Studio Visit
Julianne Ahn of Object & Totem

Like most ceramic artists we know, Julianne Ahn didn’t originally train at the wheel. “I went to school for undergrad in textile design, and then I got an MFA in the Fiber Materials Studies department at SAIC — which is a way more conceptual major,” the Philadelphia-based designer told us when we visited her studio this winter. “I did that on purpose to complement my undergraduate degree, which was about technique and craft-making. Somewhere in the middle, I’ve managed to find a balance between concept and design.” It’s a balance that’s even reflected in the name of her studio: “Object” implies inherent function, while “Totem” suggests something much more mysterious or mythical. As proprietor of that so-called studio, Ahn has become majorly sought after in the last few years for her necklaces — pretty mash-ups of braided rope, embroidery floss, and hand-thrown ceramic beads — and interestingly glazed vessels.

So where exactly was Ahn’s a-ha moment? “After school” for Ahn happened to fall in the financially gloomy year of 2007, and though she moved home to Philadelphia with a job (her parents live in a suburb 40 minutes outside the city), she soon found herself without one. “I didn’t really enjoy working there anyway, so it was kind of convenient,” she laughs. What followed was an intense period of self-education. She took a few classes at the Clay Studio in Old City to learn how to throw, and, she says, “It’s a complete blur from there to here. I had so much time! I was really persistent about learning, went to the Free Library, took out a ton of books, watched a ton of YouTube videos. I absorbed as much of it as possible. And I’m still learning, which is really nice. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m this old hippie who’s been doing it for 20 years.”

And because clay is a notoriously fickle material, “still learning” for Ahn means taking baby steps. “I’ll fill two pages of my sketchbook, then I’ll get in the studio and cross them all off,” she says. And, she says, anything that has to do with firing or glazing still makes her incredibly nervous: “It’s like you’re baking but every single time the recipe is completely new, and you can’t control certain variables.” Even so, her methodical experimentation has paid off: Though her forms are often traditional, and the glazes she uses commercially available, there’s something daring about many of her pieces —strange colors or bold patterns that stem from her days back in two dimensions. “I come from this different understanding of the material,” she says. “I have this respect for clay, but I come from a completely different side of wanting to build a contrast with something that I think is really familiar.” When asked if she can think of anyone in the ceramics canon who might have informed or inspired her aesthetic, she says: “I feel the overwhelming responsibility to say yes. But really, I’m just like anybody else just finding ceramics for the first time.”

Julianne Ahn’s Philly Top 5

1.  Wissahickon Valley Trail “My husband and I like to go running here on nice days and be reminded of how out of shape we are. It’s a 20-minute drive outside the city. There are a ton of trails that run alongside the Wissahickon Creek and vantage points like the city’s first drinking fountain and a 15-foot Lenape Native American marble sculpture overlooking the park.”

2.  Reading Terminal Market Old indoor food market where you can buy everything from Amish baked goods, Thai food, local honey and Old City Coffee. Always bustling with tourists, so it can get a little rowdy, but for all the options of food, totally worth it.”

3.  Ranstead Room “My friend Britt told me about this place years ago. It’s so simple. A beautifully adorned nook of a bar with flocked wallpaper, naked lady paintings, and killer cocktails.”

4.  The Philadelphia Museum of Art (Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Art Collection) “It’s a nice hidden section of the museum not a lot of people venture into, but there are some really amazing pieces like show plates, clay figurines, and weaving tools.”

5.  The UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology “They house a really wonderful selection of Native American textiles, baskets and ceramics, not to mention a beautiful assortment of Iranian tiles, bowls and lamps.”

This post is part of Sight Unseen’s Philly Week, sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation. Curate your own Philadelphia art and design experience at withart.visitphilly.com, and follow along @visitphilly #withartphl.

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Ahn’s current studio is located in the Old Kensington area of Philly, inside Paper Box Studios, a 19th-century former tobacco factory that was renovated into workspaces by onetime Sight Unseen subjects Leo and Amy Voloshin of Printfresh. However, just before we went to press, we got word that Ahn is relocating — due to her husband's job — to Berlin!

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Until then, Ahn shares the space — which she laughingly notes is shaped like Idaho — with a small leather goods company called Absolute Classic Masterpieces. “We’d been bantering back and forth about this flask we saw at the Philadelphia Museum. It was really small; you can walk past it and not notice it. We were like, ‘Whoa what is that? It’s a fucking flask!’ So I figured it out how to throw this awesome doughnut shape which I thought was kind of impossible. I had the idea that they should make a bag specific to the flask. After a few designs, this is 99 percent the bag that we want. They’re going to make this a really nice leather and suede combo.”

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“You caught me in an experimentation phase,” says Ahn. “That’s a flask that I made skinnier and cut in half just to try different forms for a necklace.”

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Clearly the experiments worked. When we checked the Object & Totem webshop a few weeks ago, this gorgeous finished prototype was for sale.

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Bisque fired stock. Ahn throws three different types of clay bodies: white, medium with speckled, and a darker clay. “For a while I was using Standard clay, which is out of Pennsylvania,” she says, “but there were some problems with cracking. I think for a while in the beginning I was just trying to make anything work. After making hundreds and hundreds of things, you’re like, ‘I can’t have half my pieces crack. I need a more stable clay.’ You don’t figure those things out until you’ve fired multiple times.”

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“You definitely want a clay that’s more plastic. Like I was using a really gritty clay in the beginning, and it sanded off my fingerprints. Plastic, smooth clays are awesome, because they’re like butter. Porcelain’s like if you can imagine playing with an avocado in your hands.”

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“Really good potters reclaim all of their clay and have absolutely no waste. I try to reclaim as much of it as I can. It’s really sad to throw out things that didn’t work out or things that are cracked. But I don’t have the room, as you can see, to keep everything.”

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“This wheel I got from a retired potter in Manitowoc named Tracy. She was selling it on Craigslist. I love it. She actually sold me half her studio. It was kind of sad but kind of nice. She was happy to be selling to somebody who was actually going to use it. She’d been doing it as a hobby for over 20 years, but even she said she got this wheel used. It’s still running awesome.”

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“When I was learning, I learned on speckled clay at the clay studio. They do reduction firing, which is with a gas kiln. But there’s no way you could have a gas kiln in this studio, so I had to get an electric one. I’m trying with some of the glazes and clays to produce that effect of being in a gas kiln, a reduction look but with an electric kiln which is oxidation firing.”

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Tumblers awaiting glazing.

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Glaze tests.

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“Glazing always makes me nervous. You don’t know what’s going to warp. You don’t know what’s going to have a bald spot. Basically, it’s completely vulnerable until it’s actually finished.”

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“It took a long time to get used to the idea that sometimes things just don’t work out. You just have to tell somebody who’s purchasing it, ‘Sorry it didn’t work out. I tried. I have to do this again.’”

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Proper ventilation is key!

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Chrome-glazed triangles.

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Inspiration objects and Object & Totem stoneware Elixir bottles

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Stacks of Object & Totem’s signature necklaces. (We'll be restocking our shop once Ahn is settled in her new Berlin studio. Until then, they’re available on Ahn’s own webshop as well as places like Anthropologie and Vagabond.)

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Embroidery floss for the necklaces. “It’s so funny because you go in the store, and you’re basically standing there next to people who do cross-stitchings of their dog.”

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“This is the last of what I was working on in my previous studio. I was doing fine art and going through this weird period of trying to work with found objects and more natural materials. I was tired of thinking about color. The last piece I did I was actually weaving painted strips of paper together one by one. I drove myself a little crazy with it.”

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The artist in her studio. We’ll miss you, Julianne!