Years ago, a young couple of urban potters began quietly building a joyous life and a thriving business on Magazine Street. This year, Mark and Ann-Marie Derby will be celebrating 20 years of business as the owners of Derby Pottery & Tile.
“It was a risk,” says Ann-Marie. “There wasn’t a master business plan; we didn’t even carry business cards. But thankfully, our business grew organically, doing what we loved to do.”
Mark Derby is an artisan tile maker and master potter. For many years, he successfully created gallery-quality art. Ann-Marie apprenticed with Mark and is now also a skilled potter.
The Derbys apply the same high-quality, handmade standards that Mark used in the fine art world to create functional art, such as mugs, vases and trays.
But the couple’s bread and butter is their reproductions of the iconic blue and white letter tiles found on Crescent City street corners.
“One day in 2002, Ralph Brennan came into the store,” says Mark. “He was creating a restaurant in downtown Disney and wanted a version of the tiles. So, we started making them specifically for him.”
But Mark wanted to take it further and be truer to the original encaustic tiles, which means the pattern on the surface is not a product of a glaze but of different colors of clay. The pattern is inlaid into the body of the tile, so that the design remains as the tile is worn down.
On hands and knees, Mark diligently traced every number, then carved the drawings into a clay mold. Perhaps 50,000 or more handmade tiles later, the couple is still making street tiles for big construction projects, humble homes and local businesses.
“Mark had previously done some custom tiles for the post-Katrina renovation of our Mid-City home,” says Jennifer Weishaupt, CEO of the Ruby Slipper Restaurant Group. “We loved the idea of bringing this piece of New Orleans street art to our restaurants. We just installed a set of Derby’s tiles at our 15th restaurant, Ruby Sunshine in Chattanooga.”
Most of the work done at Derby Pottery & Tile is created on-site — from the plaster molds to the proprietary glaze that coats the tiles. As well as every step of the process — the mixing, application and firing is done by hand.
Moving forward into their next 20 years, Ann-Marie and an assistant have recently taken over the production of the street tiles so Mark can develop new products and create more gallery-type work.
And the couple is doing more to promote the store locally. They’ve even begun carrying business cards.
“Tourists have known about us for years. Now we want designers and architects to know we have artisan tiles that can be used as accents to a backsplash, fireplace or shower. And that they’re beautiful.”