Happy Potter and the house that clay built

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Photographed by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #77
Subscribe to get the real thing here.

When ceramicist Lucy Coote and her husband, architect Mark Leong, happened across a two-bedroom brick villa in Berhampore in 2019, they saw the chance to create both a family home and a studio space for Lucy’s pottery business, Salad Days Ceramics.

Built around 1900, the Rintoul Street property at the end of a row of five identical small villas reminded the Wellington couple of terraced houses in which they’d lived in Sydney. According to local lore the houses were built from bricks made in the local brickworks, for the owner’s five daughters, says Lucy. “They’re nicknamed ‘the five sisters’.”

The double-brick construction could put some buyers off, she admits, and it was “a bit small” for the couple and their twin daughters Daisy and Margaux, now almost four. But the property’s two out-buildings and garage were perfect for pottery, and Mark had worked on a lot of brick houses. “We had seen what you could do with this kind of house, we could see the potential. We saw that we could afford this house and add to it.”

Moving in, they whitewashed the Nineties-era colour scheme – “there was a lot of red and yellow” – with Dulux Full Cardrona in the living areas. The burgundy bathroom was painted Half Cardrona and its rimu tongue-and-groove wallboards (not original, installed in the early 90s) were redone in Resene Triple Duck Egg Blue. The main bedroom, previously a deep terracotta, is now painted an orangey blush pink, using Resene Just Right. In the kitchen, the couple kept the contemporary-looking light green walls (Resene Bach), black-and-white chequered vinyl floor and wooden shelving. They took down the chimneys, removed the fireplace from their bedroom, and put new curtains in.

Mark and Lucy’s furniture – much of which they brought back from Sydney – complements the house’s interior: a black leather sofa, a Scandinavian-style wooden dining table, a wicker and glass kidney table and a vintage bentwood rocking chair. The Swedish-designed String shelves in the lounge came from Mark’s parents, who bought them from a second-hand shop in Johnsonville 25 years ago. The couple’s style is “classic design, but not from any particular era.”

Various pieces tell a personal story. The bust of Artemis and a “spooky but interesting” Geo Chance photo were owned by Lucy’s great-uncle Brian Coote, a distinguished legal academic. Two Iittala glass vases by Alvar Aalto were bought on honeymoon in Copenhagen. In the twins’ bedroom, there’s a print by artist-illustrator Flora Waycott. The accompanying quote ‘we are growing well together’ was Lucy’s yoga mantra throughout her pregnancy.

Works by other artist-friends are placed around the house. On the String shelves, there’s a vase by Wellington ceramist Pip Woods and a shark by Auckland ceramist Tim Grocott aka Taus. Unglazed, it is smooth with a hint of sandpaper roughness, like shark skin.

Many of Lucy’s own pieces can be found on mantelpieces and shelves. One is a vase she made for her wedding. In the kitchen, her beautiful stoneware includes fruitbowls and storage vessels, mugs and cereal bowls, candle holders, and plates. Elegant in shape and glazed in subdued, sophisticated white, black, and clear glazes,  they are tactile and functional.

Making something “starting from nothing, and ending up with something you can use every day” is what Lucy loves about making pottery. She has trained in hand-build pottery techniques, but mostly throws on a wheel. Lucy came to pottery via classes at the Wellington Potters Association, after studying fashion design at Massey and completing a Commerce degree at Victoria University. Wellington potter Rosemary O’Hara taught her the craft, while teachers in Sydney, including potter Anthony Brink, gave her the confidence to be more creative, and develop her own style, or language of form.

She describes her work as “quite pared back and minimal, but earthy”. It’s important that the pieces “feel special, but not too precious.” Hence the name Salad Days, referring to the best days of our lives. Lucy first heard the term in a song of the same name by Welsh post-punk band Young Marble Giants. It seemed the perfect label for her ceramics: “I want people to enjoy the pieces, and use them. Also to enhance their daily rituals, such as eating and drinking. I’m all about now being your best days – doing small things that help you enjoy the present.”

Lucy sells through her website and demand, she says, is good. Her team includes production assistant and “right-hand woman” artist Teresa Collins. Two of Teresa’s paintings hang above the fireplace in the dining room. Today, she is busy packing orders, while Ben Pyne is at the wheel throwing and trimming. Last year Ben developed five new glazes for Salad Days: “He is really meticulous and scientific”. Meanwhile Wellington High student Luca comes in to clean the studio. Mark is also currently working from home. Once known around Wellington as a member of indie four-piece So So Modern, these days he runs a boutique architecture practice, Studio MYLA. He’s just hired a new employee and the lounge is about to be converted into a temporary office.

Fortunately the couple have plans for a full-scale renovation, designed by Mark. “Hopefully in the next year” they will have two more bedrooms, a new kitchen and second bathroom, and a new garage for Salad Days to work out of. “I enjoy living in this house as it is, but it will be good to have more living space, and good for my work.” They’ll lose part of their courtyard but the north side of the house “will be pretty much all glazing, and we’ll put in skylights. In Wellington, it’s better to have a warm inside space with more light”.

Berhampore wasn’t one of Mark and Lucy’s preferred locations. But now, says Lucy, “we really, really love it, and we just can’t think of another suburb we’d want to get a house in. The community spirit is really strong.”

In lockdown, Lucy noticed a lot of orders came from customers in Berhampore. “It was really lovely to see that support.” In fact, the majority of her customers are in Wellington. She had been nervous moving from Sydney. “I had a good customer base, and thought maybe people there had a higher disposable income. But I’ve been really surprised how Wellington has embraced me and my ceramics.”


Sign up to our newsletter