Katie Lauffenburger’s ceramic creations take the form of workers’ cottages, bungalows, and other iconic types of architecture
For years, Katie Lauffenburger and her husband Phil Thompson have combined their love of Chicago architecture (and public transit) with his intricate illustrations to produce typographies of the city’s built environment. You might have gotten to know them as Cape Horn Illustration, but they’ve rechristened their business as Wonder City Studio, in part to reflect a recent addition to their offerings: Lauffenburger’s ceramics.
Trained as a stop-motion animator, Lauffenburger (@katie_lauffenburger on Instagram) found her work turning increasingly digital, so she picked up a handmade hobby. That’s turned into a new line for Wonder City (@wonder_city_studio): ceramic planters in the form of bungalows and workers’ cottages, like three-dimensional forms of her husband’s illustrations. Each one is crafted over weeks, with multiple firings, days of painting, and a long, long drying period. I spoke with Lauffenburger about how her creations came to be.
How long have you lived in Chicago?
Since 2005. I came here for graduate school at the School of the Art Institute and never left. My background is actually in animation. So in undergrad I was in a program called Art and Technology and SAIC happened to have the same program. My focus was stop motion animation; I think the sculptural aspect of it really has carried over to what I’m doing now, because I really loved making the sets and the puppets and that kind of thing.
When you came to Chicago did you have a lot of interest in architecture at that point?
My interest in architecture really evolved as I got to know my now-husband, because he also moved to Chicago in 2005; he was doing a grad program at University of Chicago. And I cannot tell you how many memories I have of him and I wandering around different neighborhoods, in awe of the architecture here, and specifically the homes. You just don’t see homes like this elsewhere. And we really had never seen anything like that.
How did Wonder City come to be?
Wonder City is a kind of new incarnation of a business that we’ve had for 10 years. We used to be called Cape Horn illustration. And that business was really centered around Phil’s illustration work, and it tied together a lot of our interests in drawing, architecture, history, maps, relating to Chicago. But recently, we started feeling like that name wasn’t aligned with where we wanted to go with our mission, especially with the ceramics now that I’m starting to become more a part of the business
Wonder City is a lesser known nickname for Chicago, tied to the World’s Fair. There’s actually a book called The Wonder City that was published around that time that chronicles a lot of really interesting inventions that Chicago is known for, and we came across that and felt like it encapsulated our sense of wonderment of the city, and the never-ending inspiration that we find in it.
So the ceramics work is quite new?
I’ve worked in more of a digital capacity in my career for quite a while doing animation, and doing web-web type stuff. It got to a point five or so years ago where I just missed working with my hands. That’s what I’ve been doing since I was a kid, and did a lot at school, and then I felt like it would be almost a practical decision to go more the digital route, because I thought I would have a better chance of actually having a job that would pay my bills. And I did enjoy it, I transitioned my stop-motion animation background into a digital animation skill set. But I just really started to miss working with my hands, and I was looking for an outlet for that. And I started taking ceramics classes at Lillstreet Art Center.
I started off doing more figurative work, some busts and things like that, and then it clicked: We both share this love of architecture, why don’t I make some architectural work? It really is well suited for the style of ceramics that I make. I don’t throw on a wheel, I am a hand builder. My work is primarily what you call slab building, where I roll out slabs of clay — usually around a quarter of an inch thick — and then assemble different things out of those slabs. Architecture is perfect for that, because it’s walls and facades.
What are the challenges of sculpting a bungalow or cottage?
I have to take into account that clay shrinks throughout the process. So when I show a client the prototype, I know in the back of my mind I need to scale everything up probably about 10 percent.
The cottages, if I can control the detail — and I’m not doing porches or anything complex like that — take about six weeks from start to finish. They take a while to dry. If you rush that stage, you introduce the risk of cracks and warping, and that can ruin a piece. You need to let them dry for about two weeks.
After doing several of these, I’ve learned that the surface-treatment stage, like applying the color, takes almost longer than the sculpture. It can probably take me four to five days to sculpt one, but then it can take me a week to two to paint them.
And then the firings take some time. The first fire, when the clay becomes ceramic, takes about 48 hours because the kiln fires for 10 to 11 hours. And then I can’t open it until the kiln cools to 250 degrees. So it’s a two-day firing, and then there’s the glaze firing, when the clay becomes mature and most durable — that’s another two days right there.
There’s usually some finishing at the end where I sand and make it really ready for shipping. The bungalows probably take a little bit longer because they’re usually more detailed. And then if you get into something like the Roscoe Village cottage, that was about two months, because there was just so much additional complexity.
What about the bungalow do you think makes it such a successful form?
This applies to a lot of homes in Chicago: They have a really interesting facade, and then there will be the Chicago common brick on the back. I love the fact that you have more modest sidewalls and back with an intricate facade, and I think that is something that carries through really well to the sculpture. The bungalow in particular, the fact that it’s a one and a half-story house, the shape of it works really well as a planter because I can open up the top. And the fact that a home like this would be in a setting with trees and plants around it is a nice tie-in.