Saturday, December 3, 2011

Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House - Meet the Artists: Chris Hopp and Farmbrook Designs

It's only a week until the Second Annual Black Cat Pottery Holiday Open House on December 10 (10a-4p), during which we open up the studio to fellow local artists and all of our fans for a day of holiday cheer!  This year, we'll be featuring artisan baked goods and live music, in addition to five unique garden- and home-inspired artists.  I thought it would be nice to introduce them to you so you could get to know each of these amazingly creative and generous folks a little bit better.

Chris Hopp is a Southeast Michigan native, raised and educated in Royal Oak. After high school, Chris experimented in several careers in service and technical fields, finding them immobile and unrewarding. In 1999, a backyard hobby of making small planters and leaf imprints from hypertufa transitioned into a part-time business venture. Farmbrook Designs was established as a partnership including Chris and his Mom, Glenda Hopp.  (The company's name is derived from the address for a piece of property Glenda sold in order to finance the business's start up.)

Often used in the manufacture of decorative indoor and outdoor accents, Hypertufa is a light-weight concrete substitute consisting of Portland cement, perlite, vermiculate and peat moss, making for a more natural-looking finish to the pieces in which it is used.  About forty percent lighter than traditional concrete, hypertufa is every bit as strong and can sustain the freeze-thaw cycle of the typical Upper Midwest winter - even buried under several feet of snow!  "Hypertufa has been a great medium to work in," says Chris. "I can turn my inspirations into practical hypertufa home and garden designs anyone can enjoy and appreciate."

Chris's inspirations are many and varied, including Japanese lanterns, indigenous cairns and other stone structures. These have evolved into his current designs, including a five-piece snow lantern, inukshuks and even large monoliths, inspired by naturally-occuring fractured basalt obelisks. "I'm always tweaking my designs," explains Chris. "It's interesting to look back at my original lanterns and see how they have evolved over the years." The pieces conceived and crafted by Chris and his Mom early in the business have evolved into even more sophisticated designs as Glenda has retired to work on her own business, So Many Colors, and Chris's long-time girlfriend, Chelsea, has stepped in on a limited basis to contribute her own unique voice.

Farmbrook Designs's pieces range from the whimsical to the truly magnificent, including hypertufa mushrooms, planters, lanterns, fountains and garden furniture. Chris is constantly developing new designs inspired by traditional garden accents, such as European Saddle Stones and Millstones.

I met Chris in East Lansing, at the 2007 Master Gardener College on March 17.   I had run into him previously, at previous conferences, but had never really "met" him.  He was back for the (???) time, sharing his work with a very enthusiastic and supportive Master Gardener audience, along with his girlfriend, Chelsea Martin. At the end of the conference, he and Chelsea came down to my table and purchased a number of my toad houses to use in some of his planters in preparation for an event later that Spring in Chicago.

I continued to run into Chris and/or Chelsea over the next year or so at various gardening conferences and tours, gradually getting to know one another better.  I had long admired Chris's work but hadn't really seen a design that grabbed my attention. In October 2009, Chris and I were at a conference in Saginaw, where he lured me out to his van (a whole story there) to show me a absolutely gorgeous large trough he had planted with dwarf conifers.  I was stunned.

A new candleholder concept from Farmbrook Designs
featuring a vintage insulator
Even though Chris has not had formal art training and is largely self-taught, he is one of the smartest, most creative folks I know. He not only has this inimitable ability to conceptualize a form and the means to make a mold for it (engineering and industrial design talents), he has this natural knack for combining his hypertufa pieces with appropriate plants and carefully selected stones and mock mulches in genuinely beautiful compositions. I knew - seeing this beautiful trough planted with dwarf conifers  - I was getting closer to the type of piece I wanted for my garden. Heading out on a limb, I asked Chris that day if there was a design he had wanted to develop but had not yet had the opportunity to do so. He shared his vision for a very large trough on legs. Hearing his description, I placed my order, to be delivered before my first of two annual garden tours in May 2010.

Chris delivered the trough on a Tuesday evening.  I clearly remember the conversation we had about placing the trough - I wanted it to be a "wall" for an outdoor room, delineating the drive from the back yard proper.  As Chris was placing the two supports, I expressed my concern about whether the lawnmower would knock the trough over one of the three or four times a year I actually cut my lawn.  Chris gave me a look (with which I am very familiar now!) and patiently explained that the trough, empty, unplanted, weighed 200 lbs and that each of the two legs weighed between 80 and 100 pounds.

I shut up. Really. I did.

Two evenings later (he's a bit of a night owl, is Chris!), he came back to plant the trough for me.  I remember coming home from teaching a class at the Anton Art Center in Mt. Clemens, MI, and rushing to the back to turn on my outside lights to see his finished handy work. It was amazing.  So amazing that, this Spring, during my annual Clematis Pruning Workshop in April, when things (including the Sedums and Sempervirens Chris has planted in the trough) were barely waking up, the workshop attendees were universally amazed at how wonderful it looked, even still shrouded in their winter's sleep.

This year, Chris installed two more large troughs on legs (at different heights from the one I bought last year) and I finally found a place to put a fountain. Next year it's going to be a lantern. Once I figure out where to put it!

It is always a pleasure to run into Chris - he always gives me a really big hug and there are always new ideas the two of us are working on - sharing them helps us along in the design process.  Chris is the very best younger brother a creative, driven girl could ask for.

"The opportunity to envision and develop a concept and, finally, transforming that concept into a beautiful and unique finished and functional object is one of the most rewarding of human experiences." - Chris Hopp

See more of Chris's work at


Pete said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Black Cat Pottery said...

That's an interesting idea, Pete. One issue relates to the relative efficiency of the technology in a given locale. Solar lights, for example, aren't really effective path lighting in MIchigan and other locales with similar or higher latitudes as we just don't get enough sunlight to charge that little solar cell efficiently. I, for one, would like nothing better than to get "off the grid" entirely. I will pass your inquiry on to Chris for his consideration. Thanks for your interest!