what’s in your toolbox: frances palmer

Photo Credit: Stephen Orr

Today’s Toolbox interviewee was brought to my attention by Miss Amy Merrick, who could not stop gushing about the work of Frances Palmer. Just one peek at her website and I was sold. Frances’ gorgeous handthrown pottery is terrifically delicate, feminine and utterly elegant. I would be in absolute heaven if I owned one of her cake plates! Take a moment to really enjoy this interview because she is one inspiring woman. Grab your cup of coffee or tea and settle down for a delightful peek into her creative process. For all of you lucky New Yorkers, be sure to attend her lecture at the NYSID as part of the Wave Hill Lectures on February 23rd. She will be discussing the link between her garden and her work. It should be marked on your calendars!

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox?

Frances Palmer: My most valued tools are my wheels, which I am afraid are very messy. I have three: one for white earthenware, one for terra cotta and one for high-fire white porcelain. By keeping everything separate, I don’t have to worry about mixing up the clays. I would like to have a clean, Zen-like studio, but it just does not seem to work out that way. The one used most is the Shimpo Whisper Wheel, as the wheelhead moves round in both directions, even when the power is off. I work with a small group of hand tools and my favorite is the Kemper loop 8R2. I also have beautiful copper tubes for cutting out holes, which were made for me by my friend Robert Martin. I have a collection of plaster casts of flowers from my garden, and these are used for the shapes placed on many pots. I have two cameras, a Canon G10, which I take everywhere, and a Nikon D80, which goes on a tripod in the studio. I photograph my work for the website on a corner table with white seamless, next to the window. There are two large Skutt electric kilns for the earthenware and a Bailey gas kiln in a small outbuilding for the porcelain. I find the porcelain firing process thrilling.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel _____________.”

CLICK HERE for the rest of Frances’ interview after the jump!

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

Frances Palmer: I have just finished a biography of Constance Spry, who was an innovative floral designer from the 1930s and 40s in London. She made arrangements with weeds, vegetables and anything that she could find to combine with her flowers and extravagant vases. Ceramic books on top are The Complete Guide to High-Fire Glazes: Glazing & Firing at Cone 10 by John Britt and Isamu Noguchi and Modern Japanese Ceramics: A Close Embrace of the Earth by Louise Allison Cort. I love reading cookbooks and was recently given a copy of Tartine Bread written by Chad Robertson. My husband and three grown children are big eaters, and I like trying new recipes to make for them. Fresh bread is next on the list.

Photo Credit: Ethan Palmer

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Time management is often one of the biggest obstacles for creative minds. Do you have an agenda book and do you make to-do lists?

Frances Palmer: In the morning while having coffee, I write a list of work that needs to be thrown for the day. My handwriting is a bit unclear and sometimes I myself can’t read it very well. For every new shape, I make a sketch with weights and measurements in a large black book. I also try to document flowers and photograph the dahlias in September to keep track of what types were planted that year.

5. Design*Sponge: If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

Frances Palmer: If I could have something magical, it would be Hermione Granger’s time turner from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I would love to have the ability to be in two places at one time; to be here in CT and also in New York doing something fun. Or, to just have a few more hours during the day.

6. Design*Sponge: What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist?

Frances Palmer: The best advice that I received at age 16 was to begin at the beginning and finish at the end. I have followed this rule ever since. My advice to a young artist would be to focus on making art that is true to yourself.  Also, that mistakes or so-called failures can turn out to be the best pieces. Some of my favorite pots are ones that did not go according to plan. The one pictured below slumped in on itself after it was thrown, and I decided that it should be left alone.

7. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks?

Frances Palmer: The first thing that I do is order myself out of the studio. The clay senses when you are not mentally present. For a change of scene, I go to New York to meet friends or see art. Morning yoga is helpful (as often as possible) . . .

. . . or taking my dog Petie for a walk (although you can’t say the word “walk” in front of him, as he goes wild). Since my studio is next to the house, it is tempting to go there every day. I try to keep conventional Monday through Friday hours so that I have some distance from the work.

8. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration?

Frances Palmer: I am an enthusiastic traveler and always learn from seeing new things. For nearby inspiration, the Metropolitan Museum has the best collection of ceramics from all periods. I try to go to as many different exhibitions as time permits. Last spring, I drove to Virginia with friends to visit Jefferson’s Monticello. I have gone to Japan to study the pottery and gardens. The Saihoji Moss Garden is an incredibly spiritual place. This past October, a friend and I traveled to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the new ceramics installation on the top floor. Walking off the elevator, we were stunned by the thousands of pots newly displayed.

9. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the studio/toolbox of any designer/artist/craftsman, whose would it be and why?

Frances Palmer: I would like to peek into George Ohr’s glaze recipes, as he was an astonishing glaze master. I also would have liked to have sat next to him while he worked at the wheel. He dug his clay out of the Tchoutacabouffa River in Biloxi, Mississippi, and threw the thinnest, most eccentric work that is technically brilliant.

10. Design*Sponge: If you could make a master mix-tape of music that is inspiring you at the moment, what would it include?

Frances Palmer: Rather than music, when I am in the studio, I listen to audio books. Recently I have heard a few that are excellent — David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jocob de Zoet, Nicole Krauss’ Great House, and Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. I especially love Dickens. When I do listen to music, it is usually WFUV 90.7, the Fordham University radio station, as they play fantastic music of all sorts.


I am SO envious of her studio and gardens and she makes just amazing art. Good pick for an interview!


I must say, I too am inspired by that moss garden. Who took that photograph?


WOW. Thank you for this – I was woefully unaware of Frances Palmer. I’m so blown away and thankful to have learned of her. Stunning work, great interview. Thank you.


I am a public high school ceramics art teacher, and I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring and wonderful this post is! Thanks for sharing your insights and your studio. (And I, too, am a HUGE fan of audiobooks. :) )

Anne Marie

I read your online space here all the time, but this post hits me….

she makes me want to be a sculptor of pottery more every time I see her work –
I’m so glad to see her featured here….


nice work! from the beauty of fresh flowers to the beauty of wonderful art… so inspiring!


what can be more prettier? i’m in love! I visited her site and I’m wondering why I didn’t know her before? Definitely will buy one of her vases.


I love this! The work of a potter is closely tied to nature, I love how she embraces that. I have also been inspired by Eva Zeizel’s story – such legacy.


Ahh, just came away from throwing on the wheel because I wasn’t in the zone and feel much better after reading this. Can go back and begin at the beginning. Thanks.x


Frances’ life sounds divine – so balanced! The flowers pressed into the plaster made me swoon… and I love how delicate her tiny bowls look (I have a weakness for little bowls that cup in your hand)… great post!!

Susie Wilburn

I got a wheel for Christmas so this article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I usually try to locate wonderful pottery on the web for inspiration before I go to my work area, so now I am good for today and a few weeks, I’d say. AND, I just received my annual seed order for my garden so I will definitely try to make some flower moulds. Thanks SO much!!!


Oooh… Love the studio… My dream is to someday have a studio next to my house too! Francis is an amazing artist. Thanks for giving us a peek into her world.


Thank you for this–I am a big Frances Palmer fan, so this is a treat. And glad to see the plug for my fave, WFUV!


Gorgeous. Love the Smush Vase .. so inspiring and so true – the most beautiful things are not perfect!

rebecca bird

Thankyou for the interview with Frances….what gorgeous work she does!


Her work is beautiful. So whimsical & delicate.
She lives very close to where I do. I would love to see her studio & gardens! Gorgeous gardens!

Dale Gould

My husband and I are longtime friends and collectors of Frances’ amazing work. She is so inspired and inspiring, a true force of nature. It is a privilege to know her and own her work.


I am fortunate to know Frances and own one of her vases. She is an exceptionally talented artist and gardener.

paula pelosi

just found this interview. Frances Palmer is inspiring in so many ways. thank you!