LA Designer: Ben Medansky, Potting His Way From Arizona to Milan

This week thousands of furniture, lighting and product designers and buyers are gathering in Milan for the annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano. But how much does it matter to young Angeleno designers? Hear from ceramicist Ben Medansky maker of desert-inspired bowls, cups and marijuana pipes.

Milan-furniture-fairThis week thousands of furniture, lighting and product designers and buyers are gathering in Milan. They are there for the annual Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano or furniture fair, traditionally an essential date on the calendar for the design community globally.

But how much does the fair matter to young Angeleno designers?

Ben Medansky designs and makes distinctive ceramic cups, bowls and a personal specialty, pipes. Raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, educated at the Art Institute of Chicago, Medansky, 25, now lives and works in Silver Lake and is garnering growing attention for his work.

Now it is being shown, along with that of Tanya Aguiñiga and AQQ’s Matthew Sullivan, in an installation by BPM Studio called Più Alberi per la Città, one of the many offsite shows in Milan. 

As it happens, Medansky draws inspiration from the once hugely influential, postmodern Memphis group, which was based in Milan when that town and its annual fair dominated the design universe.

Ben Medansky at door of studioBut Medansky says that while he is pleased to have a presence there this year, he does not consider it essential for an independent designer in the age of the internet.

Read more about him, his thoughts on design shows, making ceramics ones b***h, and why it is “like Hanukkah” every time he opens his kiln.

DnA: How would you characterize your work?

Ben Medansky: I was trained as a fine artist but found myself making cups and bowls and pipes.

My work lies in the crosshairs between old world techniques, like throwing, and then I extrude tubes with my extruder, which is not new but is a newer process than throwing. Then in terms of the clay texture, it is very much of a reference to my upbringing in the desert sand of Arizona.

Growing up, I knew I could make art but I didn’t want to make Southwestern sculptures of cowboys and Native Americans. So to hold onto my Arizona heritage, I try to hold onto this raw, earthy body and leave parts unglazed so people know the pieces are from the earth.

I stick to a speckled, monochrome texture, the subtle-white tone which works in any number of environments. I like sticking to just black or white and lately hints of blue.

Ben Medansky, ceramic pipeDnA: Did you say pipes?

BM: My bread and butter is ceramic high-end marijuana pipes that I don’t sell in head shops. A lot of nice fashion boutiques are selling ceramics — because homewares are very in right now — and reading the market as to where my audience is, it seems to be at with the legalization everywhere, marijuana pipes are the one niche not filled by other artists and ceramicists. I’m the only one making nice ceramic pipes that are selling at stores like Assembly in New York, and 10 Over 6 and Lawson-Fenning in LA.

DnA: Do you use the pipes yourself and do they work?

BM. Yes. I read about a guy who was designing purses and gave them away to his friends who happened to be writers and elite women in the fashion industry and he got great feedback and that helped the design. I made 30 of the pipes and gave them all away, and would hear feedback like the hole needs to be bigger.

Ben Medansky cup and jugDnA: What got you started in ceramics?

BM: I started doing ceramics in an arts high school in Arizona; I had an amazing ceramics teacher there.

Then I moved to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinking I’d focus on painting and film but spent most of my early college years doing furniture and product design. But then I went to a sister school of SAIC called Ox-Bow (meaning bend in river) in Michegan. It was heaven — a place for artists to create and be fed and go to studio all day and make stuff. I started getting heavily into ceramics while I was there.

Then I kind of fell in love with it, I never get sick of, and can see myself doing it until I’m a 100 years old. I fill up my kiln every week and think this will be the best thing I’ve ever done, and then see it’s maybe the 7th or 8th and that I can start over and the next will be my best.

It’s like Hanukkah every time I open up the kiln.

DnA: Are you Jewish and do you consider Jonathan Adler in any way a role model?

BM: Yes, and I love Jonny Adler, my mom shows me his stuff and wants me to be like him. In terms of how I see his work evolving, however, his work is not competition.

I’m very much about getting everything made in America, by me, in Los Angeles. Jonny has his products made overseas, using slipcasting – that’s the process whereby you pour liquid clay into a plaster mould and then it sits for time and develops a skin. Then you pour out the rest of the clay and it leaves the form. It’s how toilets are made, and all the ceramics at Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, and Ikea. I don’t slipcast because it’s important to me to create unique, one-of-a-kind pieces.

Ben-in-studio-glazing-300x300Back in the day everybody wanted nice things, then Ikea came along and people could get nicely designed things inexpensively. Now, since our last great depression, when people are going to spend their money on something they want pieces with a story.

People pay more to have something that lasts a little longer.

So I don’t use moulds to do slipcasting. I make each cup on the wheel, so you find subtle imperfections and unique personality on each one.

DnA: So you are not interested in mass-production?

BM: High production for me is 50 pieces; if somebody wants a set of cups I produce about 50 cups. For the most part I produce ones or twos or threes of a piece. I like to try to make completely different collections for each store, even if it’s a different color or a different handle. That’s something I couldn’t offer working in the wholesale industry.

I worked in wholesale for a while and the other thing I found is that by the time we got a shipment back from the manufacturers overseas the next booth would have gone to the same factory and copied our pieces. By the time I started my company I wanted to produce a new line per month so I’d always be ahead.

DnA: How do set yourself apart from the many ceramicists working today?

IMG_694A lot of ceramicists are doing custom-made and one-of-a-kind pieces; I do the same but they are also good and well-designed and functional.

A lot of ceramicists make ceramics their b***h; meaning the artist doesn’t give a f**k and slops everything together and works quickly and gesturally that is about being raunchy and raw and seeing the seams of the mold. That works well for Art with a capital A. But in this new generation of art versus craft versus design I think it’s important to make things that are beautiful and well-made.

If future archeologists dig up ceramics and architecture from our time, I want to be part of the legacy of bowls and buildings that are beautiful and have lasted beautifully.

DnA: Tell us about the Milan Furniture Fair; is this your first time participating?

BM: I didn’t know they had this whole design industry show until I was asked to do this. This is my first time; but just the word “Milan” and saying it drew me into it. I think Milan is one of those hub cities, it gives this essence of what we should care about because it’s Milan.

DnA: Milan is a huge date on the design calendar in Europe, but not so much for LA-based designers, it seems.

BM: I think that has something to do with the economy right now. Shipping to Milan is very expensive; I think people are more interested in the shows in New York and LA and then Art Basel in Miami depending on which market you are aiming at.

It is much more economical to ship domestically, and I thought it was better to focus on connecting with US buyers to begin with.

PeterShire_BigSurSofa_1982DnA: So will you be at ICFF (New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair)?

BM: No, I’m a bit burned out on shows right now. I like the exposure from a show but it’s a lot of work shipping out and hoping we sell something. Unless you are a huge company it doesn’t make sense financially. I think shows were great before Instagram and social media and Facebook but they are no longer so necessary. My Instagram account is an essential part of my business; it keeps people aware of what I’m doing every day in the studio.

Everybody curates their own lives now and shows it on Instagram and on Facebook and every few days I get tagged with an image of people drinking from one of my cups.

DnA: You worked with Peter Shire and you cite him and Memphis as influences. Tell us more about the postmodern revival.

BM: I’m 25 so when we were growing up we would see these design shapes on TV shows like Saved By The Bell, Zoom, Full House and Rocko’s Modern Life.

And then postmodern design got a bad rap in the late 90’s and early ‘oughts and was seen as cheesy. Now my generation sees it as fresh and new and playful. I loved working for Peter Shire, he is always a proponent of fun things, beautiful things; he’s not interested in the grungy bad art I was telling you about.

Medansky installation in MilanBefore all this post-Memphis work was being made, it was very much about the new desert cities aesthetics; it was about Navajo patterns and cowboys and flat matte black. Now it’s about playful colors and referencing Ettore Sottass and Memphis.

But with my work I’m trying to stand out among Memphis-inspired designers and make sure I pull from other influences as well. My studio is behind a power plant and there are all these gears and motors and the new LED lights and I’ve been making things with fins and flanges in references to those things.

DnA: In Milan your work sits alongside that of AQQ’s Matthew Sullivan and Tanya Aguiñiga between cutout wooden trees. The installation is called Più Alberi per la Città (More Tress for the City) and was organized by Fabrizio Bertero, principal of BPM Studio in Milan. What is that about?

trees exhibit in milanBM: They didn’t tell us much about that when we making the show. They were about to take a bunch of trees down in Milan and there weren’t many trees in the city anyway. So Fabrizio and team made cutout trees and our work is placed within them. It’s a symbolic statement but having lived in Chicago I support efforts to make sure there is green space; it’s important in any metropolitan area.

Images, clockwise from top: Crowds gather for the annual Milan Furniture Fair; Ben Medansky at the door of his studio, holding one of his jugs; jugs by Ben Medansky; vessels/blue tubes by Ben Medansky; Medansky’s work shown inside the installation in Milan: exterior of Più Alberi per la Città installation in Milan; Peter Shire’s Big Sur Sofa_1982; Ben Medansky glazing in his Silverlake studio; Peace/Blue Braille by Ben Medansky.