Tetra maker Ninon Choplin first started playing with clay as a child hanging out in their grandmother's art studio in France, where they were born and raised. But it wasn't until emigrating to the U.S. at 16, graduating from RISD, and moving to Los Angeles that they took their first proper ceramics class, and — under the studio name Neenineen — started making colorful and playful pipes inspired by their love of childrens' toys. "You look at them and instantly get a smile on your face and feel like a kid again," they told Design Milk in an interview last spring.
When we first started carrying Choplin's Tobogan Pipe, though, we saw something decidedly sophisticated — a curved, tubular form in perfect lock-step with the current design vernacular, executed in just the right proportion, and with the kind of functional clarity that makes a pipe truly exceptional to smoke from. We asked Choplin if we could remake the Tobogan in glass, and luckily for us they said yes, the transparent Elbow Pipe quickly becoming one of our best-sellers.
This week we've welcomed another of Choplin's creations to the family: The Grenadine Bubbler — Tetra's first (mini) water pipe — in sleek, chic, all-over black. We decided to mark the occasion by interviewing Choplin about their process, their studio, and of course, their favorite smoking ritual.
When did you know you wanted to do something creative, and how did you get started in your current practice?
My interest in fine arts started when I was really young. I was lucky to spend a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid. They both got into art after retiring and always had some clay, paint, or even soap stone laying around for me to play with.
After high school I studied industrial design at RISD, where I learned a lot about wood and metal work. It was only a few years later that I finally got to take a ceramic class in L.A., and as cheesy as it might sound, I truly fell in love with clay!
How would you summarize your approach to your work and your materials?
Most of my design work happens in my head, long before I get my hands in clay. I’ll play around with ideas without putting down a sketch for a few weeks, and when it feels like it’s getting close, I’ll either do a quick doodle or play with it on a 3-D modeling software. Finally when the dimensions and quirks are all figured out, I build a prototype. I really admire people who can just improvise with a lump of clay. I tend to get stage fright in those situations!
What’s the hardest thing about working with your hands, and what’s the most gratifying?
The hardest thing about working with my hands is that my work can't travel with me. Ceramic work can be very time-sensitive; if you leave a piece to dry even a half-day too long it might be ruined. It makes taking vacation or even long weekends difficult sometimes.
On the other hand, I'm never happier than when I get to work with my hands. Being able to mold a piece of clay from nothing to the perfect amount of curves and edges still feels magical every day.
Did you ever have an epic fail, and what did you learn from it?
This question made me laugh a lot — ceramic work is 50% fail! But I think that’s what keeps me interested. I don’t have words to express the devastating feeling of opening the kiln to find out that something went wrong. But time and time again I find that the happiness of finally fixing the issue totally makes up for it.
What’s been inspiring you lately?
I’ve been obsessed with toddlers' toys for over a year now. I love the colors and simple, blocky shapes! Silly straws and lava lamps also have a special place in my heart.
What’s a typical day like in your studio?
I spend most of my days making pieces for orders. I can’t say that there's any specific order of operation, but in general my day falls into one of these categories: throwing, slip casting, trimming, glazing, or packing. I usually group orders so that I can do all of each tasks at a time. Some days I'm lucky to get help from my assistant and friend Jordan, and on those days we usually listen to Harry Potter on tape!
What’s your studio like itself? And what are your favorite objects in the studio?
My studio is in my garage. It isn’t the prettiest to look at but is definitely my favorite place to be. My favorite object in this summer heat is definitely my industrial Vornado fan! I also recently got some new Hoka One One studio slides and swear by them.
What’s your smoking ritual?
I usually prefer smoking later at night when I am done working. My partner and I have an extensive collection of smokeware at home. From samples to trades with friends, we have somewhere around 12 different pieces to choose from. It’s always fun to decide which piece we’re in the mood for!
Lately we’ve been using the bubbler a lot; I really like how smooth the smoke is when it gets filtered through water. It’s a game changer these days with the air quality in southern California.