Photo by Bill Gentle. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
Photo by Andrea Gentl and Bill Hyers. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
On a balmy late September afternoon, Brooklyn ceramicist Helen Levi is seated in her light-filled studio in Red Hook, attaching handles to mugs she’s recently thrown. The space (coated in a thin layer of clay dust, as all true ceramics studios should be), is lined with tables and shelves that hold countless clay and ceramic objects in various states of finish. “It was always just a hobby that I loved, but I never conceptualized it as a business move,” Levi tells me.
In fact, a little over four years ago, she hadn’t even dreamt up the thriving operation at her fingertips. Back then, Levi was somewhat adrift in her hometown of New York. She had a degree in photography but little in the way of proper employment—she’d quit a waitressing job, and seen the two schools where she’d been teaching pottery shutter. “I didn’t have much going on,” she admits. But that all changed after a fateful fall day in 2013.
At a Steven Alan pop-up store event in Manhattan, she met the owner of the upscale fashion chain. Mr. Alan was about to open a home store. When he learned that the young New Yorker was a potter, he asked to see her wares.
Levi hadn’t documented her ceramics at that point. She went home and photographed whatever she had: a motley assortment of cups, mugs, bowls, and planters. “It seemed like such a long shot, but he placed an order,” she says.
“Once I got that order, I really gave everything I had to it,” she explains of the lucky break that would lead to a new career. “I was lit on fire.”
Since then, her name has become synonymous with a line of signature, handmade vessels: nature-inspired stoneware mugs, cups, dishes, and planters made from various colored clays that she combines to develop soft, marbled swirls. As those experienced in the rigorous (and tedious) processes of ceramics can attest to, each piece takes patience, care, and time—seven to 10 days alone for a mug, for example, to allow for drying and firing.
Photo by Peter Siskos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
Levi, now 30, regularly distributes to over 10 stores nationwide—from sought-after retailers like Need Supply and Totokaelo, to neighborhood shops like The Primary Essentials in Brooklyn and Individual Medley in Los Angeles. Additional interest in Levi’s online shop is sparked by posts to her over 149,000 Instagram followers. She’s become a go-to collaborator for fellow creatives, from chefs to fashion powerhouse Diane von Furstenberg—with whom she unveiled a fresh collection of vessels this fall. But it took time and hustle to get to this point.
After graduating from Oberlin College—entering as a math major and leaving with a degree in photography—the ceramacist returned home to live with her parents in New York. Levi cobbled together part-time jobs as she pursued long-term documentary photography projects, “doing the regular early-twenties, floundering-about thing,” she says.
She’d taken pottery classes for a decade at a local community center while growing up in the East Village, and had been teaching the medium on and off since high school. When her former teacher went on maternity leave, Levi stepped in, working full-time as the studio’s manager for around five months.
The transition from photography to designing pottery took time to sink in. “I really thought of myself as a photographer, and that’s how I identified,” she explains, “so to think of myself as a designer who designs ceramic pieces was a big jump.” Levi’s photography expertise has understandably been a major asset in promoting herself and her work.
Another hurdle came with recognizing her limitations. “In the last four to five years I’ve just learned so much by doing it—like with that first order, I had to remake it a couple times because I wasn’t experienced with production.” She’d never sold her works before, let alone made dozens of the same pot. She learned the importance of trial and error.
Photo by James Chororos. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
From the early days, as she refined her skills, Levi was also actively marketing herself. “You try to say yes to things, to put yourself out there, and toot your own horn, even though sometimes you hate doing it,” she explains, nodding to the self-promotion that happens on Instagram. “But if I don’t do that, nobody’s going to do that for me, and then I’ll just be making work by myself in a dark cave.”
While social media has been important to building her brand, she notes that the platform is certainly not a strong predictor of sales. “Just because a thousand people like something on Instagram doesn’t mean anyone will buy it,” she says.
Over the years, Levi has picked up various new skills through books, YouTube videos, and from her fellow creatives. When she wanted to learn how to make large planters from casting, she hired a mold-maker to teach her. “I think I’m still learning which are the things I should do myself and which are the things I should hire someone who’s a real expert at to do,” she notes, nodding to a series of beeswax candles she’s made with the guidance of a local Brooklyn candlemaker. She’s also looked to her peers when seeking guidance, like designers Chen Chen and Kai Williams, with whom she shared a studio for two years in Sunset Park, having daily lunches and discussing their respective businesses.
While she had no prior business experience, Levi says her interest in math has been helpful, to an extent. “The business side is making mistakes and then knowing you’re not going to do it again,” she offers. In setting prices for her work—which range from $38 for an espresso mug to $190 for a large planter—she looked at the market and consulted with fellow potters. “My stuff is not cheap, and I know that it’s a high-end object for a lot of people,” she acknowledges. “But I’m not living like a Rockefeller. It’s my job, and it has to support my life.”
In the early days, she would make pots for orders as she received them, which would require a six-week lead time. “Until this studio now, I never had space, so I literally didn’t have any extra pieces,” she says. If a friend was headed to a wedding and looking for a unique, last-minute ceramic gift, Levi would have to turn them down. “I realized I was missing out on potential financial gain by not having the ability” to increase production, she says.
Photo by Helen Levi. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
Space made all the difference. Levi had worked out of communal pottery studios, shared with dozens of other potters, before moving into the Sunset Park space she later shared with Chen and Kai for two years. But that space is dwarfed by her current Red Hook studio, which is about five times larger. Levi recalls driving through a snowstorm to see it. She wrote a check on the spot. “That’s how real estate is in this incredibly competitive market,” she says. “If something pops up, you have to take it. You can’t wait for the right moment.”
“I had to slowly grow into a space like this,” Levi adds. To get to this point, she had to pursue a diversity of revenue streams—not just retailers and the online shop, but also custom orders and open studio sales. “I like to just have a day where everything’s out,” she explains (and it doesn’t hurt that in-person sales cut out the cost and time involved with shipping).
Levi has had to balance all aspects of her business. While certain weeks are dedicated to throwing or glazing, respectively, some days are consumed with packing and shipping orders.
Though she’s been able to hire assistants, she’s made a point of reserving certain key tasks for herself. “I do the marbling because I feel that that’s the step that has my hand in it,” she explains,” but there are lots of other steps of the process that are very time-consuming that I do feel comfortable handing off to an assistant, like glazing.”
Assistants have also been helpful in fending off burnout, a recurring danger. To combat it, she’s taken to temporarily retiring certain pieces after she tires of making many in succession. And she doesn’t accept orders in January, to give herself a break after the surge of holiday orders.
Photo by Atisha Paulson. Courtesy of Helen Levi.
In the future, Levi has ambitions to experiment with more sculptural and large-scale vessels. But in terms of growth, for the time being she’s happy maintaining the size of the business she currently has.
“I don’t want to be a slave to the studio,” she says, noting that time management can be a struggle in this more mature stage of her ceramics career. “It’s addictive when you’re running your own growing business. You’re putting in effort and you see the results. I work a lot, but I love what I do.”