Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Teri Bocko
We spend a morning with Knotwork LA, a ceramics (mostly) company based in Los Angeles. Linda Hsiao serves us barley tea in her hand-made tiki cups and tells us how she created the company with her husband, architect and woodworker Kagan Taylor. Knotwork LA, she explains, was born out of a desire to create beautiful, useful things. The wordplay of the company’s name,‘not work’, sets the tone for the approach they have to making. They believe the process should be fun and playful. Linda has always been fascinated by people's connections to objects and blends her training in industrial design and ceramics to make beautiful, functional hand-made pieces. From female tiki cups to bird jugs, Linda is always looking for novel ways to explore her craft. She tells us about developing her language, why L.A is the perfect place for a ceramist and why the world should be a place where people feel a connection to all things from rare sights in nature to objects used every day in a home.
What do you make?
Now it’s mostly ceramic sculptural and functional ware. We used to make wooden utensils and baby rattles. The rattle, which was the first product we sold, was originally made as a gift for friends who were having a baby.
The design was based off a carabiner because our friends are professional rock climbers. The shape ended up being very organic-feeling, kind of like a new Noguchi sculpture. As soon as we made the rattle, my husband and I felt a real connection to the object; we realised we needed to figure out how to get that out into the world.I’d been doing ceramics for a long time on the side of other jobs, enjoying the process but not thinking of it as an actual endeavour. I slowly started selling my ceramics alongside the rattles and now they’ve sort of taken over!
I love what you say about needing to get an object out in the world. Can you explain this a bit more?
We just felt like the rattle needed to be reproduced. I’d never had such a strong feeling with a product we’d made before. We said all the rattle sales would go to our future. Last year, it paid for our wedding in the Sequoia National Forest - which was pretty crazy!
What did you do before doing this full time?
I studied industrial design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. My first work was to design eyewear for fashion companies. For the most part that was just all designed on the computer, drawn, then mass-produced for these big corporate companies like Coach and Sean John and Nike. Ceramics was a way for me to be actually physically involved in process again. I needed something where my hands were moving, so I’ve always made on the side of other jobs.
In industrial design, I did everything from ‘premium toys’ in Happy Meals, where every toy is 20 cents x 1.3 million units, to sunglasses that get reproduced by the hundreds and thousands. Such objects are essentially disposable to many people.
I think it’s nice when things are made in small batches and there is a person on the other side of it. For me, that’s really important. When I buy things I definitely veer towards finding something made by hand if possible.
What has inspired you to make?
Growing up, I saw my mom and dad farm down in Orange County, California. They grew fruits and vegetables for the Asian market from seeds. They were always creating something out of nothing and that was very inspiring. Between their production and me playing in the garden and hanging out at the beach… that’s where my inspiration started.
My brothers and I grew up trying to build things, fix things; work out how they worked just for fun. Mom let me do everything I was slightly interested in. I would take art lessons, then ask to do sculpture, and then drive all the way up to Pasadena, California to go to Art Center. I went to New York one summer for a Parson’s summer program and ended up going to art school. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I don’t know if mom did either, but she let me follow my interests and I’m grateful.
Are all your family makers?
Not all of us make, but making is definitely in our family. I found out my grandmother was an artist, but then she had to abandon it to have six kids. She came back to it when she was in her sixties and began painting again. My mom claims she’s not an artist, but she’s been doing Bonsai since I was six. Sculpting bonsai trees is very much a visual craft, even though it’s living, it’s the same process.
What’s important about the things you make?
One thing that happened early on, even in college, was that I became obsessed with people's connections to objects. This fascination has always been in the back of my mind and when we made the rattle we both felt an instant, personal connection to it, even though it was an abstract object. I think it’s actually pretty hard to make abstract objects and have that feeling.
I used to make wooden utensils. I thought wooden utensils and the act of cooking was a very intimate relationship. But what we ended up doing was teaching people how to make their own utensils, rather than selling ones I made. Then they got to be proud of the ones they made and take them home and cook with them and share that with their friends and family.
I took a Japanese Raku class, which really influenced my style. Raku is very non-functional ceramic; it’s porous and not as hard as other ceramics, so you can’t use it as anything useful. It’s just a decorative, beautiful process. In class, I had to make non-functional items, which after studying industrial design for years, was difficult. I almost had to un-train myself! It was good for me to do because it brought me to this point where I was like: ok, an object doesn’t have to do anything except to give somebody joy and that’s enough of a purpose in itself.
I started bringing functionality back into what I’d learned from making Raku sculptures and this whole other language developed. I now make pieces that have both the character that emerged in the Raku sculptures I made and also some use.
Is that where your tiki cups and bird pitchers evolved from?
Yes. I am still fascinated by the personal connection people can have with something as simple as a cup - so each cup I make has its own personality and each is individually sculpted. When I made the tiki cups I realised there was no female in the tiki world so that got me making both the male and female counterparts. They are decorative objects in their own right, but also happen to have a function if you need. Honestly, for the most part, I don’t know if objects need to have a function, but there’s something nice in the thought that the object can be helping you do something.
The bird pitchers happened recently and came from a similar motivation. A restaurant owner asked me to make a creamer and I noticed how much the spout looked like a beak and I’ve been making lots since. It’s fun creating different personalities for each one and I don’t think I’ve come anywhere close to exhausting all the possibilities of species and personalities.
I’m always doing something different and I like always having something new to show. Exploring new things keeps the process playful.
Is being playful in your craft important?
I think so. If you’re not playing it’s not fun. Since I’m doing this for a living it should be fun – and it is! I’m doing this because I actually really love it.
When Kagan and I named the company Knotwork LA it was supposed to be a play on words because it was ‘not work’. We enjoy the process and it doesn’t feel like work, even though it is. Also, I feel like if I’m always exploring and trying new things there’s some excitement for the person on the other end buying it too.
How do you share your work?
Before social media, I didn’t know how to share what I was making. It’s been easy with Instagram, because I don’t necessarily like saying things, but I like showing people what I’ve been up to. Before that, it was just my close friends and they knew how busy I was, but now I can share the behind-the-scenes with lots of people. It’s so easy now. I remember in the early days when we were hosting utensil classes, we had to print out postcards and bring those to cafes and stores - that wasn’t even that long ago… 2011!
I also go to fairs occasionally. Echo Park Craft Fair has been a really great one. It’s a really good community and it has a high calibre of makers. They definitely support their makers and draw a lot of people to their website and fair so it ends up being a nationally known craft fair even though it’s here in L.A. It used to be exclusively L.A. makers, but they’ve started expanding it. Those kinds of events are an important way to connect.
How do you find L.A. as a place to make in?
It’s wonderful. I lived in New York for nine years for my undergrad and then worked there. It was great, but I definitely prefer L.A. To be able to have my garden right outside my studio and be growing food, that’s excellent and we landed in such an ideal location. We live on the second floor of the house and this is our backyard where we have the studio and display room. That’s a woodpecker you can hear right now and sometimes you hear roosters and chickens. I think they have over thirteen chickens next door.
There’s a great history of ceramics in Los Angeles. Some of the community colleges have been around with their ceramic departments for a long time and currently there’s a huge wave of ceramists in Los Angeles. For the most part, all of us live within a ten miles radius of Highland Park, Glassell Park, Glendale, Silver Lake, and Echo Park.
The temperature is also pretty ideal for this medium because it’s dry. We can work year round here, which is both a blessing and a curse. The summers can get too hot. I did a porcelain inlay collection where I’m working with materials that have different shrinkages from each other, so when it’s too hot in the summer it actually does pose a problem for me, because things dry too quickly and they want to separate. So I have to be much more cautious with that process in the summertime, but for the most part it’s ideal. I was reminded how good it usually is when L.A experienced a couple of months of rain this January. Clay never dries in the rain or it dries so slowly that there are other precautions you need to deal with. In San Francisco ceramists have dehumidifiers in their studios and I always think how difficult it would be to be a ceramist in Seattle, when I go to visit Kagan’s family. It means I can work faster.
Are there any other places that have made you?
The beaches down in Orange County. Some of them are still untouched. My parent’s farm down there definitely influenced me too. When I did the inlay series I mentioned, with different clay bodies, I was remembering all the cliffs in Laguna Beach that I’d played around as a child and all the different rocks stuck into the layers of the cliff, and the different textures that each one had. That’s definitely the feeling I was trying to replicate. As well as using different clay bodies I also gave each a different texture to make it feel like it was coming out of the material. I’m constantly exploring this type of marriage of materials. For me, that’s exploring my craft and it’s fun when other ceramists are like: oh wait, how did you do that?
Finally, the big one: what sort of place would you like to make the world?
I’d like the world to be a place where people feel a connection to all things around them. Whether that’s on a hike, the animals, trees, rocks and water, or it’s things used every day in a house. All of it should matter.
The nickname the ‘Homestead’ was coined by Linda, because when they found this backyard studio property for their ‘not work’ she joked that it was a practice for when they had a real home. They live in the second-floor apartment of the attached house and have made the backyard their own, building up the garden beds and changing the laundry to greywater. There are two garden ‘sheds’, which have become a studio and a showroom. Both spaces have a lovely, creative energy. The studio is full of tools: slab rollers, a kick wheel, cylinders, and a large table. The concrete foundations keep the room temperature controlled and easily moppable - important factors for ceramic work. The other shed is the showroom where stock is displayed and stores and clients come to pick out objects. Californian sunshine streams in from the skylights and through the large glass windows, there is a lovely view of the garden. Linda grows everything from fava beans and Chinese chrysanthemums to kale, figs and grapefruits. They share what they grow with neighbours and friends. As we look out monarch butterflies flutter past, attracted to the milkweed Linda grows for them.
Japanese carving knife
When Kagan and I started dating, he was working full-time and every weekend, so to spend time with him I’d be at the woodshop where he worked. The carving knife was his way of keeping me busy, but it ended up with me making a tonne of wooden utensils and teaching a class at his shop later that year. I now use the knife when I need to make my own clay tool. You can buy lots of different sized clay tools but sometimes you need a tool for a very specific reason and then it’s good to make it yourself.
The name-labelled tools
When I first moved back to California in 2009, my mom and I took a ceramics course together. She wrote my name on a bunch of my wooden tools… in case I forget! She’s actually my only assistant and occasionally I convince her to take the train up from Orange County and help me for a couple of days. There’s always a part of the process she can do before she hands it off to me and it allows us time to just sit and catch up. Even though the tools have my name written on them they remind me of her because she labelled them.
Raku animal pets
These creatures were my first experiment with non-functional work. The series was a test to see if I could make small items that weren't useful. The creatures have no purpose at all - apart from maybe being someone’s inanimate pet. I came up with the arbitrary rule that they had to start out as pinch pots. I can cut, bend, but I can’t add. So all of them are built the same. Another nonsensical rule I had was that if it started looking too much like an actual animal I had to make it less like that animal. Whether or not some started looking like each other I tried to keep them all individual. So then making the first 100 was almost a test of my imagination. Now the series is close to 600. I write the numbers on the bottoms.
The best thing about that series is that each person is getting a one-of-a-kind piece and so it was always fun at craft fairs to see someone pick them out, because you just knew when they picked one up it meant that they’d already adopted it.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.