The pottery wheel has been spinning in the house of Robert Gordon for generations, taking the family business from tin-shed operation to Australia's top restaurants, writes Michael Harden.
In a purpose-built factory in Pakenham on Melbourne's outer fringe, there's a crew of people stirring and dipping, brushing and shaping. Recipes are being followed and ingredients selected. There are great vats of liquid and super-hot ovens.
It might sound like the kitchen of a bakery, but the craftspeople at Robert Gordon, one of the last remaining production potteries in Australia, aren't preparing food; they're making the vessels in which food is cooked and served. Plates, bowls, teacups and saucers, teapots, jugs, pitchers and bottles, casserole and roasting dishes, trays and cake stands are stacked around the factory in varying states of completion, and in a dizzying number of permutations and combinations of colour, shape and purpose. For kitchenware and tableware fanatics, it's a kind of heaven.
"We have between 500 and 600 items in our range with a huge archive and library of shapes and colours," says Sam Gordon, Robert's youngest son who now, along with his sisters, Kate and Hannah, and brother, Bobby, runs the family business. "We stock over 3000 independent retailers both in Australia and overseas, plus we make items for people under licence, and we design bespoke plates and dishes
for individual restaurants."
for individual restaurants."
Chances are, if you've eaten at Vue de Monde, Gazi, Grossi Florentino or a Merivale restaurant, to name but a few, you'll have encountered some of the beautiful handcrafted work produced for each restaurant in the rather prosaic Pakenham factory. Shannon Bennett, owner-chef of Melbourne restaurant Vue de Monde, is a long-term Robert Gordon fan, collaborating with Sam since the first incarnation of Vue in Carlton. Together they devise bespoke plates for his venues.
"I think a restaurant should put a lot of thought into what they serve food on," says Bennett. "It's an important part of the whole story, so I was looking for a place that could make something unique for the restaurant and found this one. It was so full of energy, a family-run business with all these talented craftspeople working there. There was an attitude of collaboration.
"We've been to Japan together to study those influences," he says, "and we've collaborated with artists like Stieg Persson. It's the kind of place where they just do whatever it takes to make things happen."
This direct connection with clients seems to be an integral part of the business and its success.
"Every chef I work with has come to the factory and understood what we are doing here," says Sam. "When people appreciate that we're a family business, that we have talented people who have been working for us for up to 30 years and that we make the stuff right here, that always seems to work for us. I don't want to sound too precious, but the connection and the understanding is really important."
It's easy to understand why the notion of family is important - pottery runs in the blood. Robert's parents ran a pottery business called Dyson Studios, which his mother, June Dyson, set up in 1945. They sold direct to the public and in Myer and David Jones stores. Dyson was a famed, much-collected potter and her mother before her, Dorothy Dyson, designed patterns for Colley Shorter, husband of famed English ceramicist Clarice Cliff. Many of the shapes June created are still used today, glaze recipes are based on those she devised and the company is often inspired by her colour palette.
Robert grew up around the pottery wheel and became a skilled thrower himself. After spending three years overseas - and meeting his wife Barbara in England - he succumbed to the pottery lure and set up Pack Track Pottery in 1979, in Gembrook in Victoria's Dandenong Ranges. Business boomed, outgrowing the tin-shed operation, and in 1987 it moved to the factory in Pakenham.
Today, all Robert and Barbara's children work in the business and he says it has been invaluable to their continued success. "All of them bring something unique to the business. I understand the clay and the machines and the kilns very well, but there really needed to be generational change to keep the company going. It wasn't planned that way, but that's how it's worked out."
Robert Gordon now has a commercial range designed in Australia and made at their stable of factories in China, as well as accessories to accompany the ceramics, such as woven and metal baskets, and paper baking products. All told, Robert Gordon produces about 150,000 individual items per year.
But it's Australian-made items, made to order and finished by hand, that are always in demand. A new kiln was recently installed to keep up with demand from retailers, while increasingly chefs are turning to Robert Gordon, lured by the prospect of serving their food on tableware that's locally made and unique.
"The chefs love it because of the flexibility and durability," says Sam. Add the word "family" and that could well be the company's motto.