Fashionable, functional, and funny probably aren't the first words that come to mind when you think about ceramics - maybe because it's a craft so antiquated that it can be traced back to the prehistoric era, or maybe because most of us simply don't know much about the art of ceramics beyond seeing them in museums, restaurants, storefronts and the side tables of well-curated homes. But with the rise of young, fashion-forward ceramicists like Re Jin ("RJ") Lee, handmade ceramics are officially trending in a way that's chic and accessible. RJ recently welcomed us into her Brooklyn-based design studio, BDB, where we watched her hand-build plates and learned how a prehistoric method and medium can still be executed in a modern yet personal way. BDB makes functional pieces that not only add a little bit of flair, but a little bit of someone else's story and personality to our daily lives, especially at the dining table. As you'll read below, we also learned from RJ that you really don't have to know all the nuances of slab-rolling and air bubble-popping to appreciate the art of ceramics - it's as simple as being human enough to appreciate the human touch.
What was your career in fashion like before you started BDB?
In 2001, I moved to LA to become a fashion designer. I gradually realized that while I loved fashion, I wasn’t nearly as passionate as the designers around me, so I tried styling instead. I assisted a celebrity stylist for a month, and decided that maybe this was supposed to be my niche. I got turned down by a bunch of styling jobs in New York and was ready to give up until I finally got an offer from a random, unidentified Craigslist ad that turned out to be Harper’s Bazaar. That internship led me to work full-time for another stylist, but it still didn't feel 100% right. My boss lived and breathed her job – she’d willingly work from 7am to midnight because she was that passionate about it, but I just didn’t feel the same way.
Production assistant Alicia Rocchino cuts out patterns in the BDB studio. The shelves display samples from BDB's most recent collection, No. 216.
When did you realize that ceramics was meant to be your niche instead of fashion?
I thought about everyone I knew who loved their work so much that they didn't care about skipping meals or losing sleep for it. I realized that what they all had in common was raw talent, and I just didn’t have that in styling. This was now 2008, and the only talent I felt I had at the time was being able to draw, but I knew that was a competitive space. So I thought, why not draw on things that people actually use? So I bought discounted dinnerware from the restaurant supplies stores on Bowery, and drew on mugs, saucers, and tiny dessert plates with a porcelain pen. I heard about Etsy, which was very new at the time, and I used it to set up my own online shop. Every piece I posted sold, and I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I started to make my own ceramics, textiles, and paper goods, and was still juggling fashion to make income on the side, until a friend’s dad advised that it was foolish to try to do it all, and that I’d be better off being really good at just one thing. I eventually realized he was right, so I ditched everything in 2011 to just focus on ceramics. I knew this was my passion back then, but I feel even stronger about my work now.
What has carried over from your experience in fashion to BDB?
I choose to hand-build my ceramics using slabs, rather than use the wheel or do slip-casting. It's not the easiest method, but I like the aesthetic of my pieces being hand-built, like my mugs, and no other technique can make them look like that. In a way, the process of hand-building is similar to what I did in fashion, where I’d make patterns for clothes. Here, we design the pattern and cut out those patterns in slabs as if they’re fabric. It’s kind of like I was meant to use this method but I just went for the wrong medium at first, and I finally found the right one.
Fashion has also influenced how I think about and present each ceramics collection. When you do a fashion show, you include a statement piece, your underpinnings, different textures, and so on. I use the same approach with my ceramics – I know certain pieces won’t sell, but I make them to make a statement and draw attention. I sell the way I would in fashion too – I do mostly wholesale, and present my collections at tradeshows where I give people a limited amount of time for orders to take place. After that, you can’t get those items from me anymore, and I move onto the next collection. There isn’t a ton of BDB around – and that’s the point. I don’t like seeing the same work everywhere, and I think stores appreciate that, knowing they have a limited amount of a certain line and that they’ll see something new every season.
Examples of past seasonal collections from BDB that are no longer in production. [Photography by John Molloy]
What's the story behind the name, "BDB"?
When I first got my dog, I’d hide her in my bag to sneak her into my styling jobs. If anyone spotted her, my first instinct was to reassure them by saying, “Bailey doesn’t bark! She doesn’t bark!”. Anyway, we'd get up together at 5am to go to these jobs, and I remember thinking that I want to be able to set my own schedule and be my own boss, and choose who I want around me when I work. So Bailey was actually a major motivation to quit fashion and do something on my own. That’s why I used her name.
How has the aesthetic of BDB changed over time since you started on Etsy?
I started off with very simple lines and a lot of nature-oriented themes. I drew trees, branches, and birds... the whole “Put a Bird On it” joke wasn’t out yet, although the birds did sell! Anyway, I’d also draw tiny little ants on plates and mugs – cockroaches too, although I don’t even know why… for shock value? When I drew a tea bag in a mug, that was a hit too. A bit of humor always shows up in my work – like with my eyelash and lip plates – but I’m trying to grow up and get a little more serious. I’m very inspired by old, vintage antiques, because I love things that look imperfect or as if they’ve just sat there for hundreds of years. So I strive for a timeless look, but I inevitably seem to add a little bit of humor and cheesiness.
How has growing up in Brazil and your Korean heritage influenced your work?
Being exposed to so much Brazilian culture and architecture and being raised in a Korean household surrounded by my mom’s ceramic and art collections all come out somehow in my work, although not necessarily literally. I believe that I absorb everything I see and experience, and it stays in a mental library until it finds some way to reemerge again in my work.
What goes into making a piece, from start to finish?
The first thing I do is sit down, look at some sketches I've made, and just get started – the ideas and inspiration for design come to me throughout the process. Our main machine is the slab roller. So we'll roll out a slab of stoneware clay, cut out the patterns we've designed, hand-build each piece for 1-3 hours, and let them dry using a slow-dry process. Drying takes from 1-2 weeks based on the size and shape of each design along with the weather, so timing really varies. Once the pieces are completely dry, we load the kiln and fire it. It's really expensive to fire the kiln, so we try to fill it with as many pieces as we can each time. It takes about 12 hours to cook, 12-16 hours to cool down, and then after that we glaze it, decorate it, and then put them through another firing. It’s a really long process. Not many people realize that it takes about 3-4 weeks from start to finish. So when I get requests asking me to make something by tomorrow, I’m like, "Hmm… no, I’m not a miracle worker!"!
Each clay slab is carefully rolled out, compressed and then meticulously poked to remove any tiny air bubbles before they are cut into patterns.
Which has been your most popular piece?
My best-seller of all time that really put me on the map were my ring cones, which I started around 2013 when I started watching Game of Thrones. Everything in that show – the aesthetics, shapes, costumes, characters – all really inspired me. You see the velvet or plastic ring cones in jewelry stores all the time, so I thought, why not design a pretty ceramic cone that people can use? So I started making these little guys, and the designs were inspired by the characters Khal Drogo and Khaleesi.
BDB's most popular item is the ring cone, shown here at different stages from start to finish.
Do you have any thoughts on how you culivate your own lifestyle?
I think it makes a difference to use handmade things. I’m a firm believer that eating is very visual, and what you see can influence how you feel while you’re eating. Not everything I own is handmade, but I really enjoy using plates, bowls, mugs, anything, made by people – whether they’re friends or strangers. I love the feeling of drinking tea in a mug that someone else made by hand. I made my son a ceramic colander for his strawberries, because he loves strawberries. It just makes the experience feel more human, knowing that you’re touching something borne from someone’s passion, and that there’s a story behind it. I have an intern who told me about another ceramicist she’s working for, and the next day at brunch, I noticed a plate that was really pretty. I flipped it over to see who made it, and saw that it was Jono Pandolfi, the very ceramicist she had just mentioned to me. That made that meal extra special, knowing that I had some kind of connection to the plate right in front of me – little things like that can make a difference at the table.
Studio Snapshot - Re Jin Lee
Achilles heel for procrastinating: hunger. If I’m hungry, forget about it, I can’t do anything!
Design quirk: I always put a few drops of essential oils on some driftwood by me. The scents rotate, but I mostly use mint or lavender.
I can’t live without: any of my potter tools.
I wish I could get rid of: my computer, it’s pesky and it really stresses me out. But I guess I need it to fulfill orders...!