You don’t often see the words “cool young artists” and “successful businessmen” in the same sentence. But those incongruous terms describe the owners of Mudshark Studios — a company that has spun off two other creative endeavors and has won recognition from business mainstays like Martha Stewart and The Wall Street Journal.
“Chris and I always said it was going to be giant. It’s going to be big and we dreamed like that. But we didn’t know what it meant. As silly as it sounds, I didn’t know that it would mean I’d have to have an office, that I’d have to be in front of a computer,” says Brett Binford, who started Mudshark Studios with Chris Lyon seven years ago when they were in their 20s. Binford and Lyon are both ceramicists, who learned ceramic production from a master artist in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Mudshark makes high-quality ceramics in small productions. Say an artist crafts a mug and wants to make 20, 200 or 2,000 of them. Mudshark could produce it from start to finish, from molding and casting to firing and glazing. The studio employs 28 people, most of them with degrees in ceramics.
Asian factories can make ceramics much more cheaply, but Binford contends Mudshark is a better option because the studio produces smaller batches of products than big offshore factories would. With smaller batches, companies eliminate the need to buy warehouse space to stock inventory and, as a result, enjoy more cash on hand, he says.
“Cash flow is a very difficult beast to navigate,” says Binford. “Five to seven years ago when the recession hit, all these companies with a lot of inventory, a lot of product and no cash went out of business. Companies now want to be lean and want to hold the least amount of inventory.”
Binford says another reason Mudshark is a better alternative to an offshore factory is the studio is more responsive because it is smaller and domestic. Say a company decides to order 2,700 more black mugs because they are selling well and reduce a previous order for red mugs by 2,100. Mudshark can ramp up to meet changing demands much more quickly than an offshore factory, says Binford. “We’re able to switch gears faster.”
Mudshark’s clients include Ann Sacks Tiles, Rejuvenation, Schoolhouse Electric and Maguire Furniture.
“Over the last 20 to 30 years, our country has outsourced all ceramic goods that we use in our daily lives and in our households. To bring that back home is very important,” says Binford.
Last year Mudshark Studios was one of 10 companies to win Martha Stewart’s American Made Award. Binford, Lyon and other winners were flown to New York City and were honored at a special event with a speech by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Mudshark has spawned another venture. Binford and Lyon have joined five other ceramicists to spearhead the Portland Growler Company. Mudshark produces the growlers, which are beer jugs. Tapping a nationwide trend, beer drinkers take the growlers to breweries or bars and fill them up with beer from kegs. In some states, but not in Oregon, you can even fill your growlers in some grocery stores. Portland Growler’s rubber-sealed ceramic jugs keep the beer bubbly for more than three days, says Binford.
Portland Growlers is getting a lot of press. It got a boost in sales after it was featured in a Wall Street Journal article last month, says Binford. Started in 2010, the company sold 300 of the environmentally friendly beer jugs in its first year and 3,000 in its second year.
Another extension of Mudshark Studios is Eutectic Gallery, showcasing ceramics by local and international artists. The gallery curator is Jeffrey Thomas of the now defunct Thomas/Jamison Gallery. It was one of the first fine art galleries in Portland’s Pearl district. Thomas left the art world in 1992 and went into advertising and photo producing.
“I find it ironic — here I am, after 30 years, back into a small gallery under the radar which is how I started with William Jamison in 1985,” says Thomas.
He discovered Mudshark’s plans to open an art gallery while reading Martha Stewart Living magazine. Eutectic Gallery also has a small store that sells ceramics, some handcrafted and some produced by Mudshark Studios.
Going forward, Binford and Lyon are trying to get out from behind their computers and desks. They have just hired an office manager to run Mudshark Studios and plan to eventually hire another office manager for Portland Growlers. That will give them more time for their first love: creating ceramic art.