Making ceramics forces you to be calmer, says Charlotte Landsheer. As manager and designer at Cor Unum, she should know. “Ceramics are fragile, which means that you have to be gentle when you’re handling them. So it’s ideal for the people who come to us for re-integration purposes. They are supervised by our ceramics makers, who in turn also have a disability, for example a physical disability or autism. In our studio everyone is given the time to produce true artisanal ceramics, in the same way that the big ceramics factories in the Netherlands used to do it. We’re the only people still working this way.”
Cor Unum products are snapped up by buyers all over the world. From Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman, who wanted crockery for his restaurant, to big designers like the late Alessandro Mendini. Charlotte says: “They have chosen us because they know that we take great care in bringing their designs to life. But also because we produce in small quantities. Artists ask for our help too. For example, we’re currently producing an artwork for the municipality of Katwijk. It’s comprised of beads, with a diameter of no less than 1.5 meters. We are modeling and shaping those beads by hand.”
“I think it’s important to create a place where an important target group can find a job that fills them with pride.”
How is Cor Unum able to exist in this way? Thanks to a long history of social enterprise. Charlotte’s father founded the studio in Den Bosch in the 1950s as a form of sheltered employment. In 1998 the studio became independent and since 2009 it has been a foundation, run by Charlotte. “We rely on a group of volunteers and the craftspeople seconded by the employment development company Weener XL. Some team members have worked for us for 30 years. In fact, one lady has spent 43 years here. They truly understand this craft and produce the very finest ceramics. In addition, I take care to curate a collection of items that sell well. So we don’t need to rely on hand-outs. I think it’s important to create a place where an important target group can find a job that fills them with pride.”
Charlotte says that the other explanation for Cor Unum’s success is the studio’s position: right at the heart of the community. Literally in fact, because the studio moved to the centre of Den Bosch last year. Now it’s located next to the shop that sells its products. Charlotte says: “The move was made possible by a loan from the Rabo Foundation, which also enabled us to build a recreation space in the middle of the shop. At the heart of the business, for our team – the people at the centre of it all. So our creators have somewhere to relax during their breaks. They come into contact with our customers and see their own handmade ceramics being sold. Customers also get the chance to meet the makers of their products. Sales have outstripped our expectations. I think that’s because we have such a strong story to tell. It’s a good news story in every sense and customers value that greatly.”
A key part of Cor Unum’s story is passing on the craft. Charlotte says: “Our greatest achievement is the students who learn the craft here as trainees. They learn from our professionals. This eliminates barriers to the labor market. We give young people the chance to try out ceramics, to see if it’s for them. Even if they don’t go into the ceramics business, they will learn other important skills, such as spatial awareness and working in a technical setting. And it’s a two-way street. Young people don’t think in terms of limitations - they come to us with boundless ideas. In turn, that makes us think about how to achieve things through ceramics. That’s also what social enterprise is about: passing on and developing a craft. That’s what drives us.”
Three social enterprise tips from Charlotte Landsheer
- Take a look at your employees’ strengths, so that everyone is in the right place and you form a strong team.
- Make sure you’re passionate about your work. The most important thing is to have an affinity for your craft or product.
- Tell the story behind your work. That adds value for the buyers of your products and focuses attention on the people who create them.