in the container.  An order in progress in Europe needs a European representative.  The work of offloading and unpacking was an easy exercise, by comparison.  The pots were expertly packed.  Every single pot survived the trip without so much as a scratch or chip.   



Artisanal poteries-we have a significant interest in them. They have a point of view, a style, and a way of making all their own.  The quality of the pots is excellent.  The large pots are incredibly heavy.  The drain holes in the bottom of the large pots reveal the clay is close to 2 inches thick.  Our idea is to make handmade and individually designed pots available to gardeners with a passion much like ours.   

This handmade French pot is of a size that commands attention.  Most of the pots Rob ordered are of a size that is neighborhood friendly.  But we have a few that are show stoppers.   

The green glazed French pots are very handsome.  This color comprises the bulk of our order.  Though I was disappointed not to have any pale blue pots, I understand Rob’s idea.  He likes a collection that has considerable depth, rather than breadth.  This specific glaze specified by Rob is closer to an eggshell finish than the traditional high gloss.  We really needed that spot where Howard chose to settle in, but he likes being close to the action.   

The face pots-I requested 4 of these. The glaze is shockingly beautiful in person.  I had never seen a glazed French pot with a white, grey, and black surface such as this.  As for the cherubic faces and grape garlands-I am charmed by them.     

We unpacked many pots today-all of them architectural, some just plain gorgeous, some with rustic and highly textural finishes.  Hidden in one of the pots, a thank you in the form of two bottles of French wine.   

I have a foursome of white glazed vases in the classic Anduze style in my possession.  These vases are better than 4 feet tall. The possibilities for planting them?  Just about limitless.  Not to mention that these pots would look equally great unplanted.  The best reason I can think of for investing in beautiful garden pots is how they persuade me to plant them, year after year.              

We had a substantial lot of pots delivered today.  The garage that was empty yesterday is stuffed with garden pots-handmade French garden pots today.  My 10,000 square foot building is bulging at the seams, and we still have another container, and all of our domestic spring orders to go.  Thia is as it should be-trying to find places for everything. 

These cream and yellow pots are elegant and graceful. 

The glaze on these pots-very rustic and markedly textured-is quite subtle.  The peach colored clay of the inside contrasts warmly with that muted grey finish.

At the end of this day, I was really tired.  It took the entire day to unpack.  I barely had time to admire them. 

Luckily I will have a little time to get to know them before the shop gets busy again.

French Terra Cotta

I had notice from my customs broker today that the first of our two containers from France is in customs.  This is such great news.  This July 2010 photograph by Bertrand Kulik of the Eiffel Tower during a storm perfectly describes my anticipatory excitement.  French garden design, French garden pots-what is not to like?  Rob’s trip to France was in mid September of last year-some 4 months ago.  Why so long a wait for a pair of containers?  The bulk of our purchases were terra cotta pots, made to order. We bought many pots from the Poterie de la Madeleine over the past 15 years.  Rob had a long standing relationship with the owner Roland Zobel, and his assistant, Madame Pellier.  After his untimely death in 2004, the poterie de la Madeleine changed hands.   

 Rob shopped this past September in new places.  New to him, that is.  When he buys glazed French terra cotta pots, he does not buy from existing stock.  He special orders every pot to be custom made for us.  He specifies styles, sizes, and glazes that appeal to him, and contribute to a coherent collection.  It takes a lot of time for these small French poteries to fill a special order.       

Glazed French garden pots are indescribably beautiful.  There are those classic designs and classic colors dating back centuries.  There are new glazes and shapes that are enchanting. The small artisanal poteries produce very fine quality pots. They are very well schooled in the history, and small enough to take chances.  Of course we are interested in all of the above.    

These pictures from his trip to France are astonishing.  I have never seen terra cotta for the garden produced and displayed on this scale in the US.  I suspect the mild Mediterranean climates have much to do with the large space that is devoted to garden pots.  Gardening is a way of life in Europe.  This casual display is telling.  The pot yard has a dirt floor.  A garden pot has a job-it holds the soil, that enables the plants to grow-all in a beautiful way.       

Of course I want my garden pots to be beautiful-who doesn’t?  If they are steeped in history, I love that simmering stew.  Should they have beautiful proportions, sound and sturdy construction, and heft, I am interested.   Should their beauty enchant my eye and heart, the planting of that pot is as close to a perfect moment as I can imagine.     Rob dealt with every French poterie in that self effacing and attentive way that marks his relationships with all of our overseas suppliers.  This means we have a container in customs that is all about his respect for their craftsmanship, and his passion for the garden.  That intersection of fired earth, and his vision-inside that container.

He called me multiple times last September about a matte green glaze that caught his eye.  I completely trust his judgment. If he loves a matte green glaze, then I do too.  16 years of buying garden pots in France means he knows how to feel the clay.  What do I mean by this?     

I cannot explain this so well in words.  He introduces himself to the pot makers.  He looks at the thickness of the clay.  He tries on every glaze, every patine ancienne.  He considers the history.  He considers every new interpretation.  He takes the time to make thoughtful decisions.  He imagines a relationship between a pot and an agave, or a tomato, or a topiary.  He edits.  Making his thoughts come to life depends on the relationships he has nurtured for many years.  He asks if special glazes are available.  He devotes whatever it takes that might result in a garden pot of distinction. 

Garden pots made in France-why would you want one?  Why wouldn’t you? A beautiful pot makes the gardening all the more pleasurable.  The shapes and glazes please the eye.  

These are our pots, ready to load in the container.      

We try to completely fill the container top to bottom.  There is no sense in shipping air across the ocean.  It is extremely difficult to estimate what will fill a container.  That is why we have a second container due in Detroit over the weekend.

All of the poteries cooperated in delivering their pots to the poterie where we had our largest order.  This picture was taken on January 5.  Should the trip through customs go smoothly, we should have our pots in no time.    


The Making Of The Pots

What I know about making terra cotta pots wouldn’t fill a teacup, but I have pictures.  These first four are from a book Rob bought for me in France 15 years ago.  “Terres Vernissees” by Christine Lahaussois and Beatrice Pannequin is an overview of the art of French glazed ceramics dating back to the 16th century.  This method of making large pots with wood armatures wrapped in rope is a centuries old technique.  The form begins with a series of wood verticals that describe the height of the piece, and the diameter of the top and the bottom.

Multiple wood ribs that describe the overall shape of the pot are fixed to the central verticals.  Keep in mind that the pots are made top side down.  Heavy rope is carefully wrapped around the wood ribs.  The ribs and the rope create a template for the finished shape of the pot.  Wet clay is very heavy, and very sticky.  To throw a pot of great size takes multiple passes. Only so much of the finished height of the pot can be done before the pot needs to rest, and the clay become leather hard.  Then the next layer can be added.  A giant pot thrown on a wheel all at once would collapse under its own weight.  It is much more efficient to press the sticky clay into the rope.  The form keep the clay from succumbing to gravity.

These pictures detail how the wet clay is pressed into the rope covered form.  The texture you see here-the finger marks of the person making this pot.  The evidence of the human hand-this is what these pots are all about.  These large pots have been made this way for centuries in France.  I think it is of utmost importance that this history be known, and appreciated.  I appreciate modern technology, and the important news of the moment, but there is more out there.  When I plant a beautiful handmade pot, the planting is as much about the the history of the making, and the maker of the pot, as it is about the plants.

Once the wet clay is pressed into the ropes, the wheel turns, and the surface is smoothed.  The wood form is collapsed once the clay becomes leather hard.  The clay is cut, and the form removed.  The rope? The rope is removed before the pot is fired, saved, and used again.

Rob took this picture 2 days ago.  That the construction of the giant vases has not changed for several centuries-this is very important to me.  How so?  The handmade French pots that will come to the shop in 2 months will have been made by a person, whose hand, skill and judgment will enchant me.  The history is long, the commitmment-just as long.   People who make extraordinary things-I value them.  I do what I can to support this industry, and am always sorry when I see a poterie close.  The making of the pots is an art I would like to see endure.
The finished pots in my shop do not tell this story.  Yes, they have beautiful shapes and graceful curves.  They are heavy, solid-very well made.  With proper care, they will last better than a lifetime.  But the story of how they are made makes for a story any passionate gardener would want to hear.

The finished pots-they need to rest.

Once they dry, the pots will be fired.  The rope is removed, but the pattern of that rope will be fired and live forever in the interior of the pot. The interior of the pot is every bit as beautiful as the exterior surface. These pots are ready to be planted.

Some of the pots get decoration.  Once the clay is leather hard, a potter will work hard to create and affix that garland, that medallion to the body of the pot.

Giant pots drying have supports.  These supports are not so fancy, just useful.  Simply useful.  Gravity can drag down wet clay.  These not so fancy supports keeps the wet clay aloft.

The attic is a perfect drying room.  Imagine that every handmade French pot gets hauled to the attic to dry.  There are a lot of steps, and a lot of hands that come together to make these pots.  When they are thoroughly dry, they will be fired.  From these hands to yours-Rob does this part.



6:56 AM

Rob’s plane headed for Paris took off from Detroit at 3:30 yesterday.  At 6:56 am our time, he was about to land in the south of France. This picture-via his iPhone. This view of the coastline-magnifique.  I am sure he has plans for the rest of the day that do not include sleep.  Shopping like this is not for the faint of heart.  His very first buying trip to France in 1993 he managed without a phone, or any help from a computer or a Garmin.  I think he was in France for 3 days before he found a phone he could use to call me.  The connection was so poor all I got from the conversation was that he was in France, and ok. 

The trip was loosely planned around what I read in books, and what I could glean from French design magazines.  There was so little information readily available pertaining to European sources of ornament for the garden, that these early trips were as much about exploration as they were about buying.  He had dinner with what he could find at a gas station, and hoped to find lodging when it got dark.  In his 3 weeks overseas, I may have talked to him two or three times.  I knew next to nothing about what he bought, until the container was delivered, and opened.  That first collection-stunning.

There would be pictures, once he got home, and his 35mm film could be developed.  Many of them related to his experience and exploration of the French landscape.  He travelled extensively, absorbing as much as he could of what he saw.  Garden ornament represents the culture, environment and landscape from which it comes.   

There are other stories from those early trips.  It was a month later that he told me he was lost in the Swiss Alps in the middle of the night, trying to drive from Italy to France.  There were almost no road signs, and the major road had a large tunnel that was permanently closed;  it had collapsed.  This he did not discover until he was 100 feet from the tunnel entrance.  He saw no one else travelling that night; somehow he managed to get to France. Like I said, he is an explorer of a very special sort.

As poor as our clues were, Rob took the situation in hand once he was there.  There were poteries producing garden pots the likes of which I had never seen, save in Cote Sud, the French magazine.  Once there were names and places put to the few pictures we had seen, he was ready to shop.  That he spoke not one word of French, he did fine.  Rob has a way of making friends first, and doing business later. 

Though the landscape and culture of France is very different than ours, the history of their gardens is very much part of the language of ours. Gardeners value that history.  A garden table of age and presence such as this one can organize an entire garden. If you are an afficianado of classical landscape, a table such as this would enchant your eye.   

There are many poteries in the south of France, each producing its pots with native clay, and distinctively regional designs.  Many of the poteries have been producing pots for hundreds of years.  Ancient gardens were very much about utility.  Olive trees and citrus were grown in pots, not to mention  herbs.  Olive jars were just that; containers for olive oil.  But the French have a way of endowing the every day business of living with great beauty and style.   

At this end of this first trip to France, Rob did manage to reach me by phone.  He was interested in a sculpture which had been exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1883.  The cast iron sculpture came with a stone pedestal that had been hand carved especially for the sculpture.  It was breathtaking in more than one way.  The purchase of this sculpture would take more than half of our entire budget.  When he told me that, I hung up on him.  Three days later he called back, did I wish to speak to the dealer about the provenance of the piece?  Needless to say, he persuaded me to buy the sculpture.  It took 3 years to find a buyer, but the three years it sat just inside the front door of the shop said everything about our point of view about the landscape.  It was a defining purchase in a lot of ways.  

Not everything he bought would be that costly, but shopping overseas, and shipping from Europe is complicated and expensive.  These French pots are handmade, not made by machine.  They had to be crated prior to shipping.  That became part of the price.  Lots of things enable Rob to shop more efficiently now.  Making beautiful things available to keen gardeners is a passion of Rob’s; visiting the shop makes that clear.  

I have no idea what Rob will speak for; this is what he does, and he does a beautiful job it. I have nothing to add to this, except my interest and support. I do not experience the shop how my clients do; I come here every day, and have done so for 15 years. I have worked with him for almost 20 years now.  But when he leaves on a European shopping trip, I look at what is already here with fresh appreciation, and great anticipation for what he will bring to the shop next.