ginny branch stellinginterviewswhat's in your toolbox

what’s in your toolbox: michele michael

by Ginny

There are certain artists and designers that I am drawn to for their quiet elegance, and Michele Michael is high on that list. She first won me over with her New York prop shop, Elephant Props, and her sophisticated approach to styling — clean with handmade, imperfect touches punctuated by painterly washes of color. Her new line, Elephant Ceramics, celebrates all of that with an added layer of texture. I am so thrilled to share the creative world of Michele with y’all! — Ginny

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

Michele Michael: Homespun linens, wood modeling tools, vintage rolling pins, Shimpo banding wheel, set of vintage letter and number rubber stamps, my Elephant Ceramics rubber stamps, Caran D’ache gouache and oil pastels and my Lumix camera.

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

The rest of Michele’s interview continues after the jump…

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

Michele Michael: Nature is the inspiration library for Elephant Ceramics. I live part of the year in mid-coast Maine where I spend a great deal of time outdoors. My glaze colors and forms are influenced by my natural surrounds — lichen growing on trees, the deep blue of the ocean, the shape of the boulders along the coast, the seashells and seaweed that get washed up on shore or live in tidal pools, the soft white of the Queen Anne’s Lace that grows along our country road.

4. Design*Sponge: How do you keep yourself organized? Do you have an agenda book, and do you make to-do lists?

Michele Michael: I am a bit old fashioned in that I still carry a Filofax agenda with me everywhere I go! Between that, and my “to-do” lists, I am fairly organized. I’m afraid otherwise I would not remember to do anything that really needs to get done. I owe this to my very first boss when I was an assistant in the decorating department of House and Garden magazine. She bought me a daily journal on my first day of work and told me to write my “to do” list in it every day, crossing off things as they get done. I learned many great things while working there, but this might be the most valuable!

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

Michele Michael: To fly! My father was an airplane pilot, and as a kid, I flew with him. I loved looking down at the ground seeing everything in miniature . . . little cars moving along roads, houses with their reflective blue pools, the patterns that agricultural fields created. I love that feeling, so to be able to fly without a plane, just take off whenever you like, would be super magical to me!

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/designer?

Michele Michael: The best advice I have received may be “to go slow,” which seems to apply to most things in life. If only I would follow it more often than not!

The best piece of advice I could offer would be to keep an open mind. It’s amazing the things that may come your way that you never, ever thought of or planned for.

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

Michele Michael: With my ceramics, I don’t really ever feel like I have creative blocks . . . quite the opposite. There are so many things I’d like to make [and] I don’t quite have all the tools yet to make them . . . namely the knowledge of chemistry. But I am learning, and I am very excited by the possibilities.

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

Michele Michael: These are a few of my favorite shops. Each is beautifully curated by its owners:



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

Michele Michael: I would love to look inside the studio of Christina Kim, the designer and artist behind the fashion company Dosa. Not only do I love and wear her clothes, I admire the philosophy behind her business. She employs artisans and craftspeople from all over the world to do traditional handwork. Her fair labor practices and preferences for long-lasting garments, many made with recycled scraps of fabric and natural dyes, place her work in high demand. Each piece is practically a work of art.

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

Michele Michael: I listen to WFMU a lot on the weekends. They have amazing DJs. Much of my play list comes from their shows. Here are a few songs I have added recently:

  • Summer Wine — Nancy Sinatra
  • Jump into the Fire — Harry Nilsson
  • Tighten Up — The Bamboos
  • Bohemian Like You — The Dandy Warhols
  • Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key — Billy Bragg + Wilco
  • Grazing the Grass — Hugh Masekela
  • Keep It Comin’ Love — KC + The Sunshine Band
  • The Big Dig — Family Fodder
  • Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing — Chris Isaak
  • Sun Sinking Low — Mr. Airplane Man
  • Do You Realize?? — The Flaming Lips
  • A Girl Like You — Edwyn Collins

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  • Not sure if this is the forum why I can critique her work. The canvas texture is kind of nauseating to see as a fellow potter myself. Roll out the clay and keeping the texture seems unfinished to me. I think texture is fine, but seems unfinished to me.

    • I believe it comes from her love of textiles. I am a fiber artist and love the texture that the linen leaves behind, and I do the same in my work. I was told by a degreed potter that it is unfinished to leave it. I disagree as the texture I leave is purposeful and not laziness.

  • oh I love your work! my eye was instantly drawn to the painting of the white dog you have shown- the dog looks exactly like my dog Penny! I would love to have a painting like that one!

  • I love the little terrier painting in your second photo! Looks just like the wire haired fox terrier I had when I was a kid!

  • Huh – ceramics has always been a bit lost on me, but those cream coloured pieces are so beautifully simplistic. Love them.

  • Love the list factor (I can’t let go of paper lists and crossing things off – it’s so satisfying!) “do you realize” by the Flaming Lips…. one of the best songs of all time. Thanks for the great post!

  • Best advice you ever received was to take it slow… I’ll have to remember that. I always feel like I’m going about 100 miles a minute and trying to achieve my goals too quickly. That is something I’ll take to heart.

    I love your work as well. We seem to have similar sources of inspiration, so it’s very cool to see how another person interprets the same sorts of objects.

  • As a visual artist/ painter, I find Michele’s work totally inspired!
    I find the application of colour and the colours themselves are filled with consideration and intent. The textures are just sublime.
    It’s splendid work!

  • Tasha, as a fellow ceramic artist, I completely agree with your comment. While I get appeal of a simple aesthetic, these dishes look unfinished and not practical. Unglazed areas will get dirty, especially with canvas texture, and edges look too sharp.

  • I really LOVE her work! I think the beauty is in the simplicity, texture and her color palette. Her pieces look refined and delicate, but fully functional.
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Where could I get a print or painting like that one of the dog? I really love it. I don’t know if it’s her work, or just an inspiration piece for her. Please help!!

  • Hi Sara and Linda,
    The little dog painting is actually a postcard. I wish it was an original oil painting by the artist Jeanne Hedstrom, whose work I adore. She does portrait commissions from photos and here is a link to her blog. I noticed her blog has not been updated in several years, but it does list a phone number: http://jeannehedstrom.blogspot.com/
    I hope you are able to reach her!

  • Not sure I understand the point of the negative ” critiques”.

    The real point in self-expression is to make manifest a personal vision and personal aesthetic. Part of creativity is to consider the concept of “thinking outside of the box.” To question traditional ideas and techniques. Self-expression includes practices of deconstruction, reinvention or to glorification of traditional practices.
    It’s all good.

    I see a dialogue between maker and object. That’s what really counts.

  • I know I am a little behind the 8 ball in finding this interview, but I am so happy for your success and love using your little plates in styling projects! I keep missing out on your sales but one day I know I’ll own a piece from elephant ceramics. These colors are so rich and delicious. I loved reading about your inspiration from nature. I can never get enough of it!

  • Hi Michele – So glad to read of your success. Your father would be so proud of you. I loved your answer to #5; we share the same dream. When I flew with your grandfather, when I was a little boy, I thought I was seeing toys. One of the earliest memories of my childhood is the day I was flying with my dad and I realized I was seeing.. real houses, cars, etc. I am turning 56 this year. I would love an opportunity to introduce you to my family. 315.314.1137 Syracuse, NY.

  • I hear potters say “that’s wrong” you have to refine or as they say, finish your pottery. I disagree…my pottery is finish when I am happy with my results. I too have pottery that is “not finished” in appearance but to me it shows “nature” in my pottery. The true impressions of the river. I have a brother, Marc, and I was never so happy when he bought a set of my dishes. He truly love the “nature” in them, as I did.
    Keep doing what makes you happy and enjoy the beauty and feel of texture! MK

  • Compared to typical ceramics your stylistic simplicity is like modern art, or – the blues. It seems to resonate in it’s own space and time. The craftmanship and personal vision captured by your photography is flawless. I love the pictures of your studio. The pleasure you are experiencing shows in your work. Im glad to follow you. (& I think I need to MariKondo my own studio.)