Len Carella: Vessels of Grace

I always find great inspiration in seeing how material determines form, whether it’s working with silk or cashmere as I drape a new garment, varying weights of paper in calligraphy, or even layering the notes of a fragrance. This week we were delighted to speak with Len Carella, whose fluency with clay enables him to craft ceramic forms of great refinement—the kind of simplicity that can only be achieved by masterful hands.


The 'Flow' Stoneware Pedestal Platter in Satin & Gloss Black


After a twenty-year career in fashion as a designer of footwear and leather goods, Len began his journey into ceramics in 1998 by taking classes at Parsons New York. Today, his practice includes both superb functional ware and fine art, which has been exhibited at FOG Fair, Themes + Projects, and the American Museum of Ceramic Art. And Len still crafts each and every piece by hand. 


At our new Sacramento Street space, we’re fortunate to have a selection of Len’s work as part of the Tracy Simmons collection. We spoke with Len, who also happens to be an utterly lovely human being, about small production, conscious consumerism, and the joy of letting the process lead the way.


Do you have an ultimate artistic goal in mind; an ideal that you’re always working towards?


When moving into doing ceramics and sculpture full time, I just wanted to make work that endured, that didn’t have a trendy or seasonal quality. I worked in footwear for twenty years, in a disposable economy for so long, that I think when I started doing this full time, I didn’t want it to feel like unnecessary consumerism. This is conscientious consumerism, it’s so special, you pass it down to loved ones friend or family. 


Porcelain bud vases


Your palette contributes to that timelessness as well, because the hues are so enduring—the gorgeous blues and blacks...


I do select those colors just for my own personal likes and aesthetics, but they’re also informed by high fire ceramics. What’s unique about high fire is that aesthetically, you have incredible depth and richness to glazes and clays that you don’t get from lower temperatures. High fire—like porcelain and stoneware—needs to be fired at these temperatures (where most colors burn out) to be vitrified. 

You create both superb fine art and functional pieces. How do these practices differ? 


I do enjoy doing both. I would say the difference is when I’m making functional ware I know exactly what I’m making. Whereas with sculpture, I sometimes have a vague or general idea and just start working with the material and let it take me. 


‘VESSEL no. 02’ in Stoneware and Leather; ‘Float’ installation in Stoneware


Would you share a bit about your process with us? 


I learned on a wheel, and that’s what I did for years. I did closed-form jars, adding leather because of my leather goods background. Then I started hand building and slab building, and now 85%-90% of my work is slab built. The other 15-20% is thrown. I’m a one-man operation with limited capacity: I have a San Francisco studio space where I do all of my hands-on clay work, and at home I add all of the leather detailing.


Len’s iconic Stoneware jars with their signature leather knots


Why do you feel there’s been such an inspiring craft revival over the past 10 – 15 years? Is it a response to digitization, much like the Arts & Crafts movement was a response to industrialization? 


It’s the digital online world, but it’s also the advent of fast fashion, and companies taking that same aspect to homewares—companies that released collections of new product every few months like H&M did with clothing. It was intoxicating, then it fell flat. 

We’re also seeing a greater embrace of ceramics in the art world, thanks in part to artists like Edmund de Waal, Theaster Gates, and Clare Twomey.


Ceramics has come into its own in last 10-20 years. I think for a long time it was considered art with a small “a.” There’s so much more awareness now, and people can collect it.


Ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s current exhibition, Lettres à Camondo, at the Musée Nissim de Camondo, Paris


Who are your Inspirations?


I love Ruth Duckworth. She was born in Germany, then moved to the U.S. and lived in Chicago. I found out about her pretty early on, and it really spoke to me and my aesthetic around clay. I grew up in Northern California and remember a lot of heavy brown pottery in the ‘70s—I appreciate the work, it’s just not my aesthetic. I remember as a child seeing Japanese pottery and being much more interested in that. Her work just really spoke to me.


Ceramic works by 20th century modernist sculptor Ruth Duckworth


What upcoming projects can you share with us?


I have a show starting in May in Chicago at a new shop/gallery, Tribute. I’m working feverishly as we speak!


Learn more about Len Carella @lencarella and www.lencarella.com