On a typically warm Brisbane morning, designer Mike Lepre is getting his hands dirty at his ceramics studio and social enterprise, Bertonni. Inside the Windsor warehouse, Lepre stands alongside two co-workers stirring slip – a liquid mixture of clay and water – testing its consistency with a finger. The slip will later be poured into plaster moulds and eventually join the many other pieces that line the surrounding shelves in various stages of completion.
“I’ve always loved really nice European homewares … always bought really nice ceramics, Waterford crystal and Wedgewood – brands like that with history and beautiful craftsmanship,” Lepre says. His own designs have a “nerdy” simplicity. “It’s all about lines [and] angles. I want to let the material speak for itself and create something that would stand the test of time and wouldn’t be a fad or trendy.”
Bertonni porcelain is designed and made in-house using high quality Australian clay. “As a designer it’s very important for me, using Australian materials and being as local as possible.” Other Australian brands often import their clay from Limoges, France – a city famous for its porcelain. “From what I’ve heard Limoges is easy to work with … I never choose the easy things, unfortunately,” Lepre says, smiling.
Porcelain is one passion for Lepre. A second is helping empower disadvantaged young people. In partnership with Brisbane Youth Service he employs two trainee ceramicists, Rachael Hughes and Simon Walsh, helping provide meaningful employment for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. “It’s more than the skills they are learning,” Lepre says. “It’s all these soft skills, which a lot of people that are disadvantaged don’t get to learn: the confidence, the self-awareness, the ability to be structured and stick to times and schedules. I think a job gives these things as well, which is probably as important as the pay and other skills.”
Lepre is a trained designer but a self-taught ceramicist. Prior to launching Bertonni he hadn’t worked with clay “since Grade 9 or 10 art class”. But learning the ceramic process from scratch helped eliminate any preconceptions about the craft. The result was a step-by-step process to making porcelain that anyone can do, regardless of skill level. Case in point: Lepre created a bilge pump to more easily glaze the insides of his porcelain, ensuring an even distribution on each piece in the shortest amount of time.
It’s been a big learning curve for Bertonni ceramic assistants Walsh and Hughes. “I never thought that I’d be doing this at all,” Walsh says. “This has been a really good opportunity for me to get more structure in my life … it’s been a good stepping stone to help me get back on my feet.”
“This is a whole new line of work I’ve never tried before,” Hughes adds. “It was quite complex at the start remembering everything and every unit of measurement there was … I definitely enjoy it [now].”
In a meaningful touch, each Bertonni piece comes with a maker’s mark (Hughes has an infinity symbol, Walsh a softball). It helps trace the products to the craftsperson and their individual story.
The seed for the Bertonni brand started when Lepre was “messing about” with concrete. When the mould-making process proved too challenging for making thin vases out of concrete, he turned to porcelain – it was food safe and allowed him to produce a more varied set of products. The name Bertonni is derived from both the word beton (which translates to “concrete” in French) and Lepre’s Italian roots.
At the moment, the online store offers homewares and tablewares (black and white vases and fruit bowls). In the future, Lepre wants to add architectural lighting to the product mix. “The good thing about porcelain is it’s translucent, perfect for lighting,” he says.
As for Lepre’s vision for Bertonni in the future: “I want to really build a brand that people understand what we do and why we do it, and want to be a part of this.” The key to success? A slower-paced work environment that begins every morning with a 10-minute guided meditation. “I’m really trying to create a workplace where it’s about doing less but creating more quality,” he says. “[I want to create] a space [where] these guys want to be, where they can not think about their very complex lives.”