Would my snake plant have lived had I nestled it into a planter from Carrie Lau’s Object-Matter? Probably not (overwatering was its downfall). The L.A.-based designer, art director, and ceramicist admits she sometimes kills plants, too, but giving up easily is not something Lau does. (She recently downloaded an app to diagnose her plants’ ills so she could nurture them back to health.)
Lau was born and raised in Hong Kong and moved to L.A. in 2008 to launch a career in design. After establishing a multi-disciplinary creative studio, also named Object-Matter, she picked up ceramics on a lark, and just two years after her first awkward attempts at the pottery wheel, Lau started a ceramics business as a side project.
Through her work in fickle ceramics, Lau learned the virtues of patience, persistence, and focus. She’s gained a following for her whimsical, nature-inspired aesthetic. Right before the pandemic, Lau collaborated on a pop-up café in Paris with French clothing company A.P.C., and in the last year, sales of mugs, plates, planters, and a new homeware collection have outpaced her graphic design work.
At a time when Lau’s professional focus is shifting, she spoke with The Local Optimist about how ceramics have shifted her outlook, her mental health, and her ability to focus on what’s important.
What drew you to art?
I went to business school for college in Hong Kong, and after my graduation, I went to work on the marketing team of a fashion lifestyle magazine. That’s where I met designers, artists, photographers, and other creatives and started to understand the creative process. Everything started from scratch, and it’s how I found out that I had ideas I wanted to execute.
Thirteen years ago, I came to L.A. for a short design program at UCLA Extension. After that, I started freelancing. L.A. has a really big, diverse creative community, and people are amazing. That was really inspiring to me. I started running a small design studio for branding, websites, and other creative projects.
When and how did you discover ceramics?
I started doing it as a hobby in 2013. A friend had asked me lots of times to take classes with her. And when I finally did, I just fell in love. At the time, I was doing a lot of computer work, so using my hands was actually really meditative to me. Two years later, I set up a ceramics studio in my garage and started putting in more time.
What appealed to you most about the medium?
When I first started, I remember the feeling of pinching the clay and the texture. It’s so smooth and fragile. In the beginning, I struggled and kind of liked the way that I didn’t have control. I thought I would make a mug, but then I would be like, “Oh shit, I didn't make anything. I just have to let go.” It releases you from perfectionism, and in that way, it’s a relieving medium. And then you’re using your hands to make things, and you can see an object coming out from the clay.
When you first got started, how many hours would you practice in a day or a week?
When I was working in other studios, I couldn’t really do a lot on my own time. But since I set up a studio in my home, I can do eight or 10 hours a day. There’s also other work like painting, and I can spend four or five hours just painting ceramics. I’m trying to take more breaks now, but I really can work for a pretty long time.
Do you get swept up in the work or does it require focus to stay engaged for so long?
I have good days and bad days. If it’s a good day, I keep making more stuff and am mentally present. I’m really into the process because it’s really quiet, and it takes me to a place where it’s just me and the clay and I can communicate and express a lot of things. I don’t really pay attention to time because I’m enjoying the moment. On a bad day, I struggle and sometimes give up a little bit, until I’m like, “OK, I think I can make it. I can keep going.”
Do you have any practices that help you stay focused?
I try to meditate every day to really quiet and slow myself down. Then I start working. If I have something on my mind that distracts me or I’m doing too many things at once, I can’t really be conscious about what I’m doing. When I’m really able to focus, I know my intentions, and I really feel comfortable and relaxed in the moment. And, of course, because I’m focused, I’m probably more productive.
In what ways has working with ceramics benefitted your mental health?
I’ve learned a lot from throwing clay and seeing the process. I used to be like, “Oh, let’s do it, let’s do it,” without really thinking a lot about how to execute a piece. And then it was always, “I have to go back and fix this.” There’s a lot of things you can fix, but there’s a lot of things you can’t. I learned from ceramics to have patience and to wait in the beginning and really figure something out. If I don’t wait for pieces to dry before doing the next process, it doesn’t work. Or I need to make sure a step looks fine before moving on. Otherwise, it will show in the end that you weren’t paying attention to detail.
Have you been able to apply that lesson to life?
Yes. It’s a whole mentality. I used to be all over the place, all the time. I like to try a lot of little things, and it’s good to learn. But sometimes I can overwhelm myself. Now, I have slowed down and really started to listen to myself. Why do I want to do this? What do I want to express? Does this actually interest me?
What are some of your aesthetic influences?
It used to be traveling. Seeing different cultures was a huge inspiration. Also living in L.A., we have so much access to nature, like camping, hiking, and national parks. Those things interest me a lot, and I would love to express that in my work.
I also love Yayoi Kusama. She’s a Japanese artist, and her work is really colorful and patterned. I’m pretty into Japanese culture and design, and I’ve seen some of her work in Japan and L.A. I just watched a documentary about how she developed her career, and it was really inspiring.
After making ceramics for so many years do you still make flawed pieces?
Oh, yeah. All the time. Especially with new processes, there’s always some accident. The pieces are fired at a very high temperature. A piece can look fine before firing, but afterwards you find cracks and you’re not able to sell the pieces. It’s very stressful. Sometimes you’re using the same recipe, and maybe the first batch is okay. Then you start the second batch with the same process and same steps, and it can be totally off. One time, when I was still doing wholesales orders, I made 150 pieces, and the first 80 were fine. Then the other half was off. I cried. I couldn’t even walk into the studio. I didn’t want to see it or know what to do. My partner was super supportive, and he was just like, “We’ll fix it. We’ll figure it out.” But it was hard for me to keep going.
What’s your advice for people who want to start making ceramics?
It’s all in the practice. I was horrible in the beginning. When I first tried it, I really struggled with the idea that I needed to make certain stuff. And it was frustrating when I saw the person next to me in class making way taller vases, and I still was having a tough time pulling clay. You have to let that go. Just go play and trust your feelings in the beginning. Don’t worry about how something is going to turn out. You will love the pieces no matter what because you put the energy into them.
You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.