Artisan tile maker and Master Potter, Mark Derby holds fine arts degrees, and has taught pottery at Tulane’s Newcomb College. Though he was well-suited for a career in fine arts, creating gallery-quality art, he shifted focus when he founded Derby Pottery & Tile 17 years ago, and the business took off.
The key to his success? He applied the same high-quality, handmade standards he used in the fine art world with creating objects of “everyday” art, functional art. He’s commissioned by businesses, as well as, private individuals to create everything from floor tiles and backsplashes, to fireplace embellishments and, the now iconic, New Orleans street tiles. In 2011, Mark, and his dedicated staff of artisans, handmade 3,000 of the blue and white tiles that are now installed along Magazine Street.
All the work done at Derby Pottery & Tile is created on site—from the plaster molds to the proprietary glaze that coats the tiles, every step of the process, the mixing, application, firing is done by hand.
Because Mark operates his business as an artisan studio, he is able to work with clients on commissions and respond to special requests personally.
What drew you to your chosen craft?
Mark: I knew that I was a maker from an early age and explored Architecture in college but found it to be too structured. I enjoyed the inherent challenges to draw, think and create, but it was not hands on enough. Then I tried ceramics as an elective, and I just knew that was it for me. I loved it from the beginning and I began to slowly accept that there was a career path here that I could enter and thrive within.
Ann Marie: Before becoming a tile maker, Mark created vessels in clay, which were open to interpretation as art objects.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Mark: The most exciting thing for me is getting lost in the flow of the creative process. Simply by making work and observing the results, my enjoyment is in the trial and errors leading to a successful final piece or product. Glazing, firing, kilns, molds, tools, hands…It’s a lot of thinking, planning and doing to bring beauty like this into the world.
Ann Marie: The process is the teacher, and the observant maker can gain insight and strengthen their base of knowledge just by engaging fully in the activity of potting and tile making. The evolution of the current street tile we make took a long process of mixing different elements and minerals. We had a lot of process to get to the accepted ones we make today, with stacks of those tiles to show if needed!
Why is it important for people to make things with their own hands?
I think everyone should be encouraged to try to make things but I also think it is ok for a person to decide it’s not their thing. Often that person becomes the audience for handmade, after developing an appreciation for the work it takes to get a good result.
What does the future hold for your type of work?
I think the future of ceramics is good. I always felt ceramics were easier to digest, were always very familiar objects in our lives. So there is a general unquestioned or automatic acceptance of plates, cups and bowls, and of course tile.
In my particular case with tile, I have focused on historical accuracy and I think people value the effort towards authenticity. Yes it is a reproduction, but there is nothing “fake” about it. Many people enjoy the connection to history.