To put it rather dramatically, Rozana Musa branched out into making tableware, such as plates, bowls and trays, to survive. As a sculptor, she found little room for growth and opportunity in the Malaysian art scene. She first began making her wares in her own backyard but later moved to a vacant space that was once her grandmother’s grocery store in Melaka. She officially launched Bendang Studio after posts of her creations spiked on social media, indicating huge interest.
Rozana began selling her plates at events run by Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia and Kraftangan Malaysia. As her following grew, restaurants such as Rimba & Rusa, asked if they could use Bendang’s creations for their food. “It felt like a step forward and made us take tableware more seriously because of the demand,” she says.
One of the challenges she faced early on was having to spend a lot of time on trial and error. “Ceramics are different from other materials. With clay, I really needed to do a lot of experiments and research. I need to work on new developments from time to time, looking at the colour and quality.”
She also had to experiment with different clay suppliers. When she began, she was using clay from her backyard in Melaka, near a river on land that was formerly a padi field. Incidentally, that is why her business is called Bendang. “I started to buy clay from Perak, in Kuala Kangsar, but the quality was not what I wanted. Each batch I received, the quality would be different. Now, I use local clay from Selangor because the quality is good for us and it is more durable,” she explains.
Rozana now has a partner, Imaya Wong, whom she met a couple of years ago at Balai Seni Lukis.
Says Wong, “She was selling ceramic wear and I immediately became a huge fan. I was trained as a graphic designer but started [to do] retail and branding in 2016. We spoke about a partnership and about how we wanted to start Bendang Artisan and the retail arm of Bendang Studio.”
Bendang Artisan became official last year, focusing on tableware. While Rozana handles production, design, and research and development, Wong takes care of the branding, marketing and the retail side of the business.
Bendang Artisan has sold its handmade ceramic pieces to an impressive list of restaurants and stores, including Blackbyrd KL, Jibby & Co and Atas Restaurant. “It is interesting when we make things for restaurants, hotels and cafés. I really like to discuss [such matters] with the chef because they give us ideas — what colour is more suitable for food, which size is good for serving or for side plates, and so on. We learn a lot from them,” adds Rozana.
When the two friends met, Rozana sold her products on consignment in shops such as Kedai Bikin and Ilaika. However, after participating in a pop-up at The Zhongshan Building, they decided a fixed store was necessary. Introduced to The Linc KL by clients, they decided to take the plunge and start a bricks and mortar store there. “We wanted to replicate the same concept of our pop-up with a very minimal approach to the interior — just using wood and concrete so the products would stand out. We officially opened on March 15,” says Wong.
Making ceramic pieces is a complicated process that can seem tedious to an outsider, but Rozana is passionate about it. “Ceramics is a special material because once you put it inside a kiln to fire, even if you have tested a few colours and effects, you cannot see what might happen until the firing has ended and you have waited for 24 hours for it to cool. Sometimes, you will be surprised with the result because you might get something completely different, or maybe get something close to what you tested. I really enjoy that moment and sometimes, I cannot sleep because I keep thinking about what will happen tomorrow when I open the kiln.”
Bendang Artisan’s products are wholly handmade and it now has a team of eight who work in production. They use two main techniques — one is with a wheel-throwing machine and the other is manual casting, in which clay is poured inside a mould. The Talam range, released as part of its Raya collection, uses a new technique — mixing colour into the clay rather than applying a colour glaze to the surface of the clay.
Bendang’s commitment to creating new products is what really sets it apart from its competition. “I always do a lot of experiments and developments, so we always produce new colours and new designs, and we like to surprise people with something different… Sometimes I do colours and effects that you can only get as a one-off,” says Rozana.
Look forward to Bendang Artisan’s Merdeka and Christmas collections in the near future. It also plans to start offering workshops in the space in front of the new store. The two partners intend to launch a Malaysian Ceramic Archive pilot project that will take note of their innovations and to expand their sales to other countries. “I would like to take Bendang Artisan overseas. I’d feel really proud because it is a local product, a Malaysian product,” says Rozana.
This article first appeared on June 10, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.