Sometimes it takes a process of elimination to find your passion.
“I do remember the years of confusion and thinking, ‘Oh maybe I’ll do graphic design?’” says Erin Lightfoot, the Brisbane-based ceramicist and designer known for her eponymous jewellery and vessel brand.
Through a bit of trial and error, Lightfoot ended up studying fashion design at QUT. It was where she first experimented with the fun, Art Deco-style prints she’s now known for, doodling them in her notebook during lectures.
“I didn’t necessarily want to be a fashion designer … I wasn’t very good at designing clothes [but] I came up with the idea of doing prints,” Lightfoot says. “Really simple garments, but [it was the] prints on the fabrics and that worked out really well.”
The desire to keep working on print design lead Lightfoot to spend time at her parents’ place in Canberra where her mother, ceramic sculptor Vivien Lightfoot, has a fully stocked studio. There she developed the first renditions of her printed ceramic bangles.
That was in 2011. These days, Lightfoot has a loyal following across Australia. She’s a mainstay at the Finders Keepers and Big Design Market events and is stocked across many of the major museum and gallery shops in Australia, as well as boutiques and gift shops.
Lightfoot works alongside her partner, Tang Oudomvilay, previously an audio engineer with The Brisbane Powerhouse, and two studio hands (one is Lightfoot’s brother, Jonathan, himself an accomplished artist). Oudomvilay joined Lightfoot early on in the piece, slowly taking on more responsibilities until it turned into a full-time gig two years ago.
“As the business [grew] I needed more and more help,” Lightfoot says. “I do all the prints and all the jewellery, and then we collaborate on the vessel shapes … [and] in terms of logistics, Tang takes the lead on that.”
The couple’s Brisbane studio sits beneath their home in Red Hill and has grown alongside the business. Initially, the workspace took up just a corner of what was then a share house. Later on, it incorporated sleeping quarters for the couple before finally taking over the entire downstairs space of the Queenslander.
The studio has dedicated “clean areas” for sorting orders and “dirty areas” for production. Jewellery is made with stained clay hand-cut from Lightfoot-designed stencils before being fired in the on-site kilns, glazed and finally hand-painted. Similarly, the vases have a multi-step process that includes timed setting in moulds before being hand-shaved to clean up the edges, plenty of polishing to get Lightfoot’s identifiable shine, and then firing and painting.
Lightfoot says inspiration for the designs can come from anywhere.
“The other day I was on the phone and [absent-mindedly looking at] a postcard, and I was like, ‘Oh, that little section there. Those three colours go really well together’,” she says. “‘I’m going to see if I can play with that’.”
Lightfoot’s designs tend to have a whimsical style. She says she enjoys invoking mood and movement in her pieces.
“I’ve just started to look at Victorian-era earrings because I really like the shapes,” Lightfoot says. “But then it'll be a matter of what I can physically do … I’ll have to sketch with the clay and actually see what I can build.”
This handmade approach is what sets Lightfoot's work apart.
“It has become a bit of a selling point that we are an independent studio and Australian made,” she says.
“People are a lot more supportive of local [these days],” adds Oudomvilay. “People are thinking about [what] they're buying and trying to find things made in Australia.”
Which is in direct contrast to the business advice the pair has received over the years.
“When talking about expanding, everybody said the only way you can do it is to produce offshore,” Lightfoot says. “But we actually have a studio and produce in Australia, employing local artists.”
Erin Lightfoot is currently working on a new collection to be released early this year.