Q&A with Shelley Simpson

The founder and creative director of Mud Australia, on throwaway comments, the roots of her design ethos, and why her company is about so much more than ceramics.

Words: Viel Richardson

Images: Petrina Tinslay, Leif Prenzlau


“Well, New York would be great!” And so began the story of Mud Australia’s first overseas showroom.

“Where would you open it then?” an exasperated Shelley Simpson had asked James, her partner in business and in life, having suggested a location for a new store on the opposite side of the Sydney Harbour bridge to their first shop. His response, loaded with visions of hours stuck on the bridge in traffic jams with vans full of porcelain, was delivered with a look of horror. He then jokingly suggested a location with a somewhat longer commute. 

For most other people, the matter would have ended with this tongue-in-cheek response, but the fact that just over a year later Mud Australia did indeed open a New York showroom tells you a great deal about the company and its founder. Shelley Simpson definitely takes the road less travelled. 

The first time she picked up a piece of clay, Shelley was working in hospitality. “Making pots was such a wonderful meditation,” she says. “When you’re throwing a piece of clay, you can’t think about anything else, you really have to be present. It felt like something magic had entered my life.” 

That magic changed everything. When a hoped-for promotion never came, Shelley decided to ditch the world of hospitality and commit to turning her love of pottery into a viable career. “At the time there was an initiative called the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme that paid you the equivalent of unemployment benefits for one year while you set your business up,” Shelley tells me, calling in from a room above her Sydney studio. “To qualify, you had to take some business courses and create a business plan. This was great as it made me really think about what I wanted to do. At the beginning I sold at markets and approached other businesses to make things for them. Eventually I found my rhythm. I realised that I liked to make slightly asymmetric pieces with a real depth of colour – and that’s when things really started to grow.” And grow they did: Mud Australia is now available in Europe, Asia, Canada, New Zealand and the Unites States, as well in Australia. 

Those original designs had very practical beginnings. “It all started in my house, with things that I needed for myself. In those days we had a tiny dining table and when the family sat down to dinner, I didn’t want to be continually leaving the table to get more dishes as we ate,” Shelley explains. “So, I created pieces that sat together nicely on the table, looked good and could hold everything we were eating. After dinner they could go straight into a dishwasher and from there into the cupboard. It had to be functional and look lovely and not be the kind of crockery that created extra work for someone.” 

All Shelley’s designs follow the same very internal process. “Ideas for a piece will swim around in my head for a long time before they start to coalesce into something that I want to take further,” she says. “I always sketch my designs – but by the time I sit down with a pencil the design will be at least halfway there. I’ll spend a few hours working through the form to create a drawing and then show it to my mould maker, an amazing ceramist called 

Somchai Charoen who I’ve been working with for over 20 years and who’s helped develop the Mud design language.” Somchai, who now teaches ceramics at Australia’s National Art School as well as running his own internationally respected studio, still works on prototypes with Shelley. He will create a plaster carving of Shelley’s design, and this is used to make a mould from which the production pieces will be cast, before being individually handfinished and fired in the company’s kilns. The finished pieces are as robust as they are elegant.

One of the beauties of a design ethos rooted around the family table is that Shelley’s pieces are enormously flexible. “Somebody may take what we design as a platter and use it for their dinner plate. People in the Middle East, with their traditions of communal dining, will eat from my pieces in very different ways than somebody in Korea might. In Australia’s multicultural environment, with all these wonderful food cultures, we see people using our pieces in ways we never envisioned.” 

Global success has provided opportunities the young Shelley would never have dreamed of. “A few years ago, Mud Australia was asked to be part of a group exhibition in Milan. During that event I had some extraordinary conversations with really interesting people and there was a level of respect that I probably haven’t allowed myself to accept in Australia,” Shelley explains. “It was the first time I felt like a designer as opposed to a potter and allowed myself to accept that thought. At home I’m problem solving, working with clay, helping with HR. I’m very much in ‘business’ mode. Stepping away from that and talking to designers and ceramists from other countries in wonderful environments, seeing how people engage with our work, changed my view of what we’re achieving here.” 

While Shelley is committed to creating products that are both functional and beautiful, that is only half the story. The legendary designer Dieter Rams once said: “Indifference towards people and the environment in which they live is the biggest sin of contemporary design.” It’s a view Shelley takes to heart. And it comes through strongly in her advocacy for the rights of Australia’s Indigenous population and the connections she has made with the community since those early days in her first tiny studio. 

“Early on I was helped massively by a lovely Indigenous man named Greg Weatherby. He helped me find my first big studio space. I can’t remember how we found each other but he would come into my studio, sit down and paint things on my pots. It was wonderful,” Shelley recalls with a warm smile “We just connected. I was happy for him to come in and go through that process with me – it wasn’t a moneymaking thing. Then suddenly the stars aligned.” One day some people from Lane Crawford in Hong Kong walked into her tiny studio, looking sharp in their Armani suits, and placed an order. Then a well-known Australian chef called Donna Hay placed an order for pieces to use for a book launch. “I was in this tiny workshop and had no idea how I was going to make it all!” 

It was then that Greg told her about an old building he knew that might make a good studio space, and introduced her to some people in the local council to start the process of securing it. “There was no benefit for him in doing this, he was just a lovely person.” 

Since then, Shelley has worked with Indigenous artists on various projects, but initially on a very adhoc basis. Wanting to do something more substantial and consistent, Shelley contacted the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands Art Centre Collective, a group of Indigenous-owned and governed art enterprises based in the APY Lands, deep in central Australia – just before the world woke up to the global catastrophe that was Covid.

“We arranged to send the artists Mud Australia blanks. They would then paint their designs onto the pieces, the same way Greg had done all those years ago,” Shelley explains. “For the first collaboration, we sent 50 blanks and some underglaze colours, which you use to colour ceramics. These underglazes don’t necessarily look like the colour they will be after firing in the kilns so there was a bit of training to be done, but because of Covid we had to get creative and find ways to do everything over Zoom.” Once the artists were finished, the pieces were driven from the APY Lands to Sydney. “I remember, as we were unpacking them, we were in tears seeing these beautiful artworks.” 

It was when the pieces were then fired in the company’s kilns that their true beauty emerged. The collection sold out in 17 minutes, with all the funds going to APY and their artists to help them create their own porcelain pieces. The next year, with four times as many works available, it swiftly sold out again. “These artists have their work collected by people all over the world, they exhibit in extraordinary places, but they’re always looking for something new and interesting to do. It’s a compliment to us that they were interested in doing this,” Shelley tells me. “We just provided the blanks and some training and this wonderful art came back.” 

Of course, the prestige involved is not all one-way. With an internationally regarded ceramics business and a well-respected eponymous arts prize, Shelley brought her own measure of status to the project. Talking to Shelley, you get a strong sense of traditional Australian understatement and a reticence about singing her own praises. With that in mind, I wondered what had led her to set up the Shelley Simpson Ceramics Prize in 2020. The answer, of course, started with family. 

“Watching my daughter go through fine arts college, I realised that even though she had supportive parents who encouraged her, it was still a struggle. She worked part time, she had to scrounge around to find materials, and it started me thinking about ceramics students. When we opened the London store, I met some of the teachers from Central Saint Martins art school and realised that everybody there was working with earthenware, no one with porcelain. I thought that was odd until I realised that it’s all about the expense. It’s so much more expensive working with porcelain. Then I thought about those students who are incredibly talented creatively but don’t have a support network. It must be so hard. As we’re in a position to help, I think we should.” 

The aim of her prize is to support the next generation of Australian ceramicists. The competition is open to artists working across small-scale, fine art, handcrafted or more commercial pursuits in ceramics, with the winner receiving a AUS$10,000 prize to put towards their final-year studies or further their ceramics career. This is important to Shelley, as she believes that ceramic artists – in fact artists in general – are undervalued and need as much support as we can give them. 

Shelley herself was never formally trained. In fact, she thinks that some of her greatest successes have come from pushing through with ideas she simply didn’t know shouldn’t work. As with every artist, her work has evolved over the years, so I wonder how those early pieces, sold from market stalls, would sit alongside her work today. “In some ways they’re very different,” she says. “In those days it was all hand thrown, which we don’t do at all today. It was earthenware, not porcelain – the colours we use have become so much more important. I used to hand-paint designs on my early pieces, all part of being playful and adventurous. So, it’s very different. But the essence of those first pieces is still there, aiming for that fusion of utility and beauty.” 

What has never changed is the way she cares about people. For her, it has always been crucial that everything Mud Australia does is uplifting – that it enhances the lives of the people who work there, the clients they sell to, the wider community and the environment we all depend on. “We were talking about International Women’s Day recently and somebody asked how we make decisions about our social, environmental and ethical business policies,” she says. “My answer was that we don’t follow policies, we live them. They are what we do, it’s who we are. For all of the success the company has had, the fact that we have done it without sacrificing values of respect and humility is something I am incredibly proud of.” 

That, then, is the secret to Mud Australia. That, plus the vision, skill and work ethic that turned a throwaway remark about New York into a showroom in lower Manhattan in less than 24 months.