Give some plants a mortgage-free ceramic home

By Mollie Rotmensch
Medill Reports

Katie Lauffenburger is sculpting a new Chicago, but no move-in unless she’s a Crown Jewel shrub. This city of ceramic mansions is less than a foot tall – perfect digs for plants, terrariums will bloom at first sight. Lauffenburger recreates every scrupulous detail of classic Chicago homes in window boxes.

The formally trained artist swapped a computer desk for one with clay slabs in 2020, when she left nine years in digital media to start Wonder City Studio with illustrator-husband Phil Thompson. While Lauffenburger is sometimes known as “The Bungalow Lady”, her repertoire also includes two-bedroom apartments and worker’s cottages. The months-long waiting list for Lauffenburger planters is only getting longer, as is the chief ceramist’s relief at having bought a bigger kiln to meet orders for her gems from around town.

Lauffenburger talks about the ceramic process and future hopes.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

What made you see Chicago houses as planters?
I have lots of houseplants, but I don’t see many planters with much style. People love their indoor plants and like to have decorative containers to hold them. It’s something beautiful to look at – but the fact that it serves something in their daily lives, I think people like that.

And your drawings are so precise. Tell me more about the detail.
I feel like I’m unconventional in my ceramics. People might think of ceramics as the process of wheel throwing, which is very organic. My approach is different – I use a lot of rulers and do a lot of measurements. It’s tedious, but I like it. Maybe the ceramic architecture doesn’t need to be so perfect, it could definitely be made more free, but I really want the spirit of the buildings. Chicago’s residential architecture, like the two apartments, carries such a grand weight. I want to capture the know-how of the original houses.

Why do finer details, like porches, complicate ceramics?
Some of the hardest things about (Chicago) houses are the beveled edges. Hopefully I can make a model once I find the best way (edges) to work. But getting inclined planes to meet in different ways is a challenge. When there are porches with intricate columns, ceramics becomes almost more of a science than an art. Frankly, it can be tricky to make porch columns. They are really small and need to dry out quite a bit to stand up and support themselves while you are trying to get them into place. But you have to embed them and make sure you join them well enough so they don’t crack. The smaller you work, the harder it is.

When did you need to restart a ceramic?
I have never had an oven failure where a part explodes or melts a part. None of these major disasters. I had cracks, which are devastating, but not to the point where the ceramic couldn’t be saved. The ceramic medium seems to have a memory, so it’s frustrating when cracks appear and nearly impossible to get them to go away. You can put epoxy in the cracks or mediate them a bit. Depending on how dry the parts are and how far away you are, you can sometimes cut an area larger than where the crack is and then join a part into the crack to fix it. But if you have a crack on a seam, it is sometimes impossible to get rid of it. It will come back even if you try to fill it. The houses take so long that I really try to be careful and not make any mistakes – it would be so heartbreaking.

What is the size of the oven?
It could be 8 or 9 cubic feet. It’s pretty tough, but the oven dealer I bought it from helped me out. He told me it’s better to buy an oven for where you hope to be in five years – better to grow up there than out of it. It’s probably a little more than I need right now, but I can already see the trajectory of being grateful for the space.

And what is your favorite building in Chicago?
A favorite is Louis Sullivan’s Krause Music Store building in Lincoln Square. For such a monumental figure in architecture, I like that it’s a rather humble sized building tucked away in a commercial part of a rather humble neighborhood. When it was built, however, it was not tucked away. I don’t believe there were buildings on either side at the time. The whole facade is covered with a beautiful terracotta and I love the color. The building has been for sale for some time, and it would be a dream to be able to buy it and have it as a live work studio.

Mollie Rotmensch is a graduate magazine student at Medill. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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