A quirky, home-grown success story

2012-11-29 00:00

TRAYCI Tompkins cuts a jaunty figure as she strides into a Hilton coffee shop on a rainy morning, her ensemble of funky-stylish casual wear identifying her a member of the creative class. But unlike many who make their money using imagination and their own hands, this artist is not starving.

In fact, the business she started in 1995 when she left a media job and set up a ceramic studio in her Hilton home has flourished. In 2008, as the global economic crisis was gathering momentum, she and her husband Stuart, who left a corporate job to help her grow the business, relocated their studio to bigger premises at Lionsgate in the Dargle and opened a shop at Piggly Wiggly on the Midlands Meander. As the crisis ground on leaving businesses big and small shattered in its wake, their own business, now called Zulu-lulu Trading, grew and they built bigger premises at the expanding Piggly Wiggly Country Village.

This month they celebrated their first anniversary there and Zulu-lulu, which now incorporates a ceramic boutique, art gallery and “art bar”, employs nine full-time staff, including Trayci and Stuart, and two part-timers.

Trayci puts their success down to “good, sound business practice and product innovation, coupled with energy, hard work and focus”.

Innovation has been particularly important. Trayci started out making hand-built pots that are glazed and fired using different techniques, but it has been the clever expansion of a range of tableware and gallery products using the input of other people that has helped the business grow.

“The ever-changing range of tableware and expansion of the Collectable range uses a diverse spread of skills and personalities within the studio and keeps our work fresh and new,” says Trayci. The personality of the maker is incorporated into the designs and “this allows Zulu-lulu to be the home-grown quirky brand that it is”.

The Zulu-lulu Art House includes an art room and gallery wing which showcases the work of a select group of artists. There’s space for visitors to get creative too, at the Art Bar.

“We created a space where the public can paint their own blank clay item and express themselves freely in a non-threatening environment. Afterwards, they own something beautiful that they have had a hand in creating,” she says.

The new building is more than just a good space for retail. According to Trayci, it’s also great for all the human interactions that are important in a successful business.

“I’m big on being happy in what I do and our studio in the Dargle allows for a relaxed, mutually respectful and busy working space. The gallery space allows us to connect with other artists with whom we have built lasting relationships over the years. It keeps us in touch with happenings outside the ceramic world and allows for a vibrant mix of ever-changing works. Positively, it also exposes and inspires our staff who come into contact with some of KZN’s top-selling artists.”

It’s been tough making space and time for her own art while building the more commercial side of the business.

“At times it can be distracting juggling both, but what does get suppressed comes out with vigour in the end. It’s also been exciting to see how new-found skills and techniques have influenced my direction into stoneware sculpture and changed the influences in my hand-coiled vessels.”

She exhibits her new work alongside painters Di Erasmus and Coral Spencer annually at The Witness Hilton Arts Festival and is looking forward to an exhibition opening later this month at the Zulu-lulu gallery where her work will be on show with that of Vincent Reid and Floris van Zyl.

FINALISTS in The Witness’s True Stories of KZN competition will each receive what have become known as local ‘Oscars’ — quirky statuettes called Dlaminis made by Zulu-lulu ceramic studio. The Dlaminis will be handed out at the award ceremony next week when the winners of the competition are named.

Tompkins says the collectable Dlamini figurines have travelled to homes “the world over and are growing into an iconic South African Oscar. They are the award of choice at many sporting events and corporate functions.”

How did the first Dlamini come about? “It’s a great story of once part-time gardener Tim Dlamini channelling his talents and focus into something he truly enjoys doing,” she says. “It’s also a story of employing and training others in the art of personal expression.”

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