Reema Abu Hassan's Qatar-Based Enterprise Clay Encounters Is Reviving A Passion For Making Pottery Within The Local Community

As the mindful craft of pottery gains popularity in the world at large, entrepreneur Reema Abu Hassan is aiming to infuse a love for the art in Qatar through her enterprise, Clay Encounters.

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As the mindful craft of pottery gains popularity in the world at large, entrepreneur Reema Abu Hassan is aiming to infuse a love for the art in Qatar through her enterprise, Clay Encounters. As a trained architect, Hassan first encountered her love for pottery during a ceramics class in her final year of study at the American University of Sharjah. "I was drawn to the tactility of clay and watching it transform into a functional object," she recalls. With her background in architecture, digital fabrication, theory, design and ceramics, the interdisciplinary designer went on to work as an architect at the Office of Metropolitan Architecture in Dubai as well as in its head office in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Reema, Abu Hassan
Reema, Abu Hassan, CEO and founder, Clay Encounters

But after moving back home to Doha, Hassan quit her job as an architect and decided to pursue her passion for ceramics. "I craved making, but I could not find a space to do so," Hassan says. "Qatar's art and design scene at the time was slowly growing, but there was a lack of creative studio-like spaces. I saw an opportunity to reintroduce the craft of pottery, and to provide a space for people to be in a creative space focused around making." And while she got started on a two-year full-time Master of Fine Arts Design Studies program at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar (in which she is a professor today), Hassan looked at the potential of setting up a venture with such a concept in mind.

Within seven months, on August 1, 2018, Hassan opened up the doors to Clay Encounters, a ceramics studio and curated design shop located at The Pearl in Doha's Qanat Quartier. Hassan deliberately started it as a small space to evoke the feeling of a family-run business, saying, "People could sense the warm and welcoming atmosphere in the studio… Everything I did came from a place of love and passion for the craft, and I believe that people sensed that." It's no wonder then that the studio quickly gained popularity and amassed a community surrounding it. Designed to create a collective space that brings people together from Qatar and beyond, Clay Encounters offers ceramics classes for adults, kids, and families, with its three-day course being the most popular one.

"The course gives the community a chance to learn the basics and to join our studio family as open members," says Hassan. The studio also offers open studio memberships, if you just need a creative space to make things out of clay, as well as host private events, birthdays, celebrations, and get-togethers, all centered around a creative act of making. "We have built a great community around the studio through our membership program, and the members have become the heart and soul of the space," says Hassan. The shop's handcrafted ceramics, which are mostly sold on its website, have also seen an increase in demand. "I believe that the workshops have risen awareness in the country towards handmade objects, and people understand their value," she explains. "Our products usually sell out in under an hour, and I am very thankful for the support that we have gotten since our opening."

Source: Clay Encounters

Besides its classes and open studio membership as revenue streams, Clay Encounters also has The Artisanry as a vertical to accept design commissions and orders of custom-made sets and ceramics for cafes, shops, museums, homes, and institutions. It has also introduced The Design Lab, which allows the team to be more experimental and collaborate with designers and exhibitions to craft objects and other design-based activities. It has since inked several successful partnerships with enterprises like Qatar Museums, Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Qatar Airways, Al Jazeera, and more.

The brand has also exhibited internationally at world renowned fairs such as the Maison&Objet in Paris, the Venice Biennial, and the Salone del Mobile in Milan. Hassan's research work as a professor also aligns with the studio's research component of incorporating digital tools into analog modes of making within ceramics. The products that are crafted at Clay Encounters are heavily impacted by digital tech, according to Hassan. This has resulted in an ongoing collaboration between the studio's design shop, Qatar Museums, and the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, with its finished products sold at the National Museum of Qatar.

Clay Encounters' multiple revenue streams proved quite useful upon the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, wherein Hassan notes that, besides being a chance to reflect, it also made her and the team realize the value of their crafting expertise. Indeed, the period was when the team completely shifted to making its handcrafted designs, as they couldn't host workshops involving the public. "We sold hundreds of handcrafted ceramics during the first few months that we were closed," Hassan recalls.

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Source: Clay Encounters

"We also collaborated on many design projects with both local and international designers. The pandemic is essentially what helped us identify the value of adding The Artisanry and The Design Lab." But while she is grateful for the growth Clay Encounters has been in the recent past, Hassan is not keen on hurrying things and is happy to let the business develop in its own pace. "I began small, and let the growth of the studio fund the growth of the space, and it has happened quite organically," she says. At the same time, Hassan reveals that her business has been approached with offerings of funds and partnerships to grow it across the country, and it is something that is definitely on the cards for Clay Encounters in the future.

As a small business, Clay Encounters seems to be following a slow and steady approach to growth, and Hassan confirms that it has been something that she has stuck to ever since the business took off. "The biggest challenge was to start small and to resist growing my business right away," she notes. "I had many ideas that I wanted to explore; however, I was also aware that I needed to build a community prior to expanding." Another factor that Hassan and her team wanted to focus on was to design the studio and its workshops to suit the local context. "I had the privilege of visiting many pottery and design studios around the world, and I knew that I had to adapt the standard ceramic studio setup to make it successful in Qatar," she explains.

"I like to think of Clay Encounters as a ceramic design studio that is designed specifically for the diverse community and the context. It is special, unique, and successful because of this, and I constantly fine-tune everything that we do at the studio." As a successful independent studio, Hassan thus plans to maintain Clay Encounters' autonomy, while simultaneously growing the design lab of the studio. Besides that, as a professor focusing on design research through making, Hassan is also eager to engage in more design research at the studio, whilst considering the potential of expanding the space further as demand grows.

Source: Clay Encounters

As Hassan is someone with an artistic bent who started up a business, I ask her about how she regards her entrepreneurial journey to have been like, and she replies, "The process of setting up a business is never easy, because it is a very steep learning curve. I learned so much about entrepreneurship very quickly, and I was not afraid of failure because I believed so much in my concept and my business." Hassan also admits that she's been lucky to have been supported in her endeavors from other women in Qatar's business arena.

"There is a willingness among the female entrepreneurs in Qatar to support one another, and I have made many friends over the past few years," she says. "I have collaborated with many female entrepreneurs, because there is a drive that constantly inspires me. The misconception is that as female entrepreneur things are harder, and I think that this cannot be any more untrue. Women in Qatar are widely supported, and we have many great female role models that we look up to who have a massive impact in the local community."

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'TREP TALK: Q&A with Reema Abu Hassan, Founding Director, Clay Encounters

What's been your biggest lessons from the challenges you've encountered as an entrepreneur?

"Being an entrepreneur is challenging, but it is also one of the most rewarding things that you can do. One of the biggest things that I had to learn is that no one knows how your business really works more than you, and so, you must trust your instinct. Most importantly, if you love what you do, if you put in the work, and have a passion for it, then you will succeed! Many people have told me that my passion and the passion of my team made them fall in love with pottery and the studio. The community can spot passion, and people will always be drawn to a business that operates from a place of passion, and focuses on community engagement."

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