9th August 2018

In 2015, Vanessa Hogge, an ex-Royal College of Art graduate with a long career as a graphic designer, relaunched her ceramic practice after a 25-year hiatus. With support from Cockpit, her business has grown exponentially in the last 18 months and her decorative porcelain floral wall pieces and vessels are now in huge demand the world over. She was recently featured in ‘O, The Oprah Magazine’ and has an enviously large following on Instagram. So how did rediscovering a bag of clay in the corner of her shed morph into a successful ceramics business in less than three years?

Wind back to 2015, and with both her children off at university, that bag of clay in Vanessa’s garden shed reminded her of her true passion as a maker. She bought a second-hand kiln and, as she puts it, “decided to give it a go again”. She started making her delicately intricate floral pieces at her kitchen table and began selling work at various fairs. “I sold quite well in 2016 and knew it had potential,” she explains. So when a friend told her about the awards and bursaries offered by Cockpit, she decided to apply. Vanessa won The Cockpit/Radcliffe Craft Development Award, which provides free business support and studio space for a year and a £1,000 research bursary, and moved into her Holborn studio in January 2017.

“Having that free studio space for the first year enabled me to absolutely concentrate 100% on my ceramics,” she enthuses. “It transformed my business. There was suddenly an explosion of knowledge and this huge resource that I could tap into.”

Taking up the research bursary, Vanessa headed off to Copenhagen in January 2018 to stay at the home and workshop of renowned Danish porcelain artist Bodil Manz. As well as enjoying a masterclass with Bodil, Vanessa was also able to spend a day at Guldagergaard, Denmark’s International Ceramic Research Centre. “Although Bodil’s work is very different to mine, there is definitely a bond between ceramicists,” Vanessa says. “We both work in porcelain and I learnt so much about her processes. But more than anything it was the passion she had for her craft that inspired me. Ceramics are her whole life – you don’t ever retire from something creative once you’ve discovered it.”

Spurred on by her trip, Vanessa signed up to Cockpit’ London Creative Network (LCN) programme, which runs free professional development workshops for craft businesses. She describes the experience as “an intensive blast of knowledge”. “I learnt so much: how to sell and how to run a craft business. I’m still involved in the programme and taking full advantage of everything on offer.”

It was in one of these LCN workshops that Vanessa had a ‘eureka’ moment that made all the difference to her business. “We were told that ‘moving image sells’ and were encouraged to make a short video of our practice,” she explains. The resulting film of Vanessa at work in her studio went viral and has largely been responsible for her international success. “That little movie was the best investment I ever made,” she smiles. “It was shared over a million times on Facebook and made my Instagram account go crazy.” (To date, Vanessa has over 55,000 followers on Instagram.)

Vanessa believes the digital revolution has had a huge impact on small craft businesses and their ability to be discovered. Back in the early 90s when she first started out, there was no Internet, no mobile phones and no social media channels. “You had to rely on a stylist discovering you at a show, asking to photograph your work, and then maybe three months later you might see your piece featured in a magazine,” she remembers. “If the stylist got your landline number wrong by one digit, it was a whole missed opportunity.” Despite supplying Paul Smith shops in London, Tokyo and New York, at the time Vanessa found it too difficult to make a proper living from her work.

“The big difference for small creative businesses today is the Internet and the whole way in which it’s possible to market yourself now,” she says. “The opportunity to bring ourselves to a global audience almost instantaneously is incredible. I sell most of my work this way at the moment. I’ve sold to Brazilians, New Zealanders, Japanese… it’s how The Oprah Magazine discovered me.”

On the back of the Oprah feature, Vanessa received a large order from America. “It was a bit of a panic moment, to be honest,” she confesses, “but I was able to march straight down to the Cockpit office and have an on-the-spot five minute conversation with Emma Jeffs [Business Incubation Coach] about how to tackle the order.”

Monthly one-to-one meetings with the Business Incubation team have also helped Vanessa stay on track. “They keep me on my toes – especially if I’ve promised to do something to improve the business!” she laughs. “Having somebody there who understands what I’m doing is invaluable. They are right there in the same building, and will sometimes pop into the studio for a chat if they are passing.”

Watching the mesmerizing videos that Vanessa continues to post on her Instagram and Facebook accounts, you witness the intricacy of her making processes. Every last petal and anther are painstakingly crafted by hand, and it can take two to three weeks to complete her larger pieces. Despite this, Vanessa says she cannot imagine handing any of the making process over to someone else at the moment. “I know that time will come, but right now I enjoy making all the pieces myself – it’s the joy of repetition!” In the longer term, Vanessa envisages looking for admin support, someone who can help her with her burgeoning online presence. But for now she is relishing the freedom of being able to down tools when she wants and head off to “see fantastic things” that inspire her designs.

At the moment Vanessa is preparing for various shows this coming autumn, as well as fulfilling the increasing number of orders thanks to her high-profile online presence. She will also be exhibiting at the inaugural International Istanbul Ceramic Festival in October, alongside makers from 50 other countries.

“When I walked out of my full time graphic design job back in 2015, I knew I had to make this work,” she affirms. “I have a mortgage to pay, so I can’t just do this and not sell.” And she has made it work. Eighteen months since she arrived at Cockpit, Vanessa’s business is now fully sustainable. “When I arrived in January last year I honestly didn’t believe that would be possible. But being here has enabled me to grow my business so that I can now afford to stay on,” she says proudly. “Being part of this community of creatives – not just ceramicists, but shoe makers, hat makers and jewellers – is so much a part of what I am now that I can’t imagine not being here.”