Morgan Peck at Totokaelo

When Jill Wenger opened the first incarnation of the Seattle store Totokaelo in 2003, she had a few goals: showcasing the work of local designers, improving choices for all-weather gear. But as she grew to be the most fashion-forward resource in the city, she took on the more important mandate of helping to raise Seattle’s style profile in general, banishing annoying sartorial habits like square-toed shoes, embroidery, and pleather handbags. While there’s still work to be done in that arena, this year — with the opening of her massive new store and its “Art—Object” component — Wenger expanded her tastemaking activities beyond the body and into the home. Her stable contains more than a few of our favorite players, from Philip Low to Seattle’s hometown heroes Iacoli & McAllister, but months ago, it was Morgan Peck who really caught our eye. Not only was the ceramicist suddenly showing up on shelves at Iko Iko and Mociun, among others, there was almost no information about her on the web. And so we invited Wenger to take a stab at interviewing the Los Angeles–based talent for our Peer Review column, a task for which she had so much enthusiasm that she blew right past our three-question format. Did we mind? Hardly. Before you check out their conversation below, we harvested a bit of biographical information from Peck — rendering her an enigma no longer.

“I was born and raised in Washington state. My dad was a woodworker and our house was constantly under construction; remodeling the house was a family effort. Most of my time as a kid was spent with miniatures and Legos. Constructing towns on my bedroom floor, I dreamed of being an architect. I attended three colleges over four years, where unable to make a decision to focus on one subject, I studied photography, ceramics, printmaking, film history, folk history, welding, television production, and finally, for my last year, Russian history and literature. After graduation, I enrolled in a two-month program at Southern California Institute of Architecture, where I realized my childhood dream was not what I thought it would be. My interests moved to designing and making things on a smaller scale. I went back to Washington and started refinishing wood on boats. I refinished other things in my free time also: wood doors, windows, dressers.

“Three years ago, I moved to L.A. and started taking ceramics classes at a community art center. I hadn’t worked with clay since I took a ceramics class in college. I initially wanted to make pots for my cactus plants because I couldn’t find anything interesting in shops, but I instantly felt like, this is what I need to be doing. My teacher Livija Lipaite was really supportive; she suggested I sell my work. The first place I sold anything was the Echo Park Craft Fair. Now, working as a part-time preparator at a gallery allows me to get into the studio pretty often. Although I just bought a craftsman house last month, so the refinishing bug might come back and take over for a while.”

Interview by Jill Wenger

Why ceramics?
“I loved ceramics in high school — I took every ceramics class twice. But when it came time to choose a major in college, I choose photography; I think that’s why art school didn’t last! Photography was too slow and detached for me. I always thought about ceramics, but it took me a while to get back to it.”

Where do you go for inspiration?
“Looking at the architecture of L.A. is an inspiration. Everything from the freeways, to the old storefronts and art deco apartment buildings, to the topiary. I also love to look at the work of Carlo Scarpa, Hungarian sculptor Pierre Székely, and Italian artist Pietro Cascella.”

Restaurant, café, or home cooked meals?
“Home cooked, any day. I barely ever ate out growing up — there weren’t many choices in Gig Harbor, Washington. It’s much more comfortable to eat at home for me. Going out is distracting, as I’m a terrible eaves-dropper, and I stop listening to whomever I’m with and just listen to the people behind me. Plus, who likes waiting for ketchup, when at home you just stand up and get it? I’m also really cheap!”
What do you collect?
“In my apartment I have a ceramic sculpture collection (above), all purchased at thrift stores. The shelf itself is my favorite thing — it’s from the Bodhi Tree Bookstore here in L.A. It closed last year, but my boyfriend’s father co-owned it for more than 40 years! On the shelf is a great wolf or dog mask made by a kid. It has super-scary teeth and red eyes, but the best thing is the amazing glaze; I love the black dots. I wonder if it’s modeled after the kid’s own dog? I can’t imagine he liked his dog very much if this is how he sees it!

“On my bookshelf (below) I have more thrift finds, like a painting by Bertha Newman from 1950 (at least that’s what it says on the back). It’s reminiscent of Carmen Miranda, except the expression of her face is painful — she does not look happy to have fruit on her head. When I think about what inspires me, I like to think about people making things for themselves, not for an audience. That’s what I find most interesting about objects from the thrift store. I’m a fairly private person and really appreciate my solitude. It feels best to think of ideas when I imagine no one will ever see them. (Also on this shelf are pieces I made from extruded forms, one from a series of black clay sculptures and a small fan I threw together from scraps left over at the end of a studio day — maybe the next series?)”

What time of day do you create your best work?
“Whenever I can get to the studio. It doesn’t matter what time, I’m always ready.”

What’s going on in L.A. these days?
“An amazing Ken Price show at LACMA. Definitely check it out if you’re in town. Also, it’s getting cold. The air is really clear and dry, and it makes for beautiful hikes. You can see the Channel Islands from the mountains, it’s amazing.”

Are you competitive?
“Only with my sister. We get really serious about playing Uno, but we’re a good team too. We can cream anyone at Pictionary.”

What’s your personal style?
“I think my short hair is a signature look. I love slip-on shoes, but everything else is always changing. Today it’s penny loafers, a ‘90s JCrew skirt, and a ‘60s orange home-knit short-sleeve sweater.”
What’s your temperament?
“Usually quiet and shy. I would much rather listen than talk. Impatient and hyper when excited — I’m always thinking three steps ahead of where I am.”

How does it affect what you create?
“It makes me move really quickly, and not look back. I never get attached to any one object; when I look at things I’ve made I think of how I can make them better. Usually I have several pieces going at once, thinking about them all together and how I can make them all equally good, and about what’s next.”

What are you working on next?
“I’m making ceramic table lamps and experimenting with wall sconces. They’re sculptures first, and the light is just a bonus. Usually I work through new ideas with feeble attempts at constructing the thing, even if I think it won’t work. After making 10 or 15 of something I start to realize what needs to happen and what I want to have happen. Sometimes there will be a quick sketch, but I have to see something in 3-D before thinking about where it needs to go.”