If designers are especially complicit in adding things to the world — and for stoking our desire for more and more stuff — they also get first dibs on the act of destruction. “I smash my own pieces all the time,” says Los Angeles-based ceramic artist Heather Levine. “You have to make quite a bit to get what you like, and I don’t keep all the tests. I’ll destroy them or try to make them into something else. I don’t want to see things in the world that I’m not happy about.”
So it’s perhaps fitting that Levine’s latest work is borne of incisions and reuse, and of a certain dexterity with a sharp wood-handled knife. For months after a commission of her clay pendant lamps — for places like the Parisian oyster bar Le Mary Celeste or the refurbished Ojai Rancho Inn — Levine would save Ziploc bags of cut-out teardrops and dots, thinking she might at least rewedge and recycle the raw material. “For one thing, it’s a lot of clay. It felt like a big waste,” Levine says.
But when it came time to crush the leftover pieces back into lumps, a spark went off: “At first we thought we might make windchimes,” Levine says. “I started cleaning all the parts, firing them with no glaze, putting holes in them and stringing them together to see what they would do.” The resulting wall hangings were just part of an exhibition of West Coast craft at IDÉE in Tokyo, which also featured work by Sight Unseen favorite Stan Bitters. “It’s one of those things that I didn’t expect people to like,” Levine says of the hanging pieces. “But I think the moment was right: people got tired of everything being manufactured and everything sort of looking the same. I mean, there was a point where you would go into someone’s home and everyone had the same crap, the same plates, the same furniture, and I think everyone just really phased out of that.”
In this studio visit, Levine gives us a look at some of the pieces that made it past her discerning eye to survive another day. “With ceramics, you always get better. I could look at a piece that I loved four years ago, and your feelings change. There’s such a skill element to it,” Levine says. “It’s not that it’s juvenile. It’s that it becomes your past.”
For Heather Chontos, painting is like dreaming — a chance to work out all the things that trouble her during the day. Except that what troubles this free-spirited prop stylist and set designer is mostly just one thing: the domestic object. She once spent three years feverishly painting nothing but chairs; she made a series of drawings called "Domestic Goods Are Punishing." It's a kind of love/hate relationship. "It's endemic to stylists everywhere — you see things, you want them, you horde them all," says the 31-year-old. "It's that weighing down I really struggle with. When I first started painting, you would have never seen anything figurative, but it's all I obsess over now."
To understand what it was like for Ian McDonald growing up in California’s Laguna Beach, it helps to refer back to one of the greatest television dramas of all time. Not, mind you, MTV’s vapid reality show of the same name, but the heart-wrenching high-school football epic Friday Night Lights — McDonald’s hometown being pretty much the diametrical opposite of Dillon, Texas. “Laguna was founded as an artists’ colony,” he says. “Our school mascot, The Artist, ran around with a brush and palette and a beret. Even the football stars took art classes.” In fact, one of McDonald’s earliest run-ins with the medium that would eventually become his life’s work happened when his own sports-star brothers brought their ceramics projects home from school, where their art teacher was a local studio potter. “Most kids would ask their mom for milk money; my older brothers were always asking for clay money,” he recalls. By the time he himself got to high school, he says, “it hit me really hard: This is what I want to do.”
To know a ceramicist is to see their test pieces, and Bari Ziperstein has the kind of overflowing studio that doesn’t happen in a minute, that comes from years of private experiments and the hard work of learning not to care so much. “I think of these pieces as sculptural doodles,” she says, referring to a series of small, accidental ceramic sculptures. “They’re such a discrepancy from how I usually work, something no more than two inches. It’s really free and immediate.”