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Consistency over time creates pottery success

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The brand name Tony Sly is synonymous with bespoke hand thrown domestic pottery that is the envy of any dinner party host.

And there’s something to be said for a business that has survived 40 years in the fickle craft trade.

But Tony’s rustic small batch productions have stood the test of time where other potters have fallen by the wayside.

And while the age-old craft may have fallen in and out of favour over the years, Tony says, a recent revival for handcrafted ceramics has been good for business.

“Now the time is finally right because pottery is having a real renaissance and I’m established, so lucky me.”

With an eye for stylish décor, Tony understood that what he liked translated well in a business sense with people coming back to add to their growing Tony Sly collections.

“I’m not making something to just sell, I’m making something that I like myself and would use in my own home. So, it’s a genuine place to start and it has always been my touchstone.”

From the humble beginnings of selling pots to friends and doing the market rounds to producing wholesale ranges for stockists and finally opening his first shop in Hamilton around 30 years ago, Tony says his journey is a similar story for many craft ventures.

“I think a lot of small businesses in New Zealand start by people wanting something that they can’t buy, so they make it and their friends liked it, then they might sell it at a market. And that’s what I did.”

Using his name as the brand for his business came about by what Tony says is a complete lack of imagination on his part and it worked; 40 years on and the name Tony Sly continues to be associated with artisanal homeware.

“Good business is really just consistency over time. You chip away long enough and put your work out there, and do things properly and before you know it, you’ve got a brand and I think that’s what I do best.”

The River Road shop in Hamilton where he started is no longer; a seachange brought him to Raglan about 20 years ago and he set up his shop and studio at the Raglan Wharf.

In 2017 he stopped selling wholesale to other stores and opened another store in Newmarket and there is the all-important online store.

“We had such an established client base all around the country when we were selling to other shops. Now that’s no longer available we find people from Christchurch, Invercargill, or wherever might come to Auckland twice a year for shopping and visit the Newmarket store.”

And, Tony says, the Newmarket store does a really good job of promoting Raglan with many Aucklanders visit the Raglan store.

The Covid restrictions didn’t dampen Tony Sly sales in fact the Raglan store was pumping.

“People were traveling within New Zealand and we had so many first-time visitors to Raglan and online. Around the world local economies actually thrived. We make and sell for the local market – we’re not really for the tourist market.”

Keeping it local and looking for opportunities to expand, Tony also creates pieces for the corporate market and restaurants that incorporate business logos into the design.

This ability to expand the business is made possible by a well-oiled team of seven, which include a manager who takes care of all the admin and production assistants working behind the scenes..

Each piece may only take a minute or so to create on the wheel, but then there are 24 steps over 3-4 weeks before it’s finished and ready to be sold.

And every piece has been touched by Tony; he is still throwing on the wheel and his aesthetic imbues every collection.

“It’s like being the head chef in a busy restaurant. I’m the first step in a long chain. I hand-throw each piece on the wheel before passing it on to the team for finishing, bisque firing, glazing, and then firing again. It means we can do volume but still keep it authentically me. I don’t know anywhere else that does that,” he says.

Growing up in Mangaweka and Te Kuiti, Tony’s creativity was formed in his grandfather’s shed.

Looking back, he realises he was destined to be a production potter; the cooper bowls he beat out of his plumber grandfather’s cast-offs were always made in multiples.

“All through my childhood, I was always busy making stuff with my hands. I’ve always made rows of things not just one. It’s probably why my personality is focussed more on being a production potter than a one-of-a-kind potter.”

Tony trained to be a teacher when he left school but realised very early on that he wasn’t suited to a career in education.

“I was a very shy, introvert and terrified in the classroom. But when I look back now, I was probably channelled (into teaching) academically through school.”

At 20-years-old he enrolled in a pottery night class and found his passion.

There weren’t many pottery career opportunities on offer at that time, so Tony cobbled together an apprenticeship of sorts by offering his labours for free to local potters and the rest as is history.

His love of pottery has always been inspired by his love of cooking; his pots, platters and plates are frames to complement the beautiful food his customers are creating in their kitchens.

Tony knows part of his success comes down to creating dinnerware that is stylish, simple and functional.

They are not just sitting unused in the backs of cupboards; a Tony Sly platter is the centrepiece of a dining room table.

“People often tell me what they use particular pots for, and I love hearing those stories. So, I leave space for people to be inspired by the pots and for their own creativity.”

Taking inspiration from his environment, Tony is lucky enough to have the sea at this studio doorstep.

“We want to retain a sense of cohesion within the range and the colours are inspired by the environment here in Raglan; earthy tones, watery blues and greens, misty whites.”

Working in an expansive boat builder’s shed on Raglan Wharf, Tony says, is a dream.

As well as being light and airy, which is perfect for drying pottery, the studio has an amazing view across the harbour.

The Raglan store/studio is filled with Tony Sly pottery, and a selection of furniture, accessories, and homewares Tony buys in to complement his range.

“It’s all a little bit unexpected on the end of the wharf. When people come in the door there’s good music playing, and it feels relaxed and homely, and our team are lovely and they really look after our customers.”

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