Finding Stillness in Ceramics: Karen Whiteley of Maud & Mabel

Woman with short brown hair wearing red lipstick and gray sweater in stands in front of a yellow brick wall.
Above: Karen Whiteley, founder and owner of Maud & Mabel.

In 2011, Karen Whiteley opened a small ceramics gallery — a stall in a covered market with three shelves and a table in the village of Hampstead, London  — and named it Maud & Mabel. Over the last 5 years, the gallery has grown quietly and confidently acquiring an international audience as well as a new shop front around the corner from the original stall — referred to by the villagers as their “shopping sanctuary”. Read on to see how Karen’s life’s experiences culminated in the calm serenity of Maud & Mabel.

Black and white ceramic jugs, bowls and vases displayed on a Japanese Tansu shelf at Maud & Mabel
Above: A display of ceramics at Maud and Mabel featuring artists Matthew Warner and Kenta Anzai.

Fabulous Fabsters: Why do you think people are drawn to ceramics?
Karen Whiteley: Ceramics are little pieces of beauty, talent and thought. In modern life, we can get very dragged down by daily distractions and interruptions, and I think people are seeking relief from that constant feeling of being on edge or on the move. Ceramics can provide that refuge, even if only for a fleeting moment, because they remind us of where we come from. They invite us to pause, and when we hold them, we can feel the weight of the love, passion, thought and talent that went into their making.

This morning while I was sipping my tea from one of Stuart Carey’s mugs, I suddenly became aware of the lightness and comfort of the handle as it moulded to my hand and I felt so grateful for the giving and sharing that went into his making it so. The stillness of ceramics allows you to be in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

Woman with brown hair wearing red lipstick and gray scarf looks intently at a hand made ceramic mug by Stuart Carey.
Above: Karen enjoys a quiet moment outside Maud & Mabel with a mug by ceramicist Stuart Carey.

FF: What influences in your life informed your vision for Maud & Mabel?
KW: I was greatly influenced by my education.  I was at an all girls English boarding school from the ages of 5 – 15.  My family life was complicated and boarding school was my home for ten years. The old fashioned, minimal, pared back, simple and disciplined lifestyle I experienced there had a huge effect on my life. In fact, my home now is like boarding school in a way. Everything is very down at heel. Having said that, I have to have a really good bed, sofa and hot water.

For whatever reason, the woman in charge of my next school in Switzerland was seriously into meditation. And the principles on which she ran the school were guided by these beliefs — we were all taught to meditate through yoga. This was just what I needed in my life at that point and it gave me such inner strength at a very young age. I was very lucky. Being fully present helps you be aware of what you are doing and what you are using. My love for ceramics comes from being present.

Assorted ceramics and wood objects on display on white shelves at Maud & Mabel
Above: The display shelves at Maud & Mabel are forever changing depending on its sales and acquisitions. These shelves show the work of artists Sun Kim, Tim Plunkett, Maria de Haan and Akiko Hirai and Abigail Schama.

FF: When were you first introduced to ceramics?
KW: When I was a young mother, I wanted to do “my thing” and be in a creative environment while raising my family. After I had my daughter, I went to work one day a week for Pan Henry at the Casson Gallery in Marylebone. Studio pottery was thriving and she was showing the works of some great British ceramicists like Lucy Rie and Hans Coper. It was here that I learned about the weight, balance and surface of ceramics and where my love for ceramics was ignited.

Black and white ceramic jugs, bowls and vases displayed on a Japanese Tansu shelf at Maud & Mabel
Above: Finding stillness together.

FF: What was your impetus for starting Maud & Mabel?
KW: I think I was ready for a change. I had been a yoga teacher for 20 years and felt it was time for me to do my yoga alone. And while I was finished with teaching, I was definitely not finished with working. All of it just came together for me at the same time — my love of the handmade, my experience with Pan and my desire to create a calm and quiet atmosphere. I had a real sense of confidence about the aesthetic that would work well for me and Maud & Mabel and I was absolutely clear that this was how it would be. There would be no deviation and no drop in standards — I am very strict about that. In Maud & Mabel, I feel like my body, mind and soul have come together.

Wood cutting board by John Tildesely used as tray for ribbed glass jug by Nude Glass Poem and ceramic lace plates by Fliff Carr at Maud & Mabel
Above: A cutting board by John Tildesley can be used as a tray. The glass Water Jug and Glasses are by Nude Glass Poem. The ceramic Lace Plates are by Fliff Carr.

FF: How did you come up with the name, Maud & Mabel?
KW: Even the name was influenced by experience at boarding school. “Maud” and “Mabel” are old-fashioned girls’ names that could have come straight out of the comic books. It felt so right and everyone loves it.

Pared back, minimal shop interior with white walls and gray concreted floor at Maud & Mabel
Above: The pared down aesthetic at Maud & Mabel was influenced by Karen’s years at boarding school and runs consistently throughout the shop.

FF: Over the last five years, how has the vision for Maud & Mabel developed?
KW: By moving from the stall to a shop, I have been able to take on more artists and develop my passion for the tactility of fabric and my love of fashion and style. I owe this passion to my super stylish father who was a well respected figure in the garment industry. He taught me that clothing is more than just fashion —it’s about beautiful garments that are well made from high quality materials. This is why I feel so comfortable having beautiful, stylish clothing at Maud and Mabel. I also think that they work well with the ceramics.

Blue ceramics on a white shelf and mustard yellow dress by Valigi at Maud & Mabel
Above Left: Nicola Tassie’s Wide Bellied Navy Jug anchors a trio of blue. Above Right: Every season, Karen sells a limited collection of her favourite clothing and textiles. This Mustard Linen Dress is by Valigi.

FF: Any Wardrobe Wisdom?
KW: Clothes with pared down aesthetics and neutral tones, I have to feel confident and comfortable in my clothes. And accessorise with lipstick — lashings of red lipstick. I think everything looks better with it. Album di Famiglia one of the labels we carry is an all time favourite. For shoes, I live in my Marsèll boots and in the summer I wear K. Jacques or Birkenstocks.

Black and white photo of young girl in the 1960's sitting on the beach and photo of woman with short brown hair applying red lipstick
Above: A six year old Karen enjoys the beach on a trip with her beloved father. Above: Karen applies some red lipstick, a favourite accessory.

FF: What messages would you want to pass on to your younger self?
KW: I love this question and I have to say, it made me cry. The younger self was not pretty. It was a difficult time. So I would say, “Believe in yourself, trust your instincts and pause before speaking and acting on impulses.”

FF: What’s in your Prescient Pantry?
KW: Funghi, dried porcini, gluten free pasta, White Balsamic Vinegar by Belazu —I’d be lost without that — arborio rice, pink Himalayan salt, honey and oats.

FF: How do you stay strong and well in body and mind?
KW: Yoga, meditation, a good night’s sleep and healthy food.

Woman with brown hair and black dress stands in front of simple shop front with ceramics in the windows. Maud & Mabel
Above: The new Maud & Mabel shop opened in September 2016 and is located at 10 Perrin’s Court, Hampstead, London. Photograph by Liz Seabrook, courtesy of Maud & Mabel.

FF: What do you hold most dear to your heart?
KW: My family. I have been with my husband for forty years and our son and daughter have brought us much happiness. Last year, I was blessed with my first grandchild — a beautiful little girl who just celebrated her first birthday. I try to spend as much time as possible with her.

Watercolour of bowls and pitcher by Christine Hanway
Above: Karen’s still life. Artwork by Christine Chang Hanway.

A Fabulous Fabster thank you to Karen Whiteley!

4 responses to “Finding Stillness in Ceramics: Karen Whiteley of Maud & Mabel”

  1. Hi SG
    By final image, do you mean the watercolor rendering of the bowls and pitcher? If so, thank you! At the bottom of each Fabster post, I have done a drawing that is meant to represent the person being profiled. It’s my way of thanking the Fabsters for sharing their stories.
    All the best. Christine

  2. Hi Christine, thank you, yes, I was curious who the artist was, as the drawing is truly serene and exquisite (very much like Karen’s inspiring shop)…

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