Two is the Magic Number: Visiting Ceramicists Uno+Ichi
Ceramics duo Joanna and Hana met while attending Brown University. After some life turns, they got together, formed a partnership based on creativity and called themselves Uno+Ichi. They work from a cozy studio in the back of a classic craftsman home in the historical West Adams district of LA. After gingerly walking past their neighbor’s barking dog, you approach their studio where you see their potter’s wheel, works in progress on shelves, and their big kiln outside. Using these tools, including roasted potatoes for snacking, they create whimsical pieces with expressive faces. Everything made by Uno+Ichi has a flair and style of its own and has the perfect balance of appearing imperfect and perfect at the same time.
by Eric Nakamura
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: Introduce yourself.
Hana: We’re Uno+Ichi. I’m Hana
Joanna: I’m Joanna.
GR: Are either of you the Uno or the Ichi?
Hana: Yeah, people ask us who’s Uno and who’s Ichi.
Joanna: Sometimes Hana is Uno, and sometimes Hana is Ichi.
Hana: Sometimes we’re both Ichi.
GR: How did you come up with the name?
Joanna: We like the idea of one plus one, like two people working together or there are two artists or just this idea of collaboration. Also, we love the idea of taking things one step at a time. We also didn’t want to call it One Plus One.
Hana: Yeah. Joanna at the time was taking Japanese and Spanish at the same time and those are the only languages I’ve taken.
Joanna: Both languages are homophonic, so we just said it one day in Japanese and Spanish and it just stuck and we liked it and we went with it.
GR: Can you talk about how you guys met?
Joanna: We met in our first week of college at Brown and I think we have both kind of known each other already.
Hana: Yeah, we had like a mutual friend who mentioned to me, “Joanna is going to Brown, you should meet her.”
Joanna: And then we met on the first week and then we’ve been friends ever since. We ended up living together for three years in college and that’s when we both kind of collided creatively. Hana did a lot of painting, and I did ceramics.
Hana: I think when Uno+Ichi started, I had started taken ceramics, and I could barely make a cup. But I was already scheming to start something together with Joanna. I would be like, “Hey, let’s make some stuff together.”
Joanna: You also started ceramics when I was in China.
Hana: Yeah, she was living in China. Joanna and I have this hustler mentality. I think that we knew that about each other throughout college. For example, someone told us that Urban Outfitters threw away their clothes every last Thursday of the month in the garbage cans in the back and if you wanted to get free clothes you could.
Joanna: We were like “what!” We were like the epitome of scavenger college students. When we got ready to go, it was pouring outside and we were like dressed in garbage bags, and we had headlamps. We went on top of the dumpster, but it was a lie. There were no clothes. But I guess that just kind of showed the hustler mentality. I think for us we’re just two scrappy girls trying to make it and just trying to make things happen and I feel like that’s how we approach our business.
GR: We’re at your studio, right in West Adams. Can you talk about your studio? It looks like it’s hand built.
Joanna: It’s fairly new still, about a year old. We started building it this last year.
Hana: We used to work out here and there was a covering but there were no walls. That was all through the winter. You saw the coats hanging when you came in. We would come in, put on coats, then two jackets.
Joanna: We would cover every part of our body other than our fingers and eyes.
Hana: Yeah and it was freezing and terrible. And then I think my dad felt really sad for us. My birthday’s in January, and it was like a Christmas/birthday present. My dad was like, “Let’s build this thing.”
Joanna: And literally he helped us build it from the ground up, everything from the brick from the ground, to the wood posts. We literally built with our hands.
Hana: Yeah and we stapled all these walls.
Joanna: We just finished painting it actually.
Hana: And sanding all the walls.
Joanna: We badly needed shelves, but we got to design these shelves so that we can take the boards out when we throw (throwing- working with clay) and we can put them back in easily. So the shelves are kind of portable.
Hana: That was Joanna’s genius idea.
Joanna: So, this was basically built just for what our production needed.
GR: Since you both went to Brown, they don’t have a Ceramics Department, right?
Joanna: No, they did not.
GR: So when did you start ceramics?
Joanna: That was 4 years out of college that we did it. It wasn’t like immediately after college we started Uno-Ichi.
Hana: Well, you started ceramics in High School
Joanna: I had done ceramics from high school and then I took some classes at the Rhode Island School of Design because Brown didn’t have it. But it was much later after we graduated that we started talking about ceramics. This was not something that I would ever imagine that I would be doing even in college.
GR: Were you art both majors?
Hana: No. I was almost an Art major. I basically took all the classes to be an art major. I had a background in painting and drawing and I didn't come to ceramics until 2013. I studied education and after college I was teaching in Oakland. I came back to Los Angeles to focus on art and started taking ceramics at Santa Monica Community College and loved it. I wanted to try to be really good at it even though I was shitty. In ceramics, it’s hard to execute your idea sometimes. I don't know. I feel like that's the difficulty of it and why maybe there's not so many people doing it, although there are a lot of ceramicists. But the hump of skill is high. It’s not like you can just take a class. I’m always struggling with it.
GR: You've been doing this for a few years but there's like a look and feel for Uno-Ichi. I could see it from a mile away. When did that happen? There must’ve been a point where you’re like, “Okay, this is our thing, We’ve got this going.”
Joanna: I feel like for us that was the hardest part in the beginning, where we feel like individually we had an idea of what it was. We talked about what this brand was and we individually could picture it and voice it, but to consistently have it as a product visibly, I think was harder. We were really good at just experimenting and making so many different things. Eventually, they all kind of fit under the umbrella of Uno+Ichi. We still had to hone in on certain things to really define that idea of it and naturally through time and just by making more products, we were able to do that.
Hana: I think that from the beginning we both had a feel of what Uno-Ichi was and so we were struggling with how do we make this feeling into a visual representation. Even though we didn't know exactly what it looks like, we were able to say once something was made that that was Uno+Ichi, or that isn’t.
GR: So, how did you verbalize it? Since you just basically said you had an idea.
Joanna: Right. I think it's easier always to define something that’s not. Sometimes we say Uno+Ichi is a collection of all these characters. They’re characters that are frustrated, sad, and just emotive. Sometimes happy but rarely.
Hana: Yeah, I try to keep it a little bit on the weird side, too. Sometimes, I want to keep it a little bit strange and like "misfits."
Joanna: But also very natural and earthy.
Hana: I don't know if we could put in words but I think that's a good thing. We're still struggling to find those particular words, but the feeling is there. We were talking recently about collaborating with other people who we feel verbalize that Uno-Ichi brand in other ways, whether that’s through food or music or something.
Joanna: Kind of like expanding the idea of One Plus One and collaboration outside of just us.
Hana: Yeah, definitely. That's what we wanted actually from the beginning.
Joanna: It's never always just us, it's also the idea of collaboration.
Hana: Yeah like Uno+Ichi plus other artists.
GR: Who are the faces on your cups and moldings? Who are these people?
Hana: There are so many, they're all different.
GR: Is there someone in mind or are they all just kind of random faces?
Hana: Sometimes we look at a cup and it looks like it wants to have its nose here and it already has an expression to it that we just bring out.
Joanna: Sometimes the clay or the shape of the vessel reminds me of someone and so maybe we’ll just try to make it look like this person we may know. Sometimes I feel like the clay has a mind of its own.
GR: Is there a specific workflow or process in how you make pottery? Since you’re both doing the production, sometimes the shape of each item will be different if you’re making different runs at a time. Is there a sort of specific style each of you have in your product?
Hana: Definitely, like the way things are trimmed from the bottom. Joanna's trimming is way better than mine so if you've got a really nice trimmed one, Joanna probably did that. The way we make things also affects it. One of us may make ten of something, then one of us will trim it, usually the same person who threw would trim it, and then one of us will attach noses while the other splits them up to paint. It’s kind of like a piece could be moved through our hands in a variety of ways.
Joanna: Sometimes I'll do a batch of ten and Hana will do a batch of ten individually, but sometimes if we're super busy I'll just throw twenty and Hana will trim twenty. I’ll do the noses and she’ll paint them. It just really depends on the time and what we're trying to fill in the time period that we have. It’s very fluid now.
GR: Does being in this West Adams area influence your work in any way?
Joanna: Yeah, I think so. We're really excited when we first set up here. A few times we've just gone out with a box of ceramics to take photographs in front of a sign or on some steps in front of an apartment, and hopefully no one comes out. We’ll just go for a walk with our ceramics. I feel like being in this neighborhood influences our ceramics, but maybe just us and maybe not directly the ceramics.
For example, when we got our kiln we had to walk it from Venice and Western. I don't know if you're familiar with that area but it's super tight and high “trafficky.” We had to walk it on the roads and the sidewalks were not smooth. There were huge cracks and we had to move this huge 300 pound kiln. We also couldn’t push too hard or else it would fall. So many people were like, “Oh, what’s that?” Some people were like, “Oh, that’s a kiln,” and I’m like, “how do you know what that is?” Well, we're basically welcoming it into the neighborhood and we had so many people help us because we clearly couldn't carry the kiln and we couldn't cross through Washington and Western. We had to jay-walk and this guy randomly comes out of middle nowhere and carries the kiln. He stopped traffic and helped us get across and then he just disappeared like that.
GR: So, that kind of let me back into who the characters are. Are they ethnically based? I look at them and I’m like these are Asian. I see all kinds of ethnicities, but I wasn’t sure if that’s intentional or just random colors of clay. These look Asian to me, some don’t, some look Latino.
Joanna: I don't think we intended it to be that way, like "oh that's going to be an Asian series," but sometimes this particular clay reminds me of my friend or my mom and I want to make something that looks like someone I know. But I don't think we intentionally say, “this is just going to be this way,” but I think we also like the different frays from clay.
GR: There's a character with this really thick eyebrow which I'm like, "that's Frida Kahlo," but I don't know.
Hana: Yeah, it is Frida Kahlo inspired but I like calling it just unibrow because, I don't know. I feel a type of way about it because I think I just don't want it to be a re-manifestation of Frida Kahlo, like "oh these are a bunch of Fridas." We're just inspired by Frida Kahlo.
GR: You go to a lot of craft fairs. I’m not sure if that's what potters need to do, but do you think it’s really necessary to do craft fairs or can you just exist online?
Hana: I think it was definitely necessary for us in the beginning.
Joanna: For sure. We couldn't just launch a website. I don't think even our friends would know.
Hana: They’ll be like why do you have a website? I think it's definitely necessary but ceramics is different than jewelry or clothing and prints. It's just so heavy.
Joanna: You have to be so careful with it and it's not easy to just go to every craft fair because it also takes up space, and we have so many different kinds of things.
Hana: It's basically exhausting. So I think we're trying to bring ourselves to a place where we don’t have to do so many craft fairs, and I think we're doing less now which is nice.
Joanna: We used to do it a lot and we physically can't do it anymore. I really enjoy it though. It's a way for us to meet the people that buy our work, and it's always nice sometimes to meet people who are like, “oh I bought something at your sale two years ago,” and we’re like, “wow, you mean you have that thing?
Hana: You bought this thing that we had and now you're here buying something else?" It’s amazing.
Joanna: I really love meeting people who buy our stuff because then you put a face like the owner who's going to give this little baby a home. It’s kind of like a little puppy adoption.
GR: From my perspective there’s a resurgence. Ceramics was an older person's thing and I feel like there’s a lot of young people getting into it. I feel like you started right at that time.
Hana: We definitely noticed that, but before we started we had many conversations about ceramics being popular right now, and are we too late? I think that was a conversation. Should we even start? Did we miss the boat on this?
Joanna: But at the same time we have this desire to make this product that we don't see out there.
Hana: I think that's what we started to realize. There’s a need for it because we didn't see the things that we wanted to make.
GR: There are a lot of ceramics out there. I’m starting to see a lot of stuff that looks alike.
Joanna: I’ve heard someone say that's kind of like the epidemic of Instagram. I think if you're on Instagram, everything kind of looks the same. People get inspired by Instagram which is great. I think it's a great medium for a creative artist, but I think if you spend so much time there, things can start to look very similar.
Hana: I think clay itself in the process of making ceramics makes you think about beauty and natural things, and so I feel like there's a lot of ceramics brands or makers that pull on that. I think that creates this, "seeming the same" a little bit. And I totally agree with that way of viewing the pieces, but I feel like we kind of don't always go in that direction. We go for a little bit funny and weird sometimes which is not a totally obvious. I think some of these ceramics start to look the same, it's because they're building off this idea of natural and beauty which I think was really popular on Instagram.
Joanna: I think it’s all ceramics but there's only so many variations.
GR: From your Instagram stories, it's not like I'm stalking you guys but you actually do and see a lot of other art works, not just ceramic. I was wondering how does that play into your work?
Joanna: I think that’s very important for us. I studied Art history so I just naturally really love looking at exhibitions and going to museums and like seeing new shows that are out there, and I think Hana likes it too.
Hana: I think that as an artist I actually used to hate art history. I just thought it was bullshit. But recently in the last three years I'd say I’m totally like, “oh I get it,” and it's a new interest for me which is why I feel like I've been going to as many things as I can.
Joanna: I think it's just so nice to see what other artists are doing out there and just see what the conversation is.
Hana: I feel like it’s always inspiring to see things and you may get an idea for like a color palette or shade.
GR: What would be your suggestion to somebody who's going to start ceramics now? Is it too late?
Joanna: Like starting it as a business or as a hobby? I think to just even develop it as a skill is a lot of practice and just being there and putting time in it. I think it’s just an art form that the more you give love to it, the more it'll come out. You need to really hone in on your skill.
Hana: And also as far as feeling like it’s late or something, it's been around for so long that it's like...
Joanna: You could have always said that.
Hana: Yeah, exactly. And I remember I had a teacher at Glendale Community College. He said, "Ceramics art survived the industrial revolution and it's still valued and it’s still being done even though machines can make it."
Joanna: So, there's still a certain appreciation and distinction and love and value for something that's handmade or something that's not made out of mold. If you found a coffee mug at Target versus this (pointing to one of their pieces), there's still something about it that is very different. That feeling that it has survived these many years.
GR: Is there anything else you guys want to talk about or want to add? Is there struggle or fighting?
Hana: Price point and capacity. We’re trying to figure out what we're going to do when our hands get too tired and...
Joanna: We can’t just physically make that much anymore. What do we do?
GR: Well, you’re talking about doomsday already!
Joanna: I know, I just want to be prepared.
Hana: I mean we still want it like to be affordable but it's always a struggle.
You can buy Uno+Ichi pieces at Giant Robot here.