Danny Mager is the founder and chief maker of Gravel Pit Homeware, a beautifully curated shop in Kelham Arcade, Sheffield. I spoke with him surrounded by his crafts, from drip dyed concrete pots to custom terrariums, about his early days creating products and his philosophy on what makes a unique product.
So how did you get started?
I’ve always been into trying creative stuff. What I realised when I turned older and had another kid was that I can’t be fanciful with my time. If I want to be creative I need to find something that is creative but also makes money at the same time.
So I started seeing these things like terrariums and concrete pots and they looked really cool. They were one-offs and you could do your own thing with them.
“I know it’s quite ruthless but I saw that as an opportunity.”
When did you first get inspired to start making them?
Probably only about a year ago, less even. I had a friend who had an interiors shop and these concrete pots he was buying, he was paying a ridiculous amount of money for them. They looked beautiful but he was paying way too much so then he had to mark it up. I know it’s quite ruthless but I saw that as an opportunity thinking “I want to make stuff and I can do it you much cheaper”.
So the concrete stuff started that way. The glass was through my brother who is an artist and made a terrarium for our other brother and he showed me how to do it. It was really therapeutic doing all the lead, cutting it and it just felt really good making it. The best thing was, after you’ve done the glass, planting and creating this little world. Which is why we sell the little men and things.
Selling stuff is theatrics. You’ve got to have stories for every item, to make people want to buy them. In that way selling can be another creative outlet. You can’t just expect people to buy stuff.
“Selling stuff is theatrics.”
Did you have any knowledge of making the concrete pots then when you first started?
No, not at all. There is a wicked website called instructables which is amazing. For basic stuff about making stuff, anything you want to know, that is the site to go on. Within a day I’d bought all the items and made my first pots.
So how did you go from supplying one shop to doing your own styles and having a shop?
I did a few craft fairs and really realised, wow there is a demand for this. I was in a really crappy position in the market but I did really well. Sold most of my products; glass items and some concrete stuff.
Realising that there was a demand for those items, I thought the first thing I’ve got to do is start getting them into other shops. So Moss & Clover, Plantology all those shops. I went there with some wares, and gauged the demand for them. Moss & Clover straight away were like “Yes, we’ll have them”. So I started making more and that stayed like that for quite a while.
Then the opportunity here at Kelham arcade came up. A friend of mine had got the lease on this place and they were showing me round. Initially I was just going to supply their shops but then they asked me about doing something in the space we’re in now. You’ve got to take risks haven’t you so I was like “yes, bang, do it”.
So I started building like crazy and making little ranges, the hexagon pots, action figures. Its all about eye candy, I want to make stuff that looks visually impressive. We’re in such an Instagram world now aren’t we. People coming in the shop, I want them to take photographs because thats good publicity for my items.
But there’s a lot of trial and error, so much stuff got thrown away through it not working. That’s the same with the mix of the concrete and plaster. It’s a mixture of cement, sand, aggregate and plaster. Combining it to get the right level of rigidity. I’m learning all the time.
“You’ve got to take risks.”
Instagram is a key tool for you, when did you realise that was the way to advertise?
It’s a very simple outlet isn’t it. An image speaks a thousand words. It’s just about getting the right identity. The thing I love about it is it gives you the ability to find companies doing a similar product and check out their followers. I can then strike up a relationship with those people who are into what I’m doing. So it’s a great way of meeting people and building a brand without having to write a million words.
What makes a good product for you?
Something that is unique, a one off piece of artwork. It’s got to make you smile and it’s got to be reasonably priced. For me it’s more about moving fast and getting a product out there than it is overpricing something and it lying around for ages. It’s about having a story to tell, the story sells it.
What is your ambition for it?
We’ve had an interview this week about a second shop in Bristol. Bristol is the Sheffield of the South, a really creative and vibrant city with lots of artists and makers. I’d also want to expand the brand. So I’d supply the stock and it would have the Gravel Pit identity. Like a franchise. So I see that as the way forward. The website as well of course is a key thing.
I’ve got connections with Warp films so they want me to fit out there offices with pots and glass and stuff, so hopefully that could be another area to expand into. Sort of consultancy, going in and fitting out places.
Do you do any paid advertising?
I’ve done Instagram as well as advertised in Citymag…
Have they been worthwhile?
I think so, well… the CityMag one ran for three months and you had to bring in the bit out of the magazine to get a discount and no-one did that. But then a lot of people came in and said we’ve seen you in the magazine. So there’s an increased awareness, how much it actually adds I’m not really sure.
There are much better ways of growing than paid advertising, Instagram being a prime example. Everybody uses it so it can be a portal to drive people to your Etsy or your Squarespace or whatever.
“You never go home and switch off, you live with it.”
What is the hardest thing you face right now?
Making stock, manning the shop, looking after a baby, researching and working on new products all at the same time. You never go home and switch off, you live with it.
How do you come up with new ideas?
Seeing visual stuff, like Instagram. Seeing wicked little characters. I recently discovered Snoopy’s brother Spike who lives in the desert with a cactus. I thought ‘is that my spirit animal or what?’. So yeah taking inspiration where I find it.
I wish I could make everything in this shop myself, I wish I could make my own cups, for instance, but I just don’t have the time. Eventually expanding the brand and getting this new store and that extra workshop will free up some time. Then we won’t need to use the other wholesalers and everything in here will be stuff we’ve made ourselves. That’s the ultimate goal but it’s some way off yet.
What advice would you give someone who is artistic and making things but hasn’t started selling them yet?
Just get out there. Bring your stuff in and see if you can sell it here. It’s got to a stage now where people are contacting me wanting to have their things sold in my shop. That’s happened with a few things. I want this place to be an outlet for all these creative people. We operate on a sale or return basis so they’re not losing anything by putting there stuff in here, its free advertising and if it sells it sells.
Sheffield is a great place to do it but do markets that’s the way forward. The craft markets are so popular now that you can spend every weekend all year at a different town market. You do well especially in the satellite towns, because they don’t see these kinds of products very often. Rotherham, Worksop all these places where they think; “I better get it now because I won’t get another chance for six months”. They are so cheap as well, £25 to hire a slot and all you need is a table and a bit of change.