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“The Clay Tells Me What It Wants To Become&#...

“The Clay Tells Me What It Wants To Become” — An Interview With Noted LA Ceramicist Ben Medansky

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Sprudge readers and Los Angeles coffee enthusiasts are no doubt well aware by now of the growing empire of Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski. The duo’s G&B Coffee at Grand Central Market and Go Get Em Tiger (GGET) in Larchmont have become LA coffee favorites, earning the duo a coveted Sprudgie Award, frequent mentions in the wider press, and even a residency at Paramount Coffee Project in Sydney. Carefully crafted coffee and excellent service are the norm at Glanville and Babinski’s cafes, and more recently, the food and baked goods program at GGET has expanded considerably in the hands of chef Todd Chang.

One more highlight, not to be overlooked, comes from drinking coffee at these bars out of a hand-thrown Ben Medansky Ceramics cup. Mr. Medansky, who was recently featured in the T Magazine article “On the Verge | The New Ceramicists“, draws inspiration for his unique wares from motor gears, power plants, and radial fins. His cups are on sale at both GGET and G&B, each one individually thrown and no two quite the same.

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Sprudge visited Medansky at his downtown Arts District studio to learn more about how he became the darling of the coffee community, how his work with Glanville & Babinski has impacted his studio as a whole, and why some of his most popular pieces aren’t for beverages at all (hint: it’s a line of hand-made pipes).

You said you were running late to your studio today…

I got ten minutes away from my house and realized that I forgot my iced coffee that I spent 24 hours cold brewing. I drove all the way back home for it. I make cold brew every few weeks. I carry it in these bottles that I got from World Market, so that they look like a fancy coffee. I put in the concentrate and add filtered water. I use a Toddy, which is great but it is still plastic, so I am thinking about redesigning one and making a ceramic version of it with a carafe underneath. I think it is about a gallon bucket on top with a hole and felt filter.

What coffee do you use for your cold brew?

I am on a journey right now to find which coffee I like for cold brew. I tend to lean towards the fruitier, floral, citrusy tones but it depends on the time of year. This current bottle is 49th Parallel. It’s so good. I kind of bought it because I love their packaging. I love the way it talked about the flavor. I bought the beans at Go Get Em Tiger.

Speaking of Go Get Em Tiger, when you started studying and making ceramics could you have predicted that the coffee community would be such a big part of your work?

I had no idea. I didn’t discover coffee until college when I realized that’s what coffee was for: to get through college. Then I fell in love with the third wave of it. I lived right behind an Intelligentsia in Chicago on Broadway. I found this culture of coffee and community and I was really interested in that. Doing ceramics I never thought I would make functional wares in production. I always planned to make sculpture.

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But now you’re making coffee mugs and coffee filter cones?

I am making these coffee filters for pour over coffee. I have been working on this set for almost six months now, trying to perfect the airflow and talking to coffee to make sure it drips properly and the funnel is the right angle. Those I have to do in one pull.  They will a very limited line, probably only an edition of 20 of them. The cups I do in three pulls.

After you finished school you worked with several artists, when you were transitioning into launching your own company. How important is your work with Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski? How did you meet them?

They definitely are a huge part of what I am working on and how my company has found an audience. I met them in my old studio on San Fernando Road. The guy who was working next to me is a woodworker. He was building all of the furniture for Go Get Em Tiger and G&B. He had them over for studio visits to see what he was working on and introduced me to them. They wanted custom cups.

It was the very first large cup order I had ever done. Through working for them my cups have really evolved. You can see from the beginning to the cups I am making now the different shapes and sizes, thicknesses.

What was the thinking behind the original cup?

Kyle’s big thing is that he didn’t want a handle. This was when they were still at Sqirl, and they were using small bowls instead of cups. So I was originally making small bowls for them. Then I started making cylinders and seeing which ones we liked better.

There was also one with a nub on the side to be able to hold a cigarette?

I love putting little nubs and attachments on things. That was based on this mug that Edith Heath designed. She was a big smoker, and would always put the handle at the bottom of her cup, the little loop at the bottom, so she could hold the cup with her bottom two fingers and hold her cigarette with her top two fingers. I am not a smoker, but I just like the idea of having your other fingers free and a disruption in your normal cup experience. It gives a grip to it. You feel like you are holding onto it more.

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In terms of the other changes, some of your cups now have splashes of blue, pink, and red. How have the designs evolved?

The colors are based on the original Pantone color booklet that Kyle gave me when we first started. That had teal and red for Go get Em Tiger and a few other neutral wood colors. It started as a specialty, as a branding thing. I was just using the cobalt blue for my own stuff. I was working on samples for them, there would be random blue ones in there. All of the red and teal are made for Go Get Em Tiger.

Then you decided to stamp them with your name and Go Get Em Tiger?

Yes. So whether people know that Go Get Em Tiger is the name of a company or not, it’s cool to be drinking out of a cup that’s telling you something like “Go Get Em Tiger!” You can conquer the day with this cup.

For all of your other jobs, commissions, assignments, and shows, how do coffee cups fit into your company as a whole?

It’s kind of the bread and butter of my company. The cups and the pipe pieces. Those are my two basics that I have been really good for me since I have started in terms of sales and people talking about me. The cups especially are what’s gotten me through every month, what’s gotten me through to be able to pay for my studio. I usually make a set of 36 and drop them off each week.

Lately Kyle has been texting me to say they have sold out and order another set. No matter what I am doing I usually drop everything and throw those cups right away. It takes three weeks to make anything before it dries, gets fired, glazed, bisqued, and sanded.

How do you make them?

It’s starts with a bag of clay. I cut and weigh each piece to 15 ounces. I start on the wheel and I throw them by hand. The clay tells me what it wants to become. They are all handmade. I never use a mold. I never take shortcuts. I trim each one by hand.

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How important is the vessel for drinking coffee? Compare drinking from a ceramic cup or glass to drinking out of paper.

Drinking out of paper or plastic is just not as good of an experience. I do it when I am on the go and I need it. Drinking out of glass and ceramic is a whole other situation. I think of it like cooking in my grandma’s cast iron cookware. Ceramic has more of a history; every time you drink out of it, the object changes. Every time you wash it, little imperfections will come through. Parts of the glaze will get stained with the coffee over time. That is something I like and think is important in using a cup. You become attached to it. I drink out of the same cup every day at my house and I wash it all the time too. I just love having that one go-to cup.

Can your cups go in the dishwasher?

Absolutely. They are dishwasher safe, as long as they are placed in there securely, so they don’t bang. That’s why I don’t slip cast anything. The integrity of the clay when it is thrown is a lot stronger.

You’ve had several commissions and high-profile shows recently. With all that happening, why is it important to continue your relationship with G&B and GGET?

There is something special about G&B and Go Get Em. I will be making them cups for a very long time. They have been with me since the beginning and I have been with them since they opened. I want to be able to have that venue to sell these specialty cups. With them it has always been a pure collaboration.

All of the Go Get Em cups are editions of about 36, and I’ve met people who have bought one from every series. It’s so exciting hearing that people are actually using this stuff. Hearing about it is the biggest joy, knowing that a cup is not just sitting there, it’s being used.

It’s such an important part of my fan base if having these Go get Em Tiger cups. A lot of the gift guides I’ve been featured in were because of the cups. They have gotten me so many Instagram followers, too, just from my name being on a cup and people finding me on Instagram. And I know my market is coffee lovers, pot heads, and gay guys. So if my Instagram is full of just pictures of people drinking coffee and smoking weed with my stuff, then I can capture that audience and make things perfectly for them.

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Many people would like to collect art, but don’t have a budget for it. Your smaller ceramic pieces are priced more accessibly.

Most of my cups are $40. I think it is important to have a whole spectrum of handmade pieces. I do have things under $100 and I have pieces that are $1,000 and up. I’ve got to have that push and pull that I am making sculpture and I am making functional work. It’s all a reaction to the previous thing that I made.

Art should be accessible. And art should be in the home. Art should be used more than just being looked at. I find a cup or a bowl gets to that… design, good craftsmanship, and art. In school we had this conversation–art versus design versus craft–but I think it’s all meant to all go together. Art and design and craft.

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Ben Medansky Ceramics are available at Go Get Em Tiger, as well as at ODLCO and LVL3 in Chicago, Legion in San Francisco, Love Adorned and Cooper Hewitt in New York, Table Of Contents in PDX, Poketo in Los Angeles, and TENOVERSIX in Dallas and Los Angeles. A full list of stockists is available here.

Julie Wolfson (@JulieWolfson) is the LA staff writer for Sprudge.com and a regular contributor to Cool Hunting. Read more Julie Wolfson here.

Photos by Zachary Carlsen for Sprudge.com.


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