Give some plants a mortgage-free ceramics home

A row of homes in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood with possible planter potential. (Mollie Rotmensch/MEDILL)

By Mollie Rotmensch
Medill Reports

Katie Lauffenburger is sculpting a new Chicago, but no moving in unless you’re a Crown Jewel shrub. This city of ceramic abodes is less than a foot tall – perfect digs for plants, the terraria will just bloom at first sight. Lauffenburger recreates every scrupulous detail of classic Chicago homes into planters.

The formally trained artist traded a computer desk for one with slabs of clay 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-flats and workers cottages. The months long waitlist for Lauffenburger’s planters is only growing, as is the chief ceramicist’s relief for buying a bigger kiln to accommodate commissions for her city gems.

Lauffenburger talks ceramic process and future hopes.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.

What made you see Chicago’s homes as planters?
I have a lot of house plants, but I don’t see a lot of planters with tons of flair. People love their house plants and love to have decorative vessels to hold them. It’s something beautiful to look at — but the fact it serves a purpose in their daily lives, I think people enjoy that.

And your designs are so precise. Tell me more about the detail.
I feel like I’m unconventional in my ceramic. People might think of ceramics as the wheel-throwing process, which is very organic. My approach is different — I use a lot of rulers and do a lot of measuring up. It’s tedious, but I enjoy it. Maybe architecture in ceramics doesn’t have to be so perfect, you could certainly make it more free, but I really want the spirit of the buildings. Chicago’s residential architecture, like the two-flats, have such a grand-like weight to them. I want to capture the craftsmanship of the original homes.

Why do the finer details, like porches, complicate ceramics?
Some of the hardest things about (Chicago) homes are beveled edges. I’m hoping I can template that once I figure out the best way (the edges) work. But having angled planes join in various ways is challenging. When there are porches with complicated columns, ceramics becomes almost more science than art. Frankly, it can be hard to do porch columns. They’re really small and need to dry a certain amount to stand up and support themselves while you try to put them in place. But you need to shimmy them in and make sure to join them well enough so they won’t crack. The smaller you work, the harder it is.

When have you needed to restart a ceramic?
I’ve never had a kiln failure where a piece explodes or had a piece melt. None of those major disasters. I’ve had cracks, which are devastating, but not to the point I couldn’t save the ceramic. The ceramic medium seems to have a memory, so it’s frustrating when cracks appear and almost impossible to make them go away. You can put epoxy in cracks or mediate them a little. Depending on how dry the pieces and how far along you are, you sometimes can cut an area larger than where the crack is and then rejoin a piece in the crack to fix it. But if you have a crack form on a seam, there’s sometimes no getting rid of it. It will keep coming back even if you try to fill it. The houses take so long that I really try to be careful and not make mistakes — it’d be so heartbreaking.

How big is the kiln?
It might be 8 or 9 cubic feet. It’s pretty beefy, but the kiln dealer that I bought it through helped me. He told me it’s best to buy a kiln for where you hope to be in five years — better to grow into it rather than out of it. It’s probably a bit more than I need right now, but I can already see the trajectory of being thankful for the space.

And what is your favorite Chicago building?
One favorite is Louis Sullivan’s Krause Music Store building in Lincoln Square. For such a monumental figure in architecture, I love that it’s a rather humbly sized building nestled into a commercial stretch of a rather humble neighborhood. When it was built, it was not nestled in, however. I don’t believe there were buildings on either side of it at the time. The entire façade is clad in gorgeous terra cotta, and I love the color. The building’s been for sale for a while, and it’d be a dream to be able to buy it and have it as a live work studio.

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