Friday, October 2, 2015

James Klein and David Reid

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


KleinReid, a ceramics studio, was founded in 1993 by James Klein and David Reid when they had, in David’s words, “some energy—and a lot of naiveté”. Their work is known for its elegance and a deceptive simplicity, so hard, as any designer or artist will tell you, to achieve. An order from Bergdorf Goodman was their first break and since then they’ve sold work to celebrities and presidents. However, you might well have a piece yourself—it’s quite affordable. Over the years they realized that making things merely because they thought they would sell was the wrong approach. Said David, whom we interviewed in their Jackson Heights apartment, “When we pretend we’re back in graduate school and just making for ourselves, that’s what keeps the work honest. It keeps it intriguing for us and keeps us searching.”

On your website you say you’re “far from eloquent” – we’re hoping we’re going to prove you wrong.

I hope so. I have my moments.

Your husband (James Klein) is very good at writing. He says plenty. Does he make up for you?

Er … he makes up for me in a lot of ways.
Looking across the dining room table into the living room of James and David's Jackson Heights pre-war apartment. A glass mid–century globe pendant hangs above pieces from the KleinReid "Prime" line.
In a corner of the dining room, a painting by Katrin Sigurdardottir hangs above a French chair.
Peeking into the lush tenants' garden from the sunroom window. Their 10-unit building, part of Hawthorne Court, was modeled after English garden apartments.
A vintage iron medallion hangs above a grey velvet banquette. The built-in bookcases are filled with books, art and favorite objects. A standing lamp from a Rhode Island antiques store stands next to a stool by Charles Eames.
A painting by Carrie Moyer hangs near the entrance to the dining room. A print created by James and David in collaboration with Eva Zeisel hangs near the entrance to the dining room.
Collected objects punctuate a bookcase filled with art and design reference books. The orange stoneware vessel is a one-of-a kind by KleinReid.
A 'found' sculpture hangs next to a shelf lined with playful turned brass tops by KleinReid. The wooden tops were designed for Herman Miller.
Looking across the dining room towards the front entrance and living room. The original oak floors were refinished in a warm walnut stain.
A paneled mirror screen by James reflects the dining room storage shelves.
A metal hutch in the dining room is filled with vintage plates and bowls, many by the influential ceramicist and friend, Eva Zeisel.
And you’ve been together since high school.

Yeah. We were friends for about a year and then we started dating.

We both love ceramics and I have this fantasy that in my 60s, I’ll take it up. And, it seems, a lot of other people have the same fantasy. Why do you think that is?

It’s funny because it seems like there’s been this real burst of it recently. Like in the past couple of years I keep hearing people saying, “Oh yeah, I’ve been taking classes”. I think the material is accessible. There’s a real immediate tactility. You’re in it and you’re covered in it. You know, painting can be the same way because there’s an unctuousness—you get really involved with the material.

Do you think people look at a bowl or a vase and say, “I can make that,” whereas when they look at a painting, they don’t necessarily think that?

Maybe. People see that magic. Anytime you see somebody throw a pot, it’s like, yeah, you just sit down and it happens. But it takes years and years [to learn]. You’re like a human lathe when you’re making something on the wheel. James always says that clay is a very willing collaborator in that it’s very forceful. It’s not like paint – that you put it there and it stays there.
James and David's living room is a charming amalgam of found items, vintage and new furniture as well as collected works by artists and friends. "To give the room a cozy, slightly formal air, we decided to paint the room a rich Benjamin Moore gray and frame the art in gold frames," says James.
A self-portrait by Leonard Foujita found at an antiques mall in Ohio hangs in a mounted gold frame above the original marble-front fireplace mantel.
A one-of-a-kind moon bowl stands atop a red side table. The leather chairs are by Arne Norell, c.1960s.
A table lamp from the series "Still Life with Flowers" illuminates a corner of the living room.
A copper owl found at an upstate flea markets keeps watch over the living room. Near the front entrance a red painted bar cart displays a framed Fornasetti scarf and a one-of-a-kind vessel by KleinReid . Hanging above the cart is a print by James Gobel.
You mean it has a mind of its own?

Yeah. It shrinks; it cracks when it’s fired. It accepts a glaze or it doesn’t want to accept a glaze. They’ll say a clay is “short”, which means it doesn’t want to move or stretch as much as another clay. It’s like having a pet—you have to work with it.

How many different types of clay are there?

There are many. I was always told to think of a mountain and a river running down the mountain. The river picks up impurities as it runs down the mountain—so at the top you have the purest like porcelain and then with stoneware, it has more impurities and you lose that white, glassy color but it’s more durable. So a lot of tiles are made out of stoneware because of that.

Actually, now that we’re talking about clay, I don’t think I know what it is!

It’s fancy dirt.
A view from the entryway into the living room.
Art collected over the years from galleries, fairs, flea markets and friends, many in vintage frames, provide an interesting counter-balance for the mix of antique furniture and collected ceramics.
Another view of the living room. An 18th century French chair, a gift from a restorer, stands next to an Asian style chest painted in a peacock blue paint.
A carved Buddha from India, covered with dried flower prayer necklaces stands near a KleinReid "Catch-All".
Looking across the dining room into the sunroom. The dining chairs were found at a salvage shop in Saugerties, New York.
In the sunroom a work by Kara Walker (left) and a drawing by Nancy Blum (upper right) hangs above a barn wood table made by a friend. The ceramic piece is by KleinReid.
A pair of ornate metal sconces flank a French sofa found on eBay.
A wing chair from an upstate flea market faces in to the light-filled sunroom.
A glazed ceramic head, a wedding gift from friends, stands next to a mid-century wood sculpture and a brass candlestick by Eva Zeisel.
Every now and then I read books about Japan and one of the things that interests me is their ceramic culture—there’s an almost religious devotion to the process of making ceramics. It’s shifted from a craft to a kind of philosophy. Do you ever experience any kind of “religious” feeling when you throw a pot?

I experience it when I look at things, when something just kind of hits you and is transcendent, the way it speaks to you. There are some pieces at the Met that really do that for me.

Did you like ceramics right from when you were a kid? Were you the star in your class when you had to do a ceramics project?

I wasn’t like a prodigy, no. But one time I had modeling clay and I thought I could throw a pot on my parents’ turntable.
The original kitchen dumbwaiter, in the bedroom hall, was in use until three years ago. The renovated master bath retains its prewar style.
In the master bedroom, a 1990s painting by James hangs above a smoked glass-and-brass side table.
Reflections of the master bedroom from a wrought iron shield-shaped mirror. A photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans leans atop small trunk table. The 1950s standing lamp is by Robert Sonneman for George Kovacs.
The always comfortable Eames lounge and ottoman is positioned near the view out to the back garden.
The guest bedroom is dominated with a desk made by James and David and a vintage wicker Mies Van Der Rohe chair.
Metal industrial shelving in the guest bedroom is a repository for books, photos KleinReid ceramics.
So there you go! It was there all along.  There must be, I don’t know, ten potters in the entire country who can make a living out of it, right?

I think it depends on where you live. [laughs] I always say, “This would be so much easier if we were in a little town somewhere.” But, yeah, we’re really fortunate.

So you really both believed that you could make your living doing this?

Yeah! Isn’t that idiotic?!

How did you make that happen?

Um … we had some energy—and a lot of naiveté. We were very young. James taught ceramics and worked as a decorative painter. I worked at a gallery in Soho—that was in 1993. So it was late nights and weekends when we would work in the studio. Then we got our first big order through Bergdorf Goodman.
James, head of their apartment complex's gardening committee, has helped renovate the common space into a bucolic refuge filled with native plants and flowers.
How? Did you walk in with a big cardboard box full of vases?

So like, we would make pieces, photograph the work, get dupes made and then put together packets and mail them out. And then wait.

How did you know what would sell and how to price things?

It was like, “What feels fair?” We had this idea that we will have this collection that would sell and then that would give us the time to do our own work. We never have time to do our own work.

Why aren’t the collections your own work?

The thing was, after about eight months of working, we realized this could be our work. There was a piece that we made that somehow embodied  … well it wasn’t for the production line … it was just the idea that “this is a good vase”. And then the idea that everything we put into our art could be put into our production line. That’s when all the boundaries [dissolved].
THE KLEIN REID LIC FACTORY. In the Long Island City studio tables are filled with plaster molds for current and future projects.
Industrial shelves hold orders placed by various clients.
Pieces waiting to be glazed.
Studio assistants work on multiple projects for upcoming orders.
A mouth of a vase is being finished.
More finishing work.
Voila!
Prepping a vase to be glazed.
What was the vase like?

It was this weird funny-four-footed round bud vase. We realized we didn’t need these hierarchies—the work would be better the more honest it is. It became less about what we were thinking we should be making or what would sell. Anytime we’ve tried to make something that we think will sell, it usually fails. When we pretend we’re back in graduate school and just making for ourselves, that’s what keeps the work honest. It keeps it intriguing for us and keeps us searching.

You worked with Eva Zeisel—and you collect her work. What drew you to her and her work?

She speaks incredibly honestly through her work. You can see a vase and know that’s it’s one of hers the same way you can see her signature and know that it’s her signature. It might be mass-produced but [a piece] will still have that intimacy from what she was doing at the time she started working on the piece.
Glaze testing.
Plaster molds.
Shelves filled with work waiting to be fired for Room and Board and other clients.
A wall shelf displays ceramic samples created over the years by KleinReid.
Getting ready to fire in the studio kiln.
A studio wall is filled with silk screen prints by KleinReid, some in collaboration with Eva Zeisel.
James and David standing in front of studio shelves display current and past ceramic lines including, "Prime", "Eva" and "Still Life with Flowers."
A close up of the "Eva Centerpiece."
"Eeos," a new collection.
Various one-of-a-kind pieces are arranged on studio shelves.
A watercolor in progress by James Klein.
Tools of the trade.
An overcast view towards Greenpoint, Brooklyn from the KleinReid studio.
So what did the presidents buy? I read that the last two presidents each have pieces of your work.

Oh, the Hungarian ambassador gave George and Laura an “Eva” stack [vase] and then Michelle has bought our work. I don’t know what she bought but we had a store tell us that she had come in and bought some things.

Well that’s a feather in your cap!

I know! Hey, I love Michelle!