The Chronicle

Studio Visit: Ben Medansky

Just four years after striking out on his own, Ben Medansky has become one of the most talked-about names in ceramics, bringing elements of techno-futurism to a primitive, lo-fi form. The L.A.-based designer creates striking, clean-lined silhouettes that almost feel like miniature works of architecture — which makes sense, since the cityscape serves as one of his key inspirations. Medansky was also one of the first — perhaps the first — influential contemporary designer to get into making pipes, which he refers to as "instruments of peace." He recently received the prestigious Rising Talent award from the Maison & Objet design fair, at which he will be feted in Miami later this year.

On the eve of the Sight Unseen OFFSITE design fair in New York — at which Tetra will debut Medansky's new Scope Tray, among other pieces — we caught up with Medansky at his airy 3000-square-foot Downtown L.A. studio to talk ideas, inspiration, and iced coffee. 

How would you describe your work?

My aesthetic is always in flux. I think it’s been maybe been about six months to a year in this particular motif or theme. Right now I’m obsessed with the super-refined industrial look. Before that I was working in more amorphous shapes. My work flexes between very refined and very smooth and then I’ll shift gears and make things that look like mountains or body parts; other times it will look like machine parts or rocket components.

Why did you start making pipes?

Every pipe I had ever seen was kind of rainbowy and hippie-dippie, I guess, and I could make things and I wanted my own design. Because I’m a designer, I feel like it’s my job to design everything around me. I gave away the first 30 of them — different sizes and shapes. I was able to hear back instantly from my friends that the bowl needs to be bigger or smaller, that kind of thing. The pipes I make are extruded. You put the clay in the barrel and you squeeze it out and then you’ve got long rods or hollow tubes or different parts that I can cut out and attach and make into different forms. 

What inspires you? 

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of mindfulness meditation and noticing the unseen world around me — the features we pass by every day, like air vents and sewer lids. It's something to do with living in California and thinking about the environment all the time. I love things that have slats in them. Radial fin symmetry on the outside of LED bulbs, shower drains, heat sinks... I try to replicate that in a lot of the ceramics I’m producing.

I'm from Scottsdale, Arizona, and I think that kind of plays into the texture of the clay that I use — I like sandy, desert-like clay because it reminds me of home. So it's between the desert and the big city and driving downtown all day. A huge part of my inspiration is Downtown L.A. and how it’s just growing and growing. I think my work might look a little different if I were out in the countryside in nature. I’ll drive by a building like the Ahmanson Theater, and now we’re starting to make sculptures of certain architectural elements that that place has.

And just understanding how important a studio practice has been — to go in every day whether I know what doing or not, bad mood or not, just going into the studio and seeing what can happen. And that allowed me to experiment a lot early on and learn how to maintain flow. Having flow is super-essential in ceramics because things are on a timeline of drying and firing and glazing.

What's a typical day like in the studio?

I usually go get a coffee at G&B or Shreeb's, a new cold brew place that’s in a shipping container. They’ve got a really good horchata iced coffee. I’ll come into the studio, wander around and look at everything, and then I meet with everybody in my crew — there are five of us — and we figure out what we’re going to do. Every day is totally different because that’s the life of an artist. Some days we’re designing new pieces, sometimes we’re working on production, sometimes we’re glazing, sometimes we’re working on web content or Instagram. It’s crazy that that’s part of the job description.

We listen to podcasts like Radiolab and This American Life. We usually go get lunch at some taco truck or go to the Korean market and get bibimbop. Everybody has ceramic knowledge, even the two girls who work at the front desk doing emails and graphics and shipping. And there's archiving and photographing. As soon as something that comes out of the kiln we make sure to archive it, because you never know if you’re going to sell it or if it’s going to break. 

What's your smoking ritual?

I like the Flume that I make for like during the afternoon or when I’m on the go or at a park, and just usually one hit from that is good. I like listening to KCRW or classical station and that kind of lets me focus in. But I try not to ritualize it too much. 

 Photos by Jennica Johnstone