Say the word “Italy” and certain scenes spring to mind: Olive trees sprout from backyard planters, fountains gurgle over the lips of urns, freshly made pasta spills off earthenware plates, and russet-colored terraces radiate the heat of the warm Tuscan sun. In each case, the common element is terra-cotta, the unheralded but all-important hero of the quintessential Italian landscape.
No one knows this better than Kirk Laing, owner and operator of Tuscan Imports, Inc. in Florence, South Carolina. Sixteen years ago, Laing and his wife were living in Florence, Italy, where she is from. They made the bittersweet decision to move across the Atlantic, back to Laing’s native United States after eight years in Europe. In continuing the serendipitous theme of relocating from one Florence—or Firenze in Italian—to another, Laing wanted to adopt a more Florentine style in his everyday life. He made renovations to his house, like stuccoing the walls and adding an outdoor wood-burning brick oven. The Laing family also brought back pieces of handmade, quality terra-cotta to give their outdoor space the refined, rustic feel that they had loved about Tuscany.
This got their friends’ attention. It was not long before Laing realized that he and his family were not the only ones in the market for exquisitely crafted pieces of terra-cotta that function not only as useful fixtures in the garden but as art, too. With his understanding of Italian culture and his connections from time spent living in Italy, he made the natural transition to becoming a fine terra-cotta importer. The operation began out of his pickup truck bed, and now Laing boasts a reputation for being the largest importer of terra-cotta in South Carolina.
“It’s new construction, it’s remodels, it’s anybody who’s working on their outdoor living area and who wants to make it look as nice as possible,” Laing says of his most common customers. “The areas that have more of a Mediterranean influence are the areas where we do better, but we ship everywhere.”
He has exported his wares as far as the Philippines, the Middle East and South America, as well as across the United States. His customers’ strong demand makes it clear there is something about Tuscan Imports’ terra-cotta that makes it stand out among imitators.
“The majority of what we carry comes from a very specific region,” Laing says about the terra-cotta that he carries from the village of Impruneta in Tuscany. “Impruneta clay is known to be the best clay in the world,” he asserts. The distinguishing feature of his products—which collectors, gardeners and exterior decorators all appreciate—is that his planters, vases, urns, statuary and fountains are frost proof (down to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit), and Laing guarantees it.
Laing also says that his handmade products will not flake or crumble—he is that confident in his Italian artisans. That also goes for two types of terra-cotta he imports from the Siena region of Tuscany. One is made from Galestro clay, the other from Siena clay. Galestro is produced in mass quantities to emulate Impruneta clay for those who do not have access to it; Siena, notable for its smoother texture and paler hue, does not have as much iron in it as the two other clays. The ingrained iron is what gives terra-cotta its trademark rosy coloration when dried and fired in a 1,000-degree kiln.
The ultimate draw terra-cotta has on return customers, enchanted garden-party guests and those pining for the old country, is that it exudes the warmth of the Tuscan sunshine. It is as if it was reflecting back all the rays of sun it absorbed while buried for centuries in the Italian countryside.
Rémy Thurston is a Charleston-based writer and photographer covering the Southeast. Visit remythurston.com.