Some brochure or advertisement mentioned MacKenzie-Childs as ceramics manufacturers. Alie and Michelle are fond of ceramics. I like factories. So off we went.
There is a studio, shop and tour on what once was a Victorian sixty-five acre dairy farm. The tour, however, is of a “second empire farmhouse,” not the studio. One can only see the production process in a video in the visitors’ center. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the products even if they weren’t to our personal tastes, and I am always interested in learning about a small business that became a big business.
MacKenzie-Childs produces ceramic tableware, hand-painted furniture, glass and enamelware. They say their designers “draw inspiration from the natural world around us.” My personal view is the products look like they belong in a world that might have happened if Tiffany or another late Victorian designer happened to ingest some LSD. But I am too harsh. The products sell.
I was more intrigued by the company history. Husband and wife Richard and Victoria MacKenzie-Childs bought a big farmhouse and farm but didn’t have the money to decorate it. They both had studied art, Richard taught ceramics and Victoria was a sculptor, so they did the work themselves restoring and decorating found objects. They then decided to make some extra money by making plates and tea cups using a press-molding process. They founded their infant company in 1983.
Their dishes were an immediate success. They used the proceeds to buy more clay and expand production. They hired one of Richard’s students to help — and then another. When a Neiman Marcus executive saw their products at a craft show, they received their first really big order.
They grew and grew and, despite a devastating 1993 fire, acquired the current farm. But perhaps artists don’t always have the best business qualifications. They also acquired over 15 million dollars of debt which they personally guaranteed and a banker who may not have had their best interests at heart.
I have read a couple conflicting accounts, but it appears the company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2000 when the loan was called. It is not clear to me if Pleasant Roland, founder of the American Girl doll company, purchased the debt before or after the loan was called, but she did purchase the company including its trademarked name in 2001. Richard and Victoria, however, declined to agree to a provision not to compete with their old company and were driven into personal bankruptcy.
After a lawsuit, it was determined they no longer had the rights to the name MacKenzie-Childs, but could use their first names. Their new company is known as Victoria and Richard Emprise.
Roland invested in the company, opened new sales outlets and made it profitable. She sold it to venture capitalists Lee Feldman and Howard Cohen in 2008. We were told MacKenzie-Childs now employs over three hundred and seventy people.
I would have enjoyed seeing the actual ceramic production as we did in Delft, but the video was interesting. Terra cotta clay is hand molded or slip-molded in a press. It is then trimmed, fired and bisque glazed. Hand-painted decorations are kiln-fired a second time. More surface detail is added to some of the products, and they are fired a third time.
Click on photos to enlarge.