Outside the Cubicle, (Pro)Files

Sheela Harden ‘69 Leads Bennington Potters

Image of Sheela Harden '69 at Bennington Potters

Bennington Potters began as Cooperative Design, the studio of the late David Gil and first wife Gloria Goldfarb ’52, and two others, in 1948 by Heather DiLeo

Bennington Potters began as Cooperative Design, the studio of the late David Gil and first wife Gloria Goldfarb ’52, and two others, in 1948. Goldfarb Gil and Gil, who took pottery classes in high school through the WPA and demoed working the wheel at 17 at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, started the business by buying an unheated barn in Bennington with savings from his wartime merchant marine service. 

In the 50s and 60s, Gil won awards, exhibited internationally, and his tableware designs were distributed under the influential mid-century-modern Raymor mark.

Sheela Harden ’69 partnered with Gil in the late 70s, first by taking over the Potters Yard Brasserie. The two later married and today Harden is president and CEO of the company.

She explains that Gil was inspired both by the Bauhaus movement in Europe in the 1910s and 20s and by the idea that beautiful designs could be replicated by machine, “so they could be available to anybody and everybody at a price people could afford.” By having his own factory, Gil understood, “people could have really good design as part of their everyday life without needing to be rich.” Gil’s owner-operated pottery was unusual, Harden says. “The designer started it, ran it, and the design ethos runs through the whole company.”

Visitors to Bennington Potters, which relocated in the 1970s to a former grain mill Harden playfully calls the “grist mill,” can watch, for instance, how a trigger mug is made step by step. “You’ll see how we’re using the machines that we’ve tailored to do what we want them to do. Or alternatively, it’s a conversation between designer and machine, and how you optimize that.”  

Because the Potters has been in operation for nearly 70 years, its pieces are not only collectible but part of people’s lives over generations. “I just was over at the hospital and the person who was signing me in said, ‘you know I have a creamer and a pitcher that I got for my wedding 38 years ago and I’m still using them and I still love them. And I was there last month buying plates,’” Harden says. “That’s a longtime customer.”
The Potters’ huge array of home furnishings, tabletop items, and gifts changes constantly, making it a place for design inspiration as well as resource for things for the home.

“Bennington has proven to be a wonderful location for the Potters,” Harden says, “partly because it’s close to New York City and Boston and because lots of people come through the town. But more than that, Bennington works well for entrepreneurs.” 

“If I were speaking to somebody who wanted to start a business, especially somebody who wanted to be an owner-operated business as we are, Bennington is extraordinary in the way that it’s open and accessible,” Harden says, emphasizing her access to and support from members of state and local government and other business owners. 

“Newcomers to Bennington can quickly become an integral part of the community because we really have skin in the game as independent business owners,” says Harden. “We’re alert to how our community is doing and committed to always making it better. We recognize that change and growth is life and it is really essential.”