Text by Nandita Khanna
Images by Amanda Villarosa
“The first time I worked with clay, I fell in love immediately,” says ceramist Ernie Lee. “When I touched the clay, it automatically responded; it was a form of tactical communication I’d never experienced.” Fast forward 30 years, and Lee is at the helm of LA Clay Company, an East Los Angeles studio where a team of eight (give or take) churn out more than a thousand hand-thrown dinnerware pieces a month for beloved local restaurants like Gjelina and Jon & Vinny’s.
Lee, who grew up in Pasadena but ventured to school in Iowa on a swimming scholarship, came to clay as a matter of convenience. “Coach told me I had to pick a major, and the art department happened to be right next to the swimming pool. You could find me in the pool, at the studio, or sleeping,” he laughs. Post-college stints included time spent at Pasadena City College, and later, at California State University, Long Beach under the watchful eye of lauded ceramist Tony Marsh. “To see what these grad students were creating in a communal environment was awe-inspiring,” he says of the 15 years he spent managing art studios.
In 2006, as Lee and his wife were expecting their second child, he quit ceramics cold turkey, trading the potter’s wheel for a suit and tie at a Fortune 500 company on LA’s West Side. Then in 2014, as luck would have it, a friend forwarded Lee an email sent to UCLA’s Art Department: Gjelina, a local restaurant group over on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, was looking for a ceramist to make some cups.
The next day, Lee drove over to Venice and showed up looking for Shelley Kleyn, a Gjelina Group restaurant partner, and introducing himself as “the ceramics guy.” From there, he met Alex Liberman of AML Studio, who was putting the finishing touches on nearby Gjusta, a hybrid bakery and deli. Liberman handed Lee a ceramic cup and asked, “Can you make this for us?” A month later, Lee returned with several prototypes in hand. Liberman placed his first order on the spot.
An initial order for 20–which Lee pulled off by calling in favors and posting up in friends’ studios around town—quickly turned into recurring orders of 40 cups at a time. During a routine drop-off at Gjusta, he observed a young woman finishing her coffee and promptly stashing the ceramic mug in her bag. “Why don’t we sell the cups on a little shelf at Gjusta,” he said to Liberman. The first cups retailed for $35 a pop.
When you’re involved in making things with your hands, a piece of you gets left behind.
In addition to cups, Lee started fielding requests for plates and bowls designed with specific Gjusta menu items in mind. He quickly realized that he couldn’t meet the demand of incoming orders without a dedicated space. His family home, tucked into the hills in Pasadena, was a natural choice. “It’s very casual,” says Lee of the indoor-outdoor nature of the studio, dotted with queen palms, a 50-foot oak, and one very large and bountiful citrus tree. “It’s my home and my family’s home, so I want people to want to be here.” (Worth noting, too, the fridge is always stocked with cold beer for friends and clients who drop by to talk about “making circles,”an Ernie-ism for throwing pottery.)
Over the last seven years, Lee has had nearly 30 ceramists come through his doors,many of whom are trained artists, others who aren’t. Regardless of experience, there’s a shared vernacular, a process that each potter must go through to uphold the immediately recognizable look and feel that LA Clay has honed over the years. “We have our own language. ‘Go pop a cup,’ is a familiar phrase around here,our own way of operatering. Every studio does.”
Given the amount of time Lee spent studying the science of ceramics, it follows that LA Clay Company’s root forms mirror the utilitarian approach potters have referenced since the craft’s beginnings. “Our focus has always been on creating functional tableware for daily use,” he says. While there’s an immediately identifiable quality to LA Clay Company’s work, each cup, bowl, or plate has subtle quirks, whether it’s iron spots from the clay, color variations due to location in the kiln, or even the finger marks from throwing the pottery. “When you’re involved in making things with your hands, a piece of you gets left behind,” he says. (Lee jokes that subtle imprints of his own “meat hook fingers” can be seen throughout his work.)
Despite the repetitive nature of the work, the thrill of a piece emerging from the kiln glazed and fired remains its greatest reward: “There’s a feeling of validation for the time you’ve put in,” says Lee of the process. “Sure, they’re just cups and bowls, but I’ll never stop loving taking something simple and turning it into something beautiful.”