Two’s Company With Mud Rock’s Ng Seok Har and Michelle Lim

Mud Rock founders bond through clay

Their love for clay and a dream to put handmade ceramics in as many kitchens as possible led them to quit their jobs and start a studio

Restaurants such as Plentyfull, Le Binchotan and the Ottomani serve customers on this studio's plates and bowls.

When The Straits Times wanted to make a trophy for Singaporeans of the Year Noriza A. Mansor in 2015 and the Schooling family the following year, and wanted something Singaporean, handmade and one of a kind, it asked Mud Rock ceramics studio to create something special.

Mud Rock was founded in 2013 by two women, Ms Ng Seok Har, 49, and Ms Michelle Lim, 35, who dreamt about crafting objects that were not just beautiful, but can also be used every day.

Their studio in Maude Road is a mini-factory: Helped by part-timers, the two slight-looking women haul and knead tonnes of clay each year to turn out table settings for homes and restaurants.

Volume production for custom orders was why the studio was founded and, today, their willingness to take on custom jobs, both big and small, makes them one of a kind in Singapore. Other studios emphasise classes or individual artist sales.

When they are not making wares to order, the founders of Mud Rock produce works of their own design for the company's twice-yearly walk-in sale. They also hold classes and have just expanded their Maude Road space so teaching and production areas can be spaced further apart.

Ms Michelle Lim (above) is the public face of Mud Rock and usually gives talks about efforts to save Singapore's Dragon Kiln, while Ms Ng Seok Har (left), a former foreign exchange trader, takes on the money issues of the business.
Ms Ng Seok Har (above), a former foreign exchange trader, takes on the money issues of the business. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NG SEOK HAR AND MICHELLE LIM

For much of the year, they work flat out, kneading, shaping and keeping the eight kilns filled and firing.

They work late into the night at the 1,300 sq ft studio, which is surrounded by the hardware stores, backpacker hostels and pubs of the Jalan Besar area. They say they grind away at night so often that the mama-san at a neighbouring karaoke bar checks in on them sometimes to see if they are okay.

The women, both single, could make their lives easier by switching to making high-end products for sale in department stores, but they are not having any of it.

As Ms Ng explains, they do what they do because they enjoy collaborating with passionate chefs and restaurateurs.

"They come to us with drawings of interiors and we will ask them about their cuisine. The plate is the canvas. It brings out colours in the food," Ms Lim says.

She adds that if they expect the restaurant to be Instagram-friendly, then a matte rather than gloss glaze works better in photographs.

When they started, they had to convince clients that handmade crockery is tough enough for commercial dining rooms and industrial dishwashers, as long as they are handled with reasonable care.

Being part of someone's dream come true, whether it is a newly-married couple setting up a home, or a person opening a restaurant, is why they enjoy doing custom work, they say.

Also, selling their work through middlemen retailers would push prices up, reinforcing the idea that handmade ceramics are only for the rich, an image the co-founders want to dispel.

"We're working at our maximum and selling at an affordable price," says Ms Lim.

That has been Mud Rock's philosophy since its founding - to put handmade ceramics in as many kitchens as possible, as they have seen done in Australia and Japan, where the potter is a fixture in many neighbourhoods.

A Mud Rock coffee mug costs around $35. A cup or tumbler is around $22, $30 for a bowl and between $32 and $40 for a plate.

To keep prices down, they mix their clay and glazes from scratch; it also ensures uniformity of product when they have to make hundreds of the same thing.

That idea of self-sufficiency, of making it yourself to make it cheaper and better, extends to the furniture in the studio. The wood came from stores nearby and the two co-founders did the rest.

Ms Lim and Ms Ng met in 2012, at an event Ms Lim organised called Awaken The Dragon. It was a gathering to raise public awareness and support for the Dragon Kilns, the sites where Singapore's earthenware industry once flourished and which had been threatened with redevelopment.

Ms Lim had graduated with an honours degree in ceramics from the Australian National University and was teaching design at Singapore Polytechnic. Ms Ng was on sabbatical from a foreign exchange trading job. She had trained in ceramics at studios here and in Thailand and Japan.

They found they both had the same dream of opening a studio that focused on putting handmade ware in the hands of as many people as possible.

"Everyone was worried for us," says Ms Ng when they both quit their jobs to start Mud Rock a year later. Their first studio was in Towner Road.

Friends and family stepped up to be the first clients and they helped spread the word. Jobs came in. These were small, but it was steady from the start.

Then two big orders came in. The first was from Full Of Luck Club, a modern Chinese restaurant in Holland Village, which needed a 500-piece set, and the other was from ArtScience Museum, which needed large, 40cm-tall jars for an exhibition about marine life.

"We could fire only one jar at a time in our kiln," says Ms Lim, and despite the tight three-week deadline, they delivered 40 jars by working round the clock.

And after breaking through with Full Of Luck Club, and showing that their products look good and can take punishment, other restaurants came knocking.

Mud Rock broke even after the first year - no small feat when a kiln can cost up to $20,000 to buy from Europe and ship here - but the company is not about to slow down.

Ms Lim and Ms Ng say they still want small-run custom jobs, as well as the big ones, despite the back-breaking labour they entail.

So far, the two women remain the company's sole employees, though they use part-timers to help in teaching and production. Someone with the right skill set may not want to work the long hours needed to fulfill an order, they say.

As Ms Ng puts it: "You have to love clay. And be a little bit crazy."

How they work

Ms Ng Seok Har says she is the extrovert and Ms Michelle Lim is the introvert, which seems a little contradictory as it is Ms Lim who usually gives the public talks, at a local TED conference and other local and overseas conferences. She speaks about efforts to save Singapore's Dragon Kiln and other topics.

But in all other jobs, the co-founders and owners of Mud Rock share equal duties, especially when it comes to physical labour and crafting. The hauling, kneading, shaping, sanding and carrying of trays of heavy ceramics to and from the kilns are shared between them, they say.

They rarely disagree, but if they do, it is mostly over schedules and priorities.

Ms Ng says that during crunch time, when the deadline for a big order is looming, she likes to "embrace the pain" and be fastidious about milestones, while Ms Lim says she might try to find wiggle room here and there.

Ms Lim says she is "obsessed" about health and safety. If there is a puddle on the floor, for example, she mops it up immediately in case someone slips and falls.

Ng Seok Har on Michelle Lim: ‘We are both willing to take risks’

"Things are always better when you have two points of view… You have two people stressing over the same thing," says Ms Ng.

She agrees with Ms Lim when the latter says it would have been hard, if not impossible, for them to do what they are doing today - making hundreds of pieces at a time for clients - if they had not partnered each other.

She might be older than Ms Lim, but she thinks the stereotype of the older partner being less aggressive in risk-taking does not always hold true in their relationship. For example, both of them wanted to extend the lease on their ground-floor Maude Road premises and take over the space upstairs, previously occupied by another company. Right now, there is a waiting list of people wanting to take their classes and the extra space will let them grow the size of the class, reducing the wait times. It was Ms Ng, who is single, who crunched the numbers.

"I make the more 'grown-up' decisions because I can do the mental risk calculation," she says. By breaking down the problem, "it's not as scary as it looks", says the former foreign exchange trader.

She is aware that money worries kill creativity and wants to deal with them upfront, rather than let them fester. "As artists, we shouldn't get overwhelmed by stress because that takes away the creativity and willingness to play."

Michelle Lim on Ng Seok Har: ‘We harness social media differently’

Ms Lim says she and Ms Ng, despite their age difference - Ms Lim is 35 and Ms Ng is 49 - both "speak the language of clay", which tends to erase any differences in outlook.

If they differ, it might be in subtle ways, says Ms Lim.

"My peers use a lot of social media. But even for people of my generation, Instagram is new," she says. But because she is younger, she is better able to appreciate how quickly information is shared these days.

"So I will approach the market differently from her. For example, I will send a message about Mud Rock, whether it's an announcement or a request for feedback, on Instagram," she says.

Ms Lim, who is single, says she is not a natural public speaker and gets butterflies in her tummy for weeks before the event.

She rehearses her speech, while Ms Ng gives her feedback, but makes sure not to inhibit her natural style.

Ms Ng says: "I give her a lot of space."

Being the public face of Mud Rock - and braving the attack of the jitters that comes with the job - is a job Ms Lim says she is fine with.

"I see it as a task I need to do. People have to know about preserving the Dragon Kiln, so I get the job done," she says.

John Lui