Melanie Russell designs and makes decorative mosaics for interiors. Her pieces are all one-offs, made from hand-cut bone china, especially English Victorian tableware. Melanie’s husband cuts the templates for her in his ‘workshop’ (their garage) and she has turned her dining room into a studio. It’s a team effort, and very much a ‘kitchen (or dining!) table’ enterprise. To find out more about Melanie’s company take a look at our interview with her below…
How did it all start?
I’ve always tended to combine my love of making things with a fairly fervent nesting instinct. I’ve moved house many times, often leaving possessions behind, and along the way I’ve produced lots of ‘artwork’ for my homes. In the ‘90s I discovered découpage and sold my wares at a local Farmers’ Market in Montana, USA, where I lived at the time. I later learned how to make stained glass and kept that up for a while. I’ve done quite a few house renovations and upcycled a lot of furniture in my time. These have all been absorbing and enjoyable projects, but not what I’d call a passion. That all changed when I discovered how to mosaic.
A couple of years ago I took a precious day off work (my full-time day job is admissions for a local independent school) to attend a one-day mosaic workshop at a local gallery. I completed a project in that session using my own china rather than the standard ‘made for mosaic’ tesserae (as the fragments are known) provided by the workshop leader. I am as proud of that piece as of anything I’ve made since, because it was my first, albeit imperfect, proper mosaic. I’ve been in a frenzy of mosaicking ever since!
Armed with my newfound knowledge I set about making things for the Edwardian home we had not long moved into. We now have several large vintage mirrors with mosaicked frames hanging in our entrance porch and hallway, plus many smaller plaques around the house and half a dozen mantel clocks to chart my mosaic journey. I’m sentimentally attached to them all and even remember exactly what episode of Desert Island Discs I was listening to as they took shape!
Running out of walls and surfaces at home, and having far from exhausted the desire to keep making mosaics, I began to look for other outlets. I made a series of mosaic stars and gave them away as gifts to friends and family. I produced a few items and exhibited them in a local gallery, which were well-received. Then, earlier this year, I was persuaded to do a craft show. This was a turning point because it meant putting myself out there as opposed to the relative anonymity of having things in a gallery for someone else to represent. Although it was a relatively intimate event, the people who visited my stall were so lovely and encouraging (as was the fact that I sold quite a few pieces that day), that it gave me the confidence to expand my portfolio and aspire to exhibiting at a larger event. That’s when I approached the Country Living Christmas Fair team and I’m delighted to be on board for Harrogate on 5-8 December.
The story behind the name…
There’s no story I’m afraid – my brand is just my name, for the moment at least!
Where are you based?
I work from my home-based studio in Rutland, with my husband, my ten year old daughter and two crazy cats for company.
What inspires you?
Rummaging through flea markets, charity shops and car boot sales. Browsing home & lifestyle magazines. Pinterest. Art nouveau. The Arts & Crafts ethos. Coastal landscapes. Anything to do with Christmas. Beautiful fabrics & wallpapers. Interiors of all kinds but especially those with character & individuality. Gardens. The patterns in nature. Food, fashion, architecture. Paint colour charts. All things crafty. I could go on!
What is your creation process?
I source my china from junk shops, car boots and street markets, etc. I especially can’t resist anything with a flash of gold! I then decide on my subject and pass the sketched template to my husband for cutting the base shape in wood.
I use ‘nippers’ to cut the china into the size and shape I want and then play with the design, moving the fragments around on the wooden base until I’m satisfied with the overall effect. I try to incorporate the maker’s mark somewhere in my design to show the china’s provenance. I then take a photograph before removing all the pieces, ready for gluing the surface and recreating the design using the photo for reference. I employ what’s known as the ‘direct’ method – that is, I fix my cut tesserae directly onto my subject using PVA adhesive. Once the glue is dry the piece is ready for grouting.
Unlike more traditional mosaics I aim for a deliberately uneven surface to my finished works. I find that light bounces off the fragments, laid at slightly different angles & varying heights, in a more interesting way than if the surface were perfectly flat and uniform. As I don’t generally work on floors or walls, but on decorative items that don’t demand such practical considerations, this technique works for me – but grouting with my bare hands (for best effect on an uneven surface) does mean I am constantly losing my fingerprints! When I clean and polish a piece of work after it has been grouted, I am often struck by its newfound ‘authority’.
The final stage is to paint the back and sides of my mosaic and attach the fixing ready for it to be hung.
What makes you, your brand or products unique?
It’s difficult to be impartial enough to say what makes my products unique, but I like to think I have developed my own style rather than imitating others. I don’t aim for realistic representations; I don’t have a trained eye; I just love the endless possibilities and the tactile nature of mosaic work. I love the raw material – bone china – and I especially love re-imagining it, even if it does mean breaking it first! Ultimately I make what pleases me, but when the care I take over my pieces transmits itself to another person, and when they tell me they find my work unique, that’s just magic.
What is your next project?
I enjoy the challenge of working on a three dimensional project, which involves ‘scaffolding’ as you go to prevent the mosaic materials succumbing to gravity before they’re fixed in place. I’d like to work on some more sculptural, quirky designs – perhaps for holding flowers and table arrangements – as well as continue to develop my current portfolio.
What are your plans for the next 12 months?
I’m keen to progress to selling online, which means upping my game on the promotional side and generally becoming a bit more social media-savvy. This is definitely not my strong point but I recognise the importance of it in today’s world and know I have much to learn!
What is your biggest achievement?
It’s both an achievement and a constant challenge to balance a busy work and family life with time set aside for creativity – which I have finally recognised is a need that must be met!
What is your best-selling product/line?
It’s early days but people seem to especially like my birds and hearts.
What do you love about Country Living Fairs?
I love everything about Christmas and always have! So to visit the Country Living Fair at Christmas-time is a truly magical experience. It’s busy and overwhelming, but well worth the ticket price. It’s entirely possible to find all your Christmas gifts in one go – and totally unique ones at that. Whether you go alone for maximum concentration or take a friend (I took my mum to Harrogate last year), you can alternate buying gifts for others with gifts for yourself (“one for them, one for me”). Not forgetting having something nice to eat and drink (there’s even a champagne bar!) and generally soaking up all that Christmas cheer – what’s not to love?
Your three top tips for crafters and makers…
Make things you love and would be proud to have on display in your own home (forget mass-market appeal!). Be open to possibilities (even scary ones). Remember if you do want an audience you’ve got to occasionally lift your head up and put yourself out there, whether you like it or not (that’s actually a note to self)!
Any advice for fledgling businesses…
Keep at it, learn from the example of others and ditto the above ‘top tips’!