Recreation Center’s Ceramics

There’s a kind of genius in the way that Josephine Heilpern runs her ceramics studio, Recreation Center. Maybe not in the fact that she does everything — from designing to fabricating to filling orders — 100% on her own, with no help, running herself perpetually (yet gleefully) ragged, but more in how she knows exactly when to keep things simple versus when to let her imagination run wild. In the three years since she’s been making the mugs, lamps, and mobiles we’ve been fortunate enough to stock in our online shop, she’s barely changed her design formula, hewing to basic shapes and consistent patterns that resist becoming tiresome with daily use, yet on her site and her popular Instagram feed, she markets those objects with all the visual pizzazz of a 28-year-old raised on internet culture. When we invited her to shoot some of her creations exclusively for Sight Unseen, she turned up the styling charm, busting out the dollar-store props and studio scraps to bring her aesthetic vision to life.

Says Heilpern: “I’ve always been interested in making functional objects. I do like decorative pieces too, but I prefer items that are used every day. When I get an email or Instagram message from someone saying they woke up that day and used my mug, it’s so insanely important and amazing — that a random stranger can be like, you made this, and it makes my morning better. I went to school for art at Cooper Union, where I was painting and drawing for awhile, and then studied mostly printmaking. While I’m still involved in the art world — I work at art fairs and at a print studio — the design world always felt friendlier and more interesting to me. To be able to make something inexpensive that someone can actually use is of more value to me than to be a painter and sell paintings for thousands of dollars.

“So honestly the ideal way that I would want my work to be seen is in real life, being used — when I make these little still lives it’s more about color and pattern, and my obsession with arranging things, which goes back to my childhood. My mom still makes fun of me by bringing up these pictures of me as a kid where I’d piled all these socks up in a particular way. When I first started as a teenager thinking I was going to be an artist, I was constantly making still-life paintings, and my favorite part was creating the setups. Now, during times when I don’t want to throw or glaze, I make little arrangements. And my whole house is like that! There are still lives on every surface. Now that everyone’s a photographer because of iPhones and Instagram, of course, it lets me obsess in that way even more. I can spend hours doing it.

“My process when I make them is never really thought out in advance. I start by going to a flower shop and buying flowers I like, then to the dollar store, where I get most of my props. (That’s another obsession of mine from childhood – my mom always took me to dollar stores and I was always buying tchotchkes.) In my studio I keep a ton of objects, pieces of paper I’ve collected, scrap materials — I love going to Home Depot and spending hours there looking for functional materials, like a cool piece of ceiling I just bought. The banana in these images is something I’ve had for years and have no idea where it came from, and there’s a comb I bought at a dollar store. I like really weirdly designed objects that are really simple, but also serve a function, like the sponges. The brick pieces are ceramic tiles that I made for my studio floor out of leftover red clay. I take all these objects and I just play for hours.

“My style has changed so much since I started Recreation Center, not in what I make but in how I present it – these photos are so different from what I used to do. The cutouts and the colors are new; in the beginning I was doing a lot of photos outside with bricks or pieces of concrete I found around the backyard. For this project I crafted the images a little more, and made them less straightforward. It’s fun for me to have an excuse to go out, buy things, come back, lay them all out, analyze everything I have, and work from there.”
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