DANIELLE CHUTINTHRANOND, CERAMIC ARTIST
I met Danielle in a dimly lit library within a hotel lobby, where an event table had been setup. I was admiring and, I’ll be honest, touching all plates and bowls displayed, when the hotel director introduced me to the woman behind the pottery. If you are ever in the presence of her work, you too will want to hold her pottery in your hands. That’s because a lot goes into designing the right shape and texture of each dish.
I quickly learned Danielle is intense and passionate when it comes to her work, and I was inspired by the way she approaches her craft. I wanted to capture the thoughtfulness that goes on during her design and making process, so I invited myself to her studio. ;-) And if sharing her process and her work was not enough, at my request she graciously agreed to cook for me so that I could get the whole picture.
Here’s to Danielle, a master zen at the throwing wheel. A perfectionist with a great sense of humor and a contagious appetite
for all the good things in life!
Where does your love for pottery come from?
I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but as the daughter of an immigrant family that was not an acceptable career path for me. Doctors and lawyers were acceptable professions in my family. At age five, when I said I wanted to be an artist, that did not go over well. So, I graduated college with a degree in physics and I got a job in software programming. I later transitioned into user experience design and research, but that wasn’t what I was meant to do. After eight years, I reached a breaking point and decided that was not the path for me.
When did Monsoon pottery officially start?
That was six years ago, when I took a year off from my tech job. During that time, a friend of mine was taking an illustration class at Lillstreet and asked me if I wanted to join her. I remember seeing the clay studio on my way to the illustration class and thinking “This is going to be the next class I take.” A few weeks later I took a pottery class, and I loved it! There's something about 2D art that just doesn’t do it for me. I don't know, it just doesn't turn me on like 3D does ;-)
Once I got in the clay studio, I was like “Oh yeah, this feels right.” I have an auto-didactic personality, and I wanted to teach myself everything. I was constantly on YouTube watching throwing videos and then asking my teacher how to do what they where doing.
Lillstreet is great because when you take a class, they let you use the studio for free. All you have to do is pay for clay. I was in the studio all the time! And studio time was good for me because it was very healing. About a year later, Monsoon pottery was born.
What is it about the clay studio that makes it a good place for healing?
It was not a clean ending with my tech career and there was a lot of pent up tension of knowing that it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. So when I finally took a break, there was some sort of healing that needed to happen, and the clay studio is the perfect place for that. While you are throwing you can't multitask, you have to be focused on what you are doing. And so it forces you to enter a flow state. You can call it flow or you can call it meditation. Whatever you want to call it, it’s about clearing your mind, and I think that’s very unique to pottery.
Food plays a very important role in your business and in your life. Where does that come from?
My parents owned a restaurant and I grew up helping out and using my hands. I worked in the back of the house and really enjoyed it. I started on the dessert line but eventually worked every job. My mom is a pastry chef, so I used to help her a lot in the kitchen and I have a lot of memories of tempering chocolate and making cookies.
But one of my favorite food memories is of my family’s Thanksgiving practice dinners. My parents are immigrants and they didn't know what Thanksgiving was when they moved to the US, but because they are really into cooking and this is a holiday that revolves around food they where like “Oh my God, this is so cool!” However, since they are restaurateurs, they wanted to test it first before they could invite anybody. They simply couldn’t just try cooking all this new food for the first time on Thanksgiving.
So, we would do these rehearsal dinners in the middle of the Summer, to practice Thanksgiving. I was probably five, and I remember going to the grocery store in July to get a turkey and looking for all the ingredients for a Thanksgiving meal. I remember my parents discussing the best way to cook this giant bird. Those are some of the funniest memories. The first practice dinner was just my mom, my dad and my sister. I think on our second rehearsal diner we invited some of the people that worked at the restaurant, and eventually we got really good at this Thanksgiving tradition. I think it as such a great time because we were discovering something together.
Has anything from your restaurant experience translated to your pottery business?
I learned from a very young age that food is special and becomes even more meaningful when presented with care and attention to detail. When you work for a restaurant you make a million duplicates of the same thing. I know that sounds quite tedious for some people, but I really enjoyed it. Because when you make something once, it’s probably going to be pretty shitty, but then you make it three times, ten times and a hundred times, and you get to this point where the product you are making it has an ease about it.
I noticed the same phenomenon in my pottery. I think I was trained to approach my pieces the same way I did my work in the restaurant. The first piece you make always feels weird, and I ask myself “Is this how I want this to look?” When you are still trying to figure it out, the piece looks kind of tortured, like you tried too hard. But by the time you get to the hundreds, things start to look much better, and the work has and ease about it. It's like it has that energy of being a natural extension of my movements. It's effortless and you know it because you've reached some sort of flow state, and when you are making it you don't have to think about every detail. It just feels natural.
What are the things that you consider when you are working on a piece?
I think that a lot of my tech history in user experience design has made it to my pottery making process. When I was working in software, I was used to thinking about who was going to be using the software and how, and then optimizing the design to account for that. That’s what I think about when I am designing my pottery. When I design my pieces I always have an intention. Creating with an intention enhances the work and it makes it more interesting.
How do you approach your design process?
When I’m designing, I usually have a particular dish in mind and an idea about how it would be plated. There's some sort of vibration that happens when there’s a perfect pairing between the dish and the food that’s being served on it. When the right dish gets into the right vessel, it just sings. It’s about the colors of the dish complimenting the vessel, the consistency and texture of the food, and size and shape of the vessel enhancing the food experience.
I recently made these bouillon cups for a restaurant and they said they wanted something that could be ‘sippable’. I made a piece that had a nice lip for sipping and decided not to glaze the exterior, because I wanted the cups to have that rough feel in the hands when you are sipping the broth. It's more than just the experience of tasting the food, you are involving this other sensation. If the cup was all glazed, it would be much more of an ordinary experience. Not glazing the outside of the bowl is like an exclamation point. Enhances the experience because it complements the way you experience the food.
Danielle Chutinthranond, Owner and Designer at Monsoon Pottery
Photography by Motorkast