Meet the Artists Behind our Mugs: Deneen Pottery

By Jeff Ayers — / Lifestyle

Everything You Need to Know About Our Handcrafted Coffee Mugs 

When Death Wish Coffee Company was started back in 2012, the mission was clear: Create a strong enough coffee to help fuel your purpose and your passion every day. After we did that, one question remained—What will you drink your coffee out of? We sought out small businesses to partner with to help us make the coolest coffee mugs around, and our search led us to Deneen Pottery. Next time you are sipping your coffee out of your favorite mug, you can reflect upon all the skilled labor, exquisite detail and creative brainpower that went into that coffee mug. 

Deneen Pottery putting a handle on a mug

 (Photo by Deneen Pottery)

Small Business Spotlight: Deneen Pottery 

Peter and Mary Deneen started Deneen Pottery in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1972, in their two-car garage. Today, the company has a team of over 80 skilled craftspeople to handcraft each mug so no two are exactly alike. Each mug is individually hand-thrown and touched by over 24 pairs of hands. All of the mugs at Deneen Pottery are created in their fully solar-powered facility because the company is committed to the well-being of the next generation. 

 

Q&A: Meet the Artists at Deneen Pottery 

 

Are you a coffee drinker? If so, what’s your favorite roast, and how do you take your coffee? 

I am a coffee drinker, and it depends on the day. We have a subscription to all 3 flavors of the cold brew, and I tend to mix them over ice here at the pottery shop. At home, we brew in a Chemex, and the Medium Roast is my go-to-to with a splash of half-and-half-half. –– Niles Deneen Owner and CEO 

How long have you been in the pottery business? How has it changed over the years? 

15 years. The biggest change I’ve seen has been the proliferation of craft beverages in the market, which has helped grow the pottery market along with them.  – Matt , Lead Potter 

How many people work for Deneen Pottery? 

Approximately 85-90.  – Cassie, Director of Operations 

What does a typical day at the studio look like? 

I like to get in early and throw a few boards before the others start to roll in. I try to stay above 50 mugs/hour while taking time to train the newer throwers.  – Matt 

I start out my day with a daily huddle with my team about what's going on around the shop. Next, I check my schedule to see if I have any meetings for the day and make sure any completed orders are getting ready to ship out. Then I followed up by shipping out our beautiful mugs to our customer.  – Tou, Shipping Manager 

I make my rounds throughout all the departments to see where help is needed, if a department is behind or short. I also attend meetings on some days.  – Xiong, Shop Floor Manager 

We start each day with a Leads huddle to discuss what happened yesterday, what is going on today, and other company-wide information that needs to be shared. Then each Lead goes to their own department huddle to communicate that information to those folks. By mid-morning everyone is aware of what is going on in the shop. Usually, the day’s work is handed out prior to these huddles, and everyone is already hard at work creating their part of the beautiful mugs we produce. We’re not all work and no play... we also like to sprinkle in some fun events for our employees! We have recently had food trucks, played BINGO, and had a March Madness tournament.  – Cassie 

How many mugs have you made for DWC? 

As of June 2022, we will have made just shy of 400,000 mugs since we started our relationship with DWC in 2014.  – Cassie 

What’s your favorite mug you’ve made for Death Wish Coffee and why? 

Anything in black with the classic logo.  – Matt 

The original Yeti mug (red with sand white) because it reminds me of Christmas.  – Xiong 

My favorite DWC mug would be the Til Death Do Us Part mug because of the artwork. It is simple but with great meaning.  – Tou 

I’ve really liked some of the recent releases: Lone Wolf, Sasquatch, Motherfunctioner. But my favorite is something that hasn’t been seen yet by your community. We are currently researching and developing the 2023 mug, and I am SUPER excited about it!  – Cassie 

Can you tell us what the process is like from clay to final product? 

The basic process: prepare the clay, throw the pot, apply handles, press and apply medallions, dry, bisque fire, glaze, scrub and sponge, glaze fire, QC and ship! Of course, that is really simplifying the process. In reality, there are tons of little steps that go into creating each and every piece.  – Cassie 

Deneen seems to put a lot of efforts into sustainability…which we love. Can you tell us about some of these efforts in terms of your packaging and your solar-powered kilns?  

We use compostable and biodegradable packing peanuts made from starch. They dissolve in water, and you could even eat them if you wanted to! Our solar panels produce enough energy to fire one of our big kilns each day. We recycle and compost as much as possible throughout the shop, and we even recycle the clay “scrap” we produce and reuse it to create new mugs.  – Cassie 

What would you say is the hardest part of the mug making process?  

Consistency. It takes thousands of repetitions to reliably achieve our quality standards. – Matt 

Throwing tankards.  – Xiong 

Absolutely the WAIT to see the final product is the hardest part. Each piece, while following the same general process, still ends up a completely unique piece of art.  – Cassie 

How many hands touch one mug before it gets to our customers?  

When we count the number of hands that touch each mug, we come up with 24—from the first pair that brings in our fresh pallets of clay into our pugging room, until the last pair that sands the bottom of the mug on our pneumatic-powered diamond grit sander. At every phase of production, we empower our makers with the authority to raise a hand if something doesn’t look right. Every touch matters.  – Niles Deneen 

What’s a common misconception people have about making pottery?  

That it all happens on the potter’s wheel. The wheel is just where the making begins.  – Matt 

They think that it is easy.  – Xiong 

Making pottery is just a hobby.  – Tou 

How long the process takes. Certain parts of the process just cannot be rushed.  – Cassie 

What does the quality control of mugs entail? How many mugs from a batch usually pass QC?  

To make sure we have the best mugs for our customers, we try our best to make sure all of our mugs pass QC. In a batch of 96 mugs, sometimes 95 or 94 of them pass our QC.  – Tou  

We look at the shape, color, defects and placement of the medallion.  – Xiong 

Each department checks the work that gets passed along to them, so we are doing quality checks throughout the shop. But the final QC happens when the mugs are pulled out of the kiln right before they go to be shipped. We check for any anomalies that we don’t consider first quality in our eyes, such as chips or cracks. Those mugs don’t get passed along to our customers. Typically, less than 5% of mugs from each order do not pass quality control.  – Cassie 

What’s your biggest challenge in the pottery industry?  

It is a physically demanding job. Staying fit and healthy is a huge priority.  – Matt 

Finding quality talent that also fits our culture and values of Attitude, Creativity, Teamwork and Trust.  – Cassie 

What’s the most rewarding part about working in your industry?  

The people. Boring people aren’t career potters.  – Matt 

Having a company that cares about you.  – Tou 

Seeing the finished product. – Xiong 

The people! We are in a manufacturing industry, but the people all have a background in the arts. So the creativity and talent we get to work next to every day is next level.  – Cassie 

How long do your mugs last?  

Pretty much forever unless they have a bad accident and break.  – Cassie 

What was your initial exposure to the pottery world? What was your first piece like?  

Pond Farm is well known is certain circles of the ceramics world. The world-renowned potter Marguerite Wildenhain set up her studio on this hallowed ground near Gureneville, California, back in the late 1960s. In 1975 my parents took 4 of their production potters to attend her workshop. In 1976 when I was just 1, I came along and spent the summer as the youngest potter-in-training. 

My first piece was the handprints that my parents made just after my birth in 1975. I have created thrown forms, hand-built, RAM pressed, and sculpted pieces as part of my area of emphasis for my Bachelor of Science from the University of Minnesota. The piece that I am most proud of is a collaborative mug that dad and I made a few years back. He threw the form, attached the handle, and I decorated it by carving an undulating infinity design that wraps around the exterior. The project and the appreciation for what he has done for our family, customers and employees is without measure. Every time I pull it out of the cupboard, I get to hold the love I have for him in my hands.  – Niles Deneen 

What’s your biggest pet peeve? Personally and in the studio?  

Personally— slow drivers in the left lane. Any pet peeves I have here at the studio we would call opportunities. Through our journey, our team is really good at prioritizing opportunities and eliminating issues. We are only winning or learning. Some weeks give us equal measure of both, but I prefer to win.  – Niles Deneen 

Learn more about Niles Deneen and Deneen Pottery here

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