Form, Function and Fashion, too: Local Entrepreneurs Receive National Award

Posted in Community, Culinary, Feature, More Stories, Second Chance, Visual Art

BY DIANNA MACLEOD
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
April 29, 2015

Over the last 13 years, potter Robbie Lobell has dedicated herself to making clay cookware: researching and experimenting with clay bodies and glazes tolerant of heat and cold, joining form with function in the service of food preparation, developing pots that bring pleasure to cooks and beauty to the table.

Four years ago, Lobell and her partner, Maryon Attwood, created a line of flameware known as “Cook on Clay.” Right from the beginning, the flameware produced by Cook on Clay had a fabulous form, a durable function and a user-friendly feel.

Robbie Lobell (left) and Maryon Attwood (right)

Robbie Lobell (left) and Maryon Attwood (right)

“When we began, we wanted to design and make cookware that would suit a variety of cooking methods: sauteing, boiling, broiling, braising, grilling, stewing and roasting,” Lobell recollects. “Each of Cook on Clay’s current cooking pots are designed to be at home anywhere: stove, oven, microwave, refrigerator, freezer and, most of all, table top.”

This month, Lobell and Attwood traveled to New York, all expenses paid, to receive accolades for their cookware—and the enterprise that produces it—from none other than Eileen Fisher, fashion icon known for the enduring style of her clothing designs. Fisher may be less well known as a mentor and supporter of women in business, but she does exactly that through her company.

Fisher launched her grant program in 2004 to encourage women entrepreneurs, support leadership programs for women and girls and promote the well-being of communities. In the 2014 grant cycle, Cook on Clay was among six grant recipients selected from thousands of applicants; the grants are intended to support innovative, woman-owned companies that are beyond the start-up phase and ready to expand their business as well as their social and environmental impact.

2014 award winners

2014 award winners

Cook on Clay’s emphasis on sustainability appealed to the Eileen Fisher employee awards committee; after all, Lobell and Attwood aim to produce enduring objects that are meant to be used for a lifetime and then passed on to children and grandchildren. “We believe that cooking and serving food in handmade pottery forges connections,” said Attwood. “Connections with the farms that grow it, the earth that nourishes it and the people who share it.”

Equally impressive to the committee was the emphasis on local and healthy. All materials used in Cook on Clay pots are from the earth. Excess clay is recycled and reused. The pots are fired in a clean-burning propane-fueled kiln, and the bricks that line the kiln are made in America. Lobell and Attwood continually search for ways to use less fuel to fire the pots. The cookware does not leach metals or other chemicals into food or into the environment. And the design of each of the pots is simple, durable, and elegant—just like the garments that bear the Eileen Fisher label.

Perhaps that’s why a Cook on Clay pot—the lift of its sides, the fit of its lid, the way the flat bottom joins to the curved sides—was recognized by the selection committee as being an outstanding example of good design. Lobell applies those exacting standards to each one of the 1,200 pieces she produces annually. Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 7.49.09 PM

“We produce a cooking pot that resists trends, is loved, can be used over a lifetime and passed to the next generation. For us, this is the definition of good design and a rugged product,” said Lobell. “In a throw-away society, our goal is the opposite. Use it everyday, and then pass it on!”

Whidbey Islanders familiar with Cook on Clay’s distinctive flameware hardly need reminding of the intelligent design and environmental friendliness of the pottery they own and enjoy.

When Lobell and Attwood traveled to New York to personally accept the grant from Fisher’s foundation, they had the opportunity to mingle with the other recipients and to exchange stories about their origins as entrepreneurs and their plans for the future. They became friends with four sisters from Detroit who make raw juices, a designer of home goods from Maine, a producer of products made from domestic wool, two women from California who turn textile factory waste into hats and accessories, and a Hawaiian jam maker who creates artisanal jams from locally sourced fruit. They also met and learned from Fisher’s corporate departmental managers, chief operating officers, public relations and marketing staff. “It was an intense, exciting and exhilarating two days of immersion in the Eileen Fisher culture and values,” said Attwood. “In addition to bringing home our award, we’re enthusiastic about bringing home what we’ve learned.”

Lobell and Attwood intend to use the grant to build up their inventory, create new molds for their designs, and upgrade their website. Beyond these immediate goals, they look toward encouraging the next generation of young women studio potters, art entrepreneurs and manufacturers to focus on domestic production and think creatively about business models as well as the value of quality and design.

“Cook on Clay’s success has an impact on other potters in our field and on young women artists interested in crossing over from studio art to manufacturing,” said Lobell. “The grant from Eileen Fisher allows us to magnify our impact and to tell two stories: one about our flameware ceramic pots and one about a niche manufacturing company owned and operated by women and apprentices.”

“We are especially grateful to local investors from Whidbey Island Local Lending who believed in us and supported us financially,” said Attwood. “Without them, this Eileen Fisher award could not have happened. This shows how important local investment is to local producers. We’re proof that dreams are possible.”

Dreams are, indeed, possible…and sometimes even fashionable.

Robbie Lobell enjoying Eileen Fisher creations

Robbie Lobell enjoying Eileen Fisher creations

Now is the time to apply to the Eileen Fisher Business Grant Program. In 2015, up to 10 winners will be selected to receive a trip to New York City and funding to advance their business goals. Guidelines and application available at www.eileenfisher.com/businessgrant.

Cook on Clay welcomes visitors. The showroom on Patmore Road near Coupeville is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Please call ahead to 360-678-1414 when possible. Cook on Clay pots may be found in several Whidbey Island shops and restaurants including Trillium, Kalakala, Oystercatcher, Bayleaf, and on Lummi Island at the Willows Inn. Pots may also be purchased online at cookonclay.com (shipping available throughout the U.S.).

Featured photo: Attwood and Lobell receive their award from Eileen Fisher. All photos courtesy of Lobell/Attwood.

Dianna MacLeod holds a degree in journalism from the University of Michigan. An alumna of Hedgebrook, she moved to the island in October of 2011 to complete a novel—and never left.

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