Two longtime friends started the successful pottery brand out of Burlington, which has collaborated with James Beard Award winning chefs.
by Wiley Cash | photography by Mallory Cash
There’s an old saying that goes, “If you show me your friends, I can show you your future.” If my best friends from high school and I were able to live our youthful artistic dreams, we’d still be playing in a garage band called The Subterraneans.
Luckily, ceramicists Mark Warren and Chris Pence, who met in high school in the late 1990s in northern Florida, had an actual business plan.
In 2012, they co-founded a ceramics and glassware company called Haand, which is named after the archaic Norwegian word for “hand” and where everything is made by, you guessed it, hand.
Since founding their company, Warren and Pence have partnered with restaurants around the world, including James Beard Award winners and local culinary royalty like Ashley Christensen and Vivian Howard, with whom they’ve launched special collections.
The best businesses, like the best friendships, grow organically from shared interest and vision, and while Warren’s and Pence’s professional paths briefly diverged after college — Warren pursued the arts while Pence worked as an accountant — they came back together over a decade later in rural North Carolina as roommates and business partners in a crumbling old farmhouse.
(How crumbling? Let’s just say that the same bucket that caught water from the kitchen drain was used to flush the toilet.) In this auspicious setting, Haand was born.
On a warm fall morning in late November, I park in the grassy lot outside the Haand showroom and production studio in Burlington. The 13,000-square-foot brick building was once a hosiery mill, and it still retains its industrial feel, despite the gorgeous colors and earthy appearance of the countless handmade ceramic pieces that greet you as soon as you step inside.
I find Warren, who serves as Haand’s creative director, as he passes through the showroom on his way out the door. He stops and greets me warmly with a broad smile that was nearly hidden by a thick beard.
Warren very much looks the part of a potter, and he very much looks the part of someone who might be comfortable living in a house where a single bucket serves as both a kitchen and a bathroom appliance.
He casually shows me around the production studio where a couple dozen people are at work at various stations, each one marking an integral step in the process of achieving the distinct look and feel that Haand is known for.
As we walk through the space, Warren explains the process, beginning after he completes each design, whether it be for a vase, a coffee cup or a serving dish. A mold is built from each design, and into the mold is poured liquid porcelain slip.
Once the piece dries inside the mold, it is removed, cleaned, smoothed with a sponge, and hand-inspected before being stamped with Haand’s logo and the phrase “Made in NC, USA.” The piece is then bisque-fired and heated to 1,800 degrees, and this is where each piece gets interesting and distinct.
“Our clay body itself is what’s called vitreous,” Warren says, “so it melts at a really high temperature, and then it will become kind of liquid during a period of the firing. The clay kind of remembers things that have happened to it. So if you bump it with your thumb or kind of move it, it might look strange going in, and then it comes out and it has melted and softened and completely shifted its form.
You can’t really fight that unless you’re doing what they do in industrial kilns, which is not what we do here. There’s a deeper truthfulness that can come out of not trying to fight the process and just letting it be what it is. It’s a beautiful thing.”
There is no doubt that each piece made by the folks at Haand is beautiful not only in its design, but also in its color. After the pieces are fired, they are glazed with a liquid coating of minerals that bonds to the clay and brings a glassy and distinct color finish and texture to each piece, whether it be fern green or matte gray or one of the stunning Cloudware finishes that looks just like its namesake.
After the glazing, each piece goes into the gas kiln, where it’s fired at 2,300 degrees so that the clay and the glaze thoroughly bond. Afterward, each piece is polished and inspected before either being shipped out or stocked in the showroom.
All told, countless hands touch the pieces during the process, and every step reflects the hand of the maker who’s worked on it. This ensures that each piece, even if it’s part of a set, bears its own distinctions.
Roughly 90 percent of Haand’s employees were novices before walking in the door, but each of them received extensive training in the production process in order to maintain Warren’s vision for every individual piece.
“It’s exciting,” Warren says, still seeming struck by the beauty of the process of designing, forming and firing even after all these years. “It’s right on the edge of chaos.”
But to the layperson’s eye, nothing about the scene at the production studio seems chaotic. People of all ethnicities, ages and backgrounds work quietly, whether they’re sponging or firing, many of them with earbuds popped in so they can listen to music, audiobooks or podcasts.
Their work is accompanied by glances, smiles, nods of the head. The whole scene feels peaceful, thoughtful and grounded.
It didn’t always feel that way to Pence, who’s the company president. Pence had worked with clay since high school before forging a career as a corporate tax accountant in Jacksonville, Florida, where he often worked 80-hour weeks.
It was on a trip to visit Warren in that dilapidated farmhouse that Pence truly considered reconnecting with his early passion for pottery. Warren pitched the idea of the two of them starting a business together; it ended up being an easy decision for Pence.
Those early days, rooming at the farmhouse with Warren while working in an outdoor studio, were hard on Pence. He went from plowing through a 16-hour day behind a desk to the physicality of clearing brush to create more outdoor space, moving boxes of finished pieces, making phone calls and filling purchase orders.
“It was a totally transformative experience for me,” Pence says. “I imagine that people were having thoughts like, Has Chris lost it a little bit? Is he going a little crazy? He left a job he worked so hard for. I really looked up to Mark and relied on him to kind of show me what this new life was like.
“I definitely had a real big moment of existential dread.
I remember being in the studio by myself one day and the lights were off, and it was dark. I thought, have I made a terrible mistake?”
But after both the success of the company and his continued friendship with Warren, those moments of uncertainty are fewer and farther between for Pence. “I’m so passionate about what we’re making,” he says.
While Warren and Pence’s primitive way of living has changed since their days on the farm, the way they make their pottery has not.
“We haven’t changed the production method at all,” Pence says. “We’ve certainly refined it and gotten better at doing things. But if you had been there with us at the farmhouse and walked through how we made a pot, you’d see there are no fundamental changes.
We can make things more efficiently, but it’s still a handmade mold. We pour the clay in, we pour the clay out, we finish it, we fire it, we glaze it, fire it again, and it’s done. The process is the same.”
Their friendship is the same too.
“Mark has just always been an incredibly fun person to be friends with,” Pence says. “I think it’s a blessing for both of us to have been such good friends first because having a business is hard, and it can really, really be difficult on every level, whether it’s financially, physically, emotionally or spiritually. Mark has always had my back, always been there for me, and always supported me.”
It’s clear that Warren has felt the same about Pence for years. “When you meet someone like Chris, you just kind of know them in totality. Chris is one of those people that if you know him it would be inconceivable not to want to be friends with him afterward.”
“And Mark was hilarious in high school,” Pence says, laughing. “I remember him showing up to a prom party at my house. He was a sophomore, so he wasn’t even invited to the prom.”
“Please tell me he showed up in a tuxedo,” I say.
“I think it was one of those T-shirts that has a tuxedo printed on it,” Pence says.
“It was,” Warren adds, the sudden recollection causing them both to break into laughter. “And I brought a beer bong that I’d bought on a German Club trip to Daytona Beach. It had never been used before, and I was like, Let’s let’s see how this works.”
“That’ll be the next thing that Haand manufactures,” I say. “Ceramic beer bongs.”
“There’s a lot of demand for that,” Pence adds, and we all laugh again.
When you visit Haand or order any of their pieces online to be delivered to you, you will immediately recognize the care and attention that Warren and Pence have put into their craft. And when you spend any amount of time around Haand’s co-founders, you will say the same for their friendship.
This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.