An illuminating discussion with Belgian-born, longtime Los Angeles resident Delphine Lippens, currently a successful ceramicist.
We met in February at her studio, proudly located in South Central Los Angeles. Artisan Block Los Angeles (A B.L.A) is a collective of artists, artisans and makers located in one single block in this area of the city.
Lippens created Humble Ceramics in 2010 and what you see today is the evolution of an exploration in clay.
Delphine where are you from originally?
Brussels but I came to live in Los Angeles, in 1982. when I was almost 13.
Have you lived in California ever since?
Yes primarily but I also spent time and years going to and fro from Europe when I was a little older.
So where does Humble Ceramics begin? I am sitting with you in a vast warehouse surrounded by ceramic filled shelves in all degrees of readiness. How did you get to be here?
Working with clay was never part of my “plan”. So this is a very unexpected evolution. After constant growth, I’ve had to take a leap of faith and rented this 8,000 sq ft warehouse to work in, as my home desk was just too small. The work comes from my own limitations (be they technical, business oriented or financial). So we make do with what we have and make it work.
What did you think you would do when you were a child? Is it what you dreamt of or far from what you had initially envisaged? Was it your environment, international life, your early education that had the greatest impact?
As a child, I would reinvent and redesign the world in my head. I was a loner, but the intimacy of one’s thoughts are very powerful tools and company. As Dr. Randolph Stone (father of Polarity) would say “thoughts influence energy, energy influences matter”. Also, reading many European Graphic Novels kept my imagination intact, and fed it. Of course, movies, and growing up amongst creative people, visiting their homes and being exposed to the work of Axel Vervoordt, Jules Wabbes, Jacques Wirtz, Pierre Culot, Marc Corbiau, and my family’s taste all influenced me tremendously!
So for you these influences were powerful.
Yes! My mother was an artist, my father loves art and artists and my family (both sides) and ancestors had always had a very strong connection to art in all possible form of expression (today, practically all my cousins and both my brothers are pursuing some sort of creative expression) so that’s always been part of who I am.
My father took me to many artist studios, galleries and museums so that has formed my taste and appreciation for art, design, architecture, landscaping, etc. I grew up surrounded by beautiful things but it took time for me to evolve into what I do now.
So how did you begin your search for who you wanted to be and do?
I always knew I was going to be an artist. But what kind? A musician? A painter? A fashion designer? A cook? An entrepreneur? A product designer? It was never clear to me what to choose. So I dibbled in a lot of different fields, looking for my path.
When I was 16, I went to Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and graduated with an AA in Fashion Design. After this, I moved to Geneva for a year where I went to L’ecole de Decors de Theatre (scenography). Then I moved to Brussels for a year where I studied Trompe l’oeil and Decorative painting at the Van der Kelen & Logelain Institute. Later, I spent a year in Paris where I had the intention to work in Haute Couture, but it was not meant to be. After that I moved back to Los Angeles still not very sure about what next and started to design hats for a few years. A friend of my mother’s had a beautiful store, on Rodeo Drive, where she she sold Narcisso Rodriguez amongst other Designers and my hats !
Some also featured in the window of Van Cleef & Arpels for a month or so which was encouraging but that turned out not to be it either. It was here that I made my first steps towards the culinary world.
What did that involve?
I was accepted as a line cook in 1994 in the kitchen of *Wolfgang Puck for two months on a trial basis, and ended up working there about a year and a half.
I worked under chefs Francois Kwaku Dungo & Lee Hefter at the original Spago on Sunset Blvd. Wow – what an experience that was. It was there that I discovered what it takes to run a restaurant and where I have the greatest respect and appreciation for chefs and everyone in the kitchen! Dishwashers and busboys included. A solid team is what makes the magic happen. But when you work under the someone like Lee …. It is (tough) eye opening.
I kept looking for it and moved to France to Provence and opened a little café.
This sounds like a movie.
Yes, but I quickly realized there is a big difference between being a tourist and being a local. It was not for me, so I moved back to Los Angeles after one year. I worked briefly for an incredible chef called Olivier Caparros at the now closed La Bastide de Lilou, during my “Provence moment”.
When did you return to Los Angeles?
I moved back to LA after Provence in September 2001 – My flight was actually two days after 9/11, and I was stuck in Paris for another few days due to the horrific tragedy of 9/11.
When I came back to Los Angeles, my mother admitted that she had been fighting cancer for the last 11 years and had never told me because she didn’t want to burden me or be seen as a “sick” or a “dying” person, but she could no longer hide it,
From this point, I became her full-time caretaker for one and a half year until she passed away.
As consequence of this time in your life you then became massage therapist and specialized in Somatic trauma?
Yes, losing my mother was very tough, and as a way to survive the trauma of the experience, I started searching for answers and needed to rebuild myself. So after two years of grieving, I went to school to become a massage therapist, then once you work with the body, issues come up that I was not ready to deal with, so I studied and became a SEP (Somatic Experiencing Practitioner).
So how did you get from that study and practice to where you are today with Humble Ceramics ?
I had no idea I would be where I am today. I didn’t choose ceramics, it chose me! I had no interest in it and only took a 6-week class with a friend to try something new and get out of the house. It was a social experiment, nothing more.
In relation to this then, how would you describe yourself, a broad creative, an artist, ceramacist, product designer?
I’m none of those and yet all of those at the same time. I see myself as a Jack-of-all trades (knowing very little about a lot and a lot about very little!). All I’m doing in this life is to acquire experiences that involve all the senses … artist seems to be the most precise word so far, but not limited by any one vehicle or mode of expression, so right now, it’s pottery.
I’m just me, and I love to create: a painting, an object, a recipe, a poem, a concept to better an environment, problem solving, and creating what I want to see/hear/eat/smell/feel in my universe …
I don’t want to be pinned to any one mode of expression because that is limiting. I won’t let society “bonsai” my creativity.
I do this first and foremost for myself!
Los Angeles artist Ed Moses gets annoyed at anyone saying they are an “artist” as he feels GOD is the ultimate artist … I see his point, but haven’t found a better word just yet.
It seems to me in our conversations that you have always been motivated by beauty and a deep respect for simplicity. You quoted Einstein “Everything should be made as simple as possible but not one bit simpler.”
Yes for me this means taking something down to its purest essence without losing its strength or its purpose or design. The simpler the object, the more its true nature can shine through.
Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese artist and landscape artist made this point in his work with rocks and stones. He travelled far and wide up rivers and mountain streams for the one which in a way, spoke to him. His purpose as an artist was to open the inner world of the natural materials he was working with to free its inner spirt.
Would you describe your work as capturing the spirit of the materials you work with?
It certainly showcases it. When working with clay, you are working with a piece of the planet. Clay is such a humble material and it can be transformed in so many ways.
What is motivating the creativity that we now see in Humble Ceramics. Are you making your creations for chefs or are they guiding you?
It goes both ways. If they ask for something I don’t have, I make one, my own way. But many are just inspired by the shapes I offer.
What is the state of the marriage between you as a ceramist and a chef as a creator and final presenter?
We create the canvas for their art. Humble Ceramics is just a holding vessel for their creativity.
How different are the final results to your original idea?
I usually have a clear idea in my head. I also tend to embrace what I see in front of me, and will work with that.
How much collaboration goes between you and chefs?
It’s always about their passion for the ingredients they’ll be using, the season, the color palette, the aesthetic of the restaurant and the type of food & atmosphere they want to create. Based on that, I can make suggestions. Sometimes, they want something specific, and sometimes we’ll attempt to make it – Humble Ceramics style. We have a strong identity, but it’s not for everyone. But we offer a wide variety of choices … (and more to come) … it’s tough to hold back when I want to redesign the whole world!
What creates the magic between your work and the chef’s work?
The simplicity of our shapes and color palette. Our work does not compete for attention. The ingredients and the presentation of the food is the star of the show. Also, eating out of a handmade object elevates the experience. When eating out of our greystone line, it feels like you are eating in an object made of actual stone, and that is very grounding and unexpected. Our work ties well with the environment (meaning nature), as well as the natural internal textures such as linen, wood, leather, zinc, brass, concrete, sisal, glass, paper, kraft, rocks, stone, metal, and … the food!
What pieces are you making now?
Oh there are just so many, and I’m holding back. The Stillness Collection seems to be quite the classic, as well as canisters, the Jules trinket bowls, the Essi mortar, our Cazuela platters, the Alder tumblers.
When do you know when a piece is finished ?
I feel a YES or a NO in my gut.
What role do your staff play in maintaining the beauty and authenticity of your pieces (eg. I saw them handsanding piece by piece when I visited you).
I could not grow without my “elves” as I like to call them. It is important that they like what they do, because each piece has so many steps, and each one is so important, I want each person to be in a good mood when they work on a piece. I no longer have time to make all the steps myself, so I need to make sure my elves see the work with my eyes and know how special the work they are doing is!
Explain your exciting new steps into glazes and alchemy. I saw an achingly beautiful glaze, deep velvet blue scattered with tiny lights like the night sky which would be amazing to gaze into once ones bowl was empty.
Oh – that’s a lot of trial and error. It’s a bit like cooking, you test what happens if you add this or that ingredient, if you substitute this for that, and so forth! Then you see the reaction in the kiln, on the clay bodies, and how it reacts at our firing temperatures … I’m still a novice, and have the feeling I will always be in that domain! But when you get a good glaze, it feels very satisfying!
Where do you find your source of creativity?
Nature, the cosmos, spirituality, philosophy, metaphysics, quantum physics, mathematics, life itself. I don’t go to museums, exhibits or art shows anymore because I do not want to be influenced by someone else’s work. Maybe it’s egotistical, but I want my work to be organic and of my own process, my own relationship with it, my own exploration. My inner worlds are so rich with inspiration, I do not need to seek it.
What keeps you at your work and gives you daily joy?
To be able to express a portion of my creativity and have an audience to receive it and appreciate it is what keeps me going. I could be doing this, but if no one showed interest, then it wouldn’t be as satisfying. Also, there a constant dialogue with the universe, noticing, observing, pondering. To be a witness to what is happening (as I feel a little detached from this all (it feels so surreal)), so I’m just on this journey for the ride and we’ll see where it goes. I guess it’s the discovery and curiosity of another day that keeps me going and gives me joy.
What do you find rewarding in what you do?
To make beauty with intention and knowing the impact it will have in someone’s life (however small). Healing beauty, it’s so easy to destroy, not to care, so to contribute in my humble way to make the world a more beautiful and peaceful place, that is an extraordinary privilege!.
What makes you satisfied?
I’m never satisfied! Hence the search for new answers, new experiences, new environments, new fields. But so far, this has been the most satisfying journey because it encompasses so many different aspects of myself, and that keeps me going. I guess everything else was just an accumulation of experiences that led me to create Humble Ceramics … so I’m hooked (for now!)
Where do you see the next evolution with food and presentation?
To be completely honest, I hope food becomes simpler, less intellectual, going back to basics. But that is my own wish, based on what I like.
When you see what Chef Dan Barber in Pocantio Hills, New York has done with his farm and his philosophy on food moves me to tears every time I think about it. Have you heard his TED talk – “How I fell in love with a fish”? Mindful growing, mindful treatment of animals (just because we eat them does not mean cruelty and lack of dignity is acceptable). What Mary Temple Grandin an American professor of animal science at Colorado State University has done for larger scale animal farming is a step in the right direction.
But I see smaller scale farming, restaurants on premises, more community gardens in food deserts, empowering communities to grow their own foods or embrace what is local to them, tasting the sun in a tomato, the rain on a lettuce leaf, tasting the subtleness of the type of wood used to cook this or that ingredient, humble ingredients, taking pleasure in simpler foods.
And always have gratitude for how privileged we are. Not everyone has access to good food or food at all!
In terms of presentation, right now the trend is to serve on porcelain alternatives, so handmade pottery is one of them. There is big difference in eating to satisfy your senses, eating as a social experience or eating purely to satisfy your hunger. Presentation will reflect that intention or mood and the food of course.
How does it feel to have demand for Humble Ceramics in Japan knowing how the Japanese attach so much importance to aesthetics and how much they value authenticity?
An incredible honor and privilege! Japan is a huge influence on me and my work. So to be appreciated there is very very special and close to my heart!
What’s your favorite food and ceramic combination at the moment ?
Oh that’s hard to choose! I’ve seen so many beautiful renditions. I’ll let you decide. As in anything and everything, taste is relevant, so it will depend on the context, time, mood, atmosphere, and so forth.
Who would you like to work with?
I’m a bit of a lone wolf so no one in ceramics, but I’d love to work with street artists, Shepherd Fairey and Retna, and a few others or some tattoo artists I follow on Instagram (their work always inspires me).
Whose table/tables would you like Humble Ceramics to be on ?
John Pawson, Donald Judd, Tom Ford, Francis Mallmann, Jose Ignacio, Jiro Ono, Thomas Keller, Rene Redzepi, Gert De Mangeleer, the list is long! Just in Los Angeles alone, I could list two dozen chefs I’d love to work with!
Well you are in Travis Lett’s new book Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California which is on the 2016 James Beards Cook Books finalist list. His and yours is a heavenly match.
Yes – how lucky are we. And that was quite unexpected (we had heard rumors, but found out for sure when the book came out).
We are blessed to be in a city that is so eclectic in terms of foods, from street foods, to food trucks, to casual to experimental to classic California cuisine to fusion to my favorite … Ramen to … we have absolutely the best of everything here.
But to be honest, Humble Ceramics are incredibly grateful to be with our current roster of chefs and want to shout out a big thank you for using us.
Humble Ceramics seem to pop up in every other Food magazine in the United States. Is it a pastime spotting the pieces yourself or do you know beforehand. Are stylists knocking at your door?
I feel like a little girl in disbelief every time I see one of our pieces in a magazine, a book or a blog. I never take it for granted.
We are very privileged to have our work used in various food publications and cookbooks. We usually learn about it during the process, as people contact us ahead of time to buy our work or borrow the pieces for these specific projects, but not always. For magazines, often, we learn about it afterwards, or people mention they saw our work here or there and so I play Sherlock Holmes and go on a hunt for the proof.
We might be in other places and are still not aware of it. Sometimes we’ll see it a year later. Sometimes I see a post that looks like our work, and often it is.
Where does sculpting enter your work and will you explore this further ?
When you work in 3 dimension, sculpture is always part of it. It is just a matter of scale. But I am working on a new series called Dharma, inspired by the Tibetan Prayer Wheels … But yes, definitely, I want to do more sculptures not just objects, but right now, I just don’t have the time, so the work is small scale.
Is there any fun in your pieces, any humor ?
Of course, I can’t take any of this too seriously. The universe blinks at us constantly, we just need to see it and acknowledge it. It is part of the dialogue. But that usually happens during the process. Sometimes, it’s like a stand up act of comedy. But that happens behind the scenes or in interactions with people and/or how they use the work as well as what they see.
As I see it your work appears to take from the Belgian approach to colour. Pared back, monochrome with perfectly harmonized tints and hues (seen easily in their Interior design) not rushed or exuberant but rather composed and cool which you combine with the Japanese aesthetic of pure form and texture. Can you pick up this thread and add or subtract from it ?
No – you said it perfectly. There is an unexpected harmony between Belgian and Japanese design, also reflected in a lot of our landscaping, the subtle beauty of textures, raw, minimally processed. I’ve been exposed to that magical combination, and it has obviously influenced my aesthetic. The bare essentials.
Which artists, sculptors, musicians, influencers do you admire?
Isamu Noguchi, Constantin Brancusi, Andy Goldworthy, David Nash, Donald Judd, Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, Pierre Culot, Bruno Romeda, Rothko, Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, Robert Smithon, Stephen Hawkins, Albert Einstein, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Calvin Klein, Tom Ford, Terry Riley, J.S. Bach, Arvo Part, Serge Gainsbourg, Aphex Twin, Amon Tobin, LA Reid, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Richard Branson, Elon Musk and many more.
And what about the white porcelain of Edmund De Waal. Do you have an opinion about such work?
I see his work as music with not a single note out of place. His work and presentation is like a symphony for the eyes.
You can learn more about Delphine Lippens here.
You can find information about Humble Ceramics here.
* Wolfgang went to Los Angeles in 1975 and very quickly garnered the attention of the Hollywood elite as chef and eventually part owner of Ma Maison in West Hollywood. His dynamic personality and culinary brilliance that bridged tradition and invention made Ma Maison a magnet for the rich and famous, with Wolfgang as the star attraction. He had an innate understanding of the potential for California cuisine, and was pivotal in its rise to national attention during the late 1970s.