The Simple, Yet Useful Work of Kati Von Lehman

Words by Jennine Jacob
Photos by Chris Dibble

Kati Von Lehman is a prolific artist. Her work is carried among some of the chicest stores like Spartan Shop and Totokaelo.  From dinnerware to hanging planters, Kati produces a wide range of objects for the home. They’re the kind of pieces that have a quiet beauty, with a simplicity that will go nicely anywhere without blending in.

Over the years, she had worked in many different creative professions, a freelance photographer, as a production artist. A maker at heart, she’s tried her hand at furniture design, quilting and sewing clothes. And when she delved into ceramics people started paying attention and money for her work. Recently, Kati has built her ceramics career to the point where she could build her very own studio on her property in Portland, Oregon. Here we talk with Kati about her journey in ceramics and why she built her own studio from scratch.

Tell us how you got into ceramics…

I first got into ceramics right out of high school at community college. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do back then. I went on to have a career as a freelance photographer. Design has always been a part of what I do. 5 years ago, I was working at home as a production artist for a local app company while raising my infant. I needed to find a way to leave the house on a regular basis for myself, so I took another ceramics class at PCC, the local community college, and loved it. I bought a wheel, put it in the basement and threw pots every opportunity I could get.

What made you decide to pursue ceramics as a career?

I don’t know if I intentionally pursued ceramics as a career. I never thought of it as a career until people started asking to buy my stuff. I have always made things: clothes, and quilts, ceramics, and furniture. I studied interior design and furniture design. When I was pregnant I started making and designing furniture, but it took too much space and time once I had the baby. I actually repurposed the crib I built for my baby. It’s now the plaster bed I use to pull moisture out of wet clay.

For as long as I have made things, trying to figure out how to turn making stuff into a career was part of the process. But none of that was really fruitful till I started doing ceramics again. I wanted to design and make something rather than provide a service for people. My career in photography and graphic design were felt like more of a service than creating something.

Really, my career is always evolving. I envision the future including other types of design-making projects that are more extensive and multi-media. I am interested designing and building out entire spaces along with everything inside them.

Describe your creative process, how did you come up with your collection?

I make things to fill a need. I need to make something useful. And I want to be surrounded by beautiful things that I use every day. I don’t like a lot of clutter so a part of the design process involves trying to stack and hide things. I want simple design. And the things that are the most simple are the most expensive, so I have to make them myself. I like natural materials. I don’t like plastic. I try to make things that I want to touch, out of wood, ceramic, stone, leather, hemp, jute. I use all of these things.

How would you describe your work?

Simple and useful.

What are you working on now?

I’m always working on something new. Right now I am working on making alternatives to plastics that you can use in your kitchen, like storage vessels. Food storage bowls that have flat lids that can be flipped over and used as a platter, tagines, butter bells, bowls with spouts, colanders.

Tell us about your studio, or the studio you’re currently building, how did you end up there? What is it like to work there?

I had been renting space at shared work-studios but recently I designed and built a studio with my dad next to my house. Building my own studio on my property was an intensive process but will save money in the long run. I’m a single mom and wanted the security of putting money in one place. And I wanted to be available to my kid. This way I can check the kiln while my kid is playing outside. Having my studio at home makes a more seamless transition between work and home. There are challenges to that too, but over-all it works the best this way for me. I’m so lucky to have supportive parents. I couldn’t have done it without them.

Who are your creative heroes? How have they inspired your work?

Right now, I am inspired by the Mother Earthships outside Taos, New Mexico and the ideas behind making them. Also, Alice Waters, the chef, I am really inspired by food right now.

Who I am inspired by is always changing. I go through phases, like, I like this for a while… and then it changes. Though there are some people that stay with me: Agnes Martin, Anni Albers, Gunta Stolzl, all the Bauhaus weavers. I like Shaker design and traditional Japanese design. Isamu Noguchi, the sculptor: I especially like his ceramic sculptures. The furniture designer, George Nakashima.

I am totally inspired by all that, but I’m thinking outside of design too. I’m not so much into specific designers as I am inspired by ways of being and meeting needs. I’m trying to live a better life with more integrity. Simple, well-made, sustainably made, useful, un-superfluous things are part of that.

How have you evolved as a potter?

Well, I’ve gotten better! I just get better because I do it all the time. Have I evolved?

My work has evolved because I just get bored with stuff so I make new pieces. If anything, my ceramic style has gotten simpler, more refined.

What is the biggest lesson you learned from pottery?

I’ve learned a lot. The biggest lesson?… Is how to run a business while balancing work and home healthily. I am still learning that, but it is the biggest hurdle. Work, life, and family are one healthy organism somehow. Ceramics is just one part of my identity. I don’t consider myself just a potter. Being a mom is part of being a potter, as is being a business owner, a daughter, a sister, an architect. I’m not sure exactly how to put it.