The magnetism of a good mug is hardly a new phenomenon. But during the pandemic, many ceramic artists have seen the kind of customer excitement more associated with clothing lines or concert tickets. Some pieces are selling out within seconds of being posted on websites and Instagram pages.
Lalese Stamps of Lolly Lolly Ceramics said she can sell 250 mugs in under a minute. Sarah Hussaini, the architect turned ceramist behind Not Work Related, reported selling 350 pieces in six minutes. Mica DeMarquez of Mimi Ceramics tracked sales of 326 items in four minutes, and Dustin Barzell of Ceramicism routinely unloads 10 to 30 pieces in 30 seconds. Haley Bradley of Studio Hecha spent an estimated 400 hours — not including dry time — on a recent release of 78 one-of-a-kind pieces. Everything sold, she said, in five minutes.
“One customer told me the last time they felt like this was trying to get tickets to see Beyoncé,” DeMarquez said. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
Part of the thrill is that the wares are being sold in limited-release batches, or “drops.” Such mini collections have become an online strategy for selling all kinds of things — streetwear and sneakers but also handbags, makeup and knitwear.
But while streetwear brands are ever concocting an aura of exclusivity, this category of ceramics is the real thing: artist-made, one of a kind. Most are decidedly bold — mugs in an upbeat mix of colors, shapes and patterns, with shiny glazes and checkerboard prints particularly popular.
As quarantine dragged on, the urge to maximize joy in domestic settings bloomed, with sales of certain home goods increasing since the same time last year. Many people also had a desire to make quotidian activities — drinking coffee, eating dinner — a little more worthy of Instagram.
Stamps, who stocks her mugs at Madewell and West Elm, saw her work’s popularity skyrocket amid social media calls to support more Black makers. In March 2020, she had under 9,000 followers; now she has over 100,000.
“I know it’s not just because I’m a Black person or a Black business,” she said. “It does have a lot to do with the work I’m creating.” Her “100 Day Project” — a collection of 100 stoneware mugs each with a different handle, made in 100 days — was widely heralded.
Hunter Galligan, a licensed counselor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, has been trying to buy one particular mug from Stamps’ collection since January. She directly contacted the artist, scoured eBay and Poshmark and asked friends and family to join the search.
“It felt like a treasure hunt to find these rare items,” Galligan said. “It turned into a fun distraction.” Part of the allure is to support small businesses, she said — though she still hasn’t gotten her hands on the desired mug.
“Above-the-keyboard dressing,” as Kat Collings, the editor-in-chief of Who What Wear, calls it, is also an incentive. “It goes beyond your clothes. I think of your glass of choice like an accessory,” she wrote in an email.
Meryl Vedros, a creative director and design ethnographer in Los Angeles, agreed: “Beautiful mug in a Zoom meeting for the win.”
Hana Cohn, a consultant for nonprofit and arts organizations, thinks that during this time when touch has been taboo, handmade works have more appeal than ever.
“There’s something irresistible about ceramics,” Cohn said, “that it’s made through direct touch.”
Helen Levi, a ceramic artist in Brooklyn, New York, said these accounts create a “bond to the person.” She added: “It’s not a faceless transaction.”
Hedy Yang of Hedy Yang Ceramics, who with her signature bubble-glazing technique was popular even before the pandemic, agreed: “People are invested in me,” she said. “It’s not just about a mug anymore.” Quarantine enabled Yang to spend more time in the studio, which meant more content, more engagement and more sales.
Hussaini said people became more invested in her work when she shared more about her personal life and the process of making ceramics. She appeared on a podcast to speak about her scrappy studio in a Brooklyn bathroom, where the wheel is alongside a tub. (She has since moved into her own dedicated studio space.)
Bradley creates elaborate “mini campaigns” around each collection of mugs, cups and vases, which she calls “dirt drops.”
“I’ve probably cried after every single drop sells out,” she said. “It is just such a huge buildup to create these tiny, special pieces that I’m putting everything into.” Bradley is seeking out ways to ensure the process of make-sell, make-sell stays fresh for her and her fans. She shared the release of a recent collection only with her newsletter subscribers, and invited Instagram followers to tune in to a playlist, which was inspired by the new collection and timed to mark the collection’s release.
“Being spontaneous gives me energy and helps my way of working,” Bradley said.
Barzell had a similar impulse when he asked followers to send in song submissions for a chance to win one of his psychedelic cups.
“I really want to do more game show-type stuff, or maybe we’ll make scratcher cards or ask people to draw a picture of a mug,” he said. “I love the interaction, and it’s another way to get the work to people.”