The ShanFeng Incense Vessel
Chinese New Year is a moment for setting intentions. Burning incense is one of my lifelong spiritual practices, a defining daily ritual, and recently I had the privilege of working with beloved San Francisco ceramic artist Len Carella to create the ShanFeng incense vessel. Inspired by Len’s signature jars and my ShanFeng line of pure, undyed cashmere, they are quietly elegant stoneware pieces—unglazed and uncolored—showcasing the natural beauty of the material.
Len handcrafts each piece in his San Francisco studio, and the simplicity and subtlety of his forms are reflections of his mastery. Commingling smoke, fragrance, memory, and intention, our incense vessel is intended to be an object of visual and spiritual beauty to help clear mind and space.
We recently sat down in conversation with writer Alisa Carroll to share the intention behind and creation of this new offering.
Alisa Carroll: Would you share what inspired this collaboration?
Lan Jaenicke: I recently designed a new line, ShanFeng, with undyed cashmere, silk, and cotton—absolutely pure fibers—and that has made me even more appreciative of these raw materials. It’s about leaving their natural beauty pristine, and really focusing on the elements that Earth has to offer. There’s such a luminosity to the resulting pieces, they are radiant in their natural whites and creams. And the forms are very simple, with very clean lines.
Len Carella: And the vessels are an off-white, creamy stoneware. So it’s the texture, the carving, and the shape that you really see and notice.
LJ: It’s like cooking—when you're working with beautiful fish for example, you don't need a lot of seasoning, you want to just appreciate the inherent taste and the texture.
LC: I keep thinking of the word purity—just the simple beauty and richness of the material itself without any embellishment. It also works so nicely with the incense because it relates back to this idea of creating a sacred space, it's pure and clear in your mind and clear in your space.
LJ: Yes, it helps to quiet the mind as well. You're just feeling the presence of the material.
AC: Len, had you created an incense vessel before?
LC: No, but the pieces are based on jars that I've been making ever since I started in ceramics. I throw a completely closed form, an empty, hollow void. Then I trim it, and cut out this little lip so that the top rests on the base. And it seemed like a natural transition—when Lan saw the jars, she immediately said, “We have to do an incense vessel!”
AC: And you’ve ingeniously created interior spaces for all the elements of incense…
LJ: Yes, because I use incense daily, and sometimes it's kind of messy. With the vessel, all is enclosed. You only sense the fragrance, you only see the smoke--you appreciate the essence of it.
LC: Yes, I love the way it's all self-contained--you can place the incense in there, and a little box of matches--and all you see is the vessel. And when the incense is burning, it has this beautiful ethereal quality where the smoke is billowing out, just floating around the room, and you just get wafts of fragrance.
LJ: And the ashes stay inside too. I had a vessel like an incense burner when I was at boarding school, and I always did my ceremony in the morning. I accumulated ashes from decades of morning rituals. It’s almost like you're building history. That's your journey…
LC: A container of memory…
AC: That’s beautiful. All of those layers of spiritual practice and good intentions preserved.
LJ: And when you touch the incense, the ashes, it's so tangible--you feel that all the prayers and all the early mornings that you set intentions, they’re all there.
AC: I’d never thought of that before, Lan. Prayer is immaterial, of course, but having a record of it in the dust or the ashes, that’s a beautiful idea.
LJ: It’s there. It's all in the ashes. The smoke, it disappears, but the ashes stay. So it's beautiful balance: something has left, and something stays.
AC: The pieces are also a lovely marriage of both your design signatures.
LC: Yes. We even have that little strip of the satin black glaze that mimics the detail of Lan's signature black grosgrain ribbon. I think we have a very similar thought process and aesthetic. Lan’s pieces are so beautiful, so classic and timeless. And that’s what I've tried to create and instill in my work. Something that you can live with for forever, that enhances the environment.
LJ: It’s about creating timeless pieces. Also, the focus on artistry and craft. Len makes every single piece himself. It’s all very much handmade. You can pass these pieces down knowing they are so well made, with intention and the best materials. They’re versatile too—they can be vessels for many things.
LC: I remember you mentioned potpourri because the fragrance can escape through the openings…
LJ: There are so many possibilities! The vessel can also hold water because the interior is glazed, so you could do a floral arrangement by placing branches through the holes. All these simple pleasures adding so much joy. And Len, you were such a joy to work with. As you can read my mind, we didn’t need to talk much. It was just very natural.
Each limited edition ShanFeng incense vessel is hand-made; each one is distinctive. They are available only in-store at Lan Jaenicke boutiques, where you can also discover Santa Maria Novella incense, crafted by the oldest incense maker in Kyoto.
Wishing you a year of inspiration and balance,
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Photos by Jason Hsu