Artistic differences might seem like an automatic red flag for any creative collaboration, but Brooklyn-based design studio Franca is founded on the very concept of embracing a common passion for design between two very different designers. Franca's founders, Jazmin de la Guardia and Sierra Yip-Bannicq, channel their multi-cultural backgrounds and diverse experiences to create playful yet thoughtfully designed, fully functional ceramicware with a universal appeal. We paid a visit to their impeccably organized studio, where we chatted with Sierra and Jazmin about the inspiration and vision behind Franca, along with their plans to eventually launch a collective that will collaborate with artisans from around the globe.
What led you two to start Franca?
S: We met in drawing class on our first day at Pratt, back in 2009. We instantly hit it off. Jazmin studied printmaking while I majored in industrial design and after graduation, we got jobs in our respective fields. After a few years of experience, we realized we wanted be our own bosses and start our own studio together. It made sense for us to start off with ceramics because I'd been slipcasting since Pratt, and it was something Jazmin was really interested in. But we’re going to expand into other materials soon.
What did you originally envision for Franca?
S: We want our stuff to be affordable. Everything is handmade in Brooklyn, so it's not priced like Ikea, but it's also not going to be in an unattainable, super high-end price range. We've always wanted our designs to feel accessible without losing their high-quality look and feel.
J: That's also why it made more sense to slipcast versus handbuild our ceramics. Handbuilding would be really fun, but it's a much slower process and we'd have to charge a lot more for our pieces, and that would undermine the accessibility. We really want to focus on making Franca as accessible as we can.
How did you come up with the name "Franca"?
J: The name "Franca" comes from the term, “lingua franca”, which refers to the common language used between people who don't otherwise share a native language. Sierra is half-French, half-Chinese and grew up in Beijing, whereas I'm half-Uruguayan, half-Cuban and was born in Paraguay. So for us, we see "Franca" as a bridge between the two of us, in light of our diverse backgrounds. We were both lucky enough to travel a lot while growing up and those experiences have deeply influenced and inspired every aspect of what is now Franca. We eventually plan on collaborating with artisans from all over the world, and use our passion for design and craft as our own "lingua franca".
Where do you get your design inspiration from?
J: We like playful and high-contrast patterns. Our Finca collection represents the three original designs that Franca started off with: the dot, the eye, and the Uma. The eye was a symbol we've both been to drawn to since an early age, and it's also so universal. It resonates with a lot of cultures, and you see it in both ancient and modern art. When we introduce new patterns, like our speckled higher-contrast collection, we make sure that the aesthetic is cohesive within the collection, and with Franca as a whole.
S: Uma is by far our best-selling pattern, with the eye as a close second. For anyone who follows us on social media or just knows us in general, they know it’s Uma, so I think that makes them more excited about having a dog mug, especially if they’re an animal lover.
How collaborative is the design process?
J: We’re so different from one another, but we know each other's aesthetic so well that it's very complementary to work with each other. We design and sketch everything together, and make sure that we're both on board for every detail.
S: There are so many details that have taken months to fine-tune, like figuring out which clear glaze works for which clay body, what the right casting times are, and so on. We’ve finally gotten into a really good rhythm of things. So if one of us can't be at the studio for a few days, the other one can easily carry on alone and not slow down production at all.
How would you characterize the structural aesthetic of Franca?
S: We try to keep things minimal but not so minimalist that we restrict ourselves to one type of shape. We’re drawn to geometric forms so a lot of our pieces have an angular, geometric element, but our dinnerware is a softer collection in terms of the curves we use. We’re still trying to work out a balance between organic and man-made forms.
J: Functionality is also really important for us. We don’t want our pieces to end up as something too precious or fragile for you to use. We really want to make things for people to incorporate into their everyday lives. If you buy a Franca cup, we want it to become your cup that you use, and that you touch.
S: We get really excited when we see photos of how our customers are using Franca items in their home – whether it’s their morning coffee in our mug, or our vase with cute flowers in it. The vases – like the Costa series – hold water and are meant to hold flowers, they’re not meant to just be decorative. If we didn’t want them to hold water we wouldn’t glaze the inside of them.
Can you walk us through the process for building one piece?
S: First we layout the design using rough sketches by hand and then by technical, digital drawings to workout all the dimensions and measurements. We make a positive out of that design, usually out of clay, plaster or a 3-D print, and then we make a plaster mold off of that. Moldmaking in itself is an intense process. It takes at least a day to make a good mold, and about a week after it dries, we start casting it on a regular basis. To slipcast, we pour the slip (liquid clay) into the mold, set a timer depending on however thick we want the piece, and when it's time, we flip the mold upside down and pour the remaining liquid slip back into the bucket. We let the shell of clay left behind in the mold dry, and later that day we'll trim and clean up the piece. Slipcasting is that process of pouring liquid clay into the molds and cleaning them up afterwards. "Greenware" is what you call the clay pieces once they've been shaped but haven't yet been fired. Once we put them in the kiln, we fire them once to a lower temperature for strengthening, at which point they're called "bisqueware", and after that, we glaze it and fire it to a higher temperature. That's when it's a finished ceramic.
What's the typical time spent for one piece?
J: Assuming you have a mold already made, it would take about a week for us to complete a cup that we cast today. It's quicker in the summer because everything dries faster, whereas it takes so much longer when it's damp and cooler in the winter. We do batch runs of things though, especially to deal with our wholesale orders. So we’ll cast all the cups one day, all the bottles the next, and then all the plates after.
What do you do to culivate your lifestyles?
S: I have a big ceramics collection in my kitchen cabinet from both friends and my travels, and I remember where I got each one. So whenever I use each piece to eat or drink, I really appreciate the memory behind it. The same goes the other way. I’ve given a lot of serving bowls to my sisters and friends in Brooklyn, and I love seeing them actually use the pieces when I go to their homes. It’s nice to see things in-use and not just sitting on a shelf for decoration, which goes back to the important of functionality for Franca.
J: There’s a big culture of trading among artisans around here. So I'll often give someone a set of our bowls, and that person will give me whatever it is that they make – or paint or design. We share a similar design aesthetic with our friends and other people we meet at fairs and elsewhere. All those things we give and receive becomes a part of our own story, and someone else's – however you end up using it. I love that our plates and mugs become part of someone else's narrative, whenever they use it.
What lies ahead for Franca?
J: We want to keep exploring new materials and meeting new artists, so that we can can eventually launch the "Franca Collective", where we'll collaborate with artists and designers from around the world. We’re also moving into textiles. We launched a preliminary collection of dishtowels and pillows in January, but we're still working out production for that. We'd like production to be in the U.S., or at least source it ethically elsewhere.
S: We really want to work with all different types of materials. Other than textiles, we've also been interested in stone and marble, and I’ve always wanted to work with spinning metal. But I know better than to design too many things at one time – we'd rather focus our time and energy on making a few good new pieces before we move onto our next phase.
Studio Snapshot – Sierra Yip-Bannicq
Achilles heel for procrastinating: Uma. I'll hang out with Uma, sometimes take naps with her on the daybed.
Studio quirk: We listen to a lot of podcasts while working, but we've literally run out of them, so we've transitioned to music now.
I can't live without: a super sharp metal trimming tool I use to scrape and clean pieces up.
I never use: Our spray booth. We haven’t needed it because of the way we're glazing right now – we’re either dipping or brushing. We'll probably start to use it when we work with larger pieces.
Studio Snapshot – Jazmin de la Guardia
Achilles heel for procrastinating: Sleeping. I can never get enough sleep!
Studio quirk: No matter how messy or late it is, we always spend a few minutes cleaning up our studio at the end of the day, every day.
I can't live without: the little red guy that I use to draw all of our patterns by hand.
I never use: Other than the spray booth, we use everything. Otherwise, if we don't use it, we get rid of it.
Photography by Anne Z. Chen