John Born

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John Born’s trade name for his collections of gracefully angled ceramics is Humble Matter, referring in part to the fact that clay is the humblest medium. It is mere earth for us earthbound creatures who have, virtually since the dawn of time, fashioned it into vessels, forms and objects that reflect who we are. Having studied fine art at University of Wisconsin in Madison, which is also where he grew up, John only relatively recently “escaped” a career in pharmaceutical advertising to return to his original goal of making things and living in a more tactile, meaningful world. (John’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition opening May 30th at Dobrinka Salzman Gallery, 532 W. 25th Street)

Peeking into the main hall of the Brooklyn townhouse that John shares with his wife Cecilia Clarke and their children, Josephine and Simon. A collection of his pottery is arranged on a white parsons table.

If you read design magazines and blogs and so forth, it seems like ceramics are having a kind of moment—has that been your experience?

Definitely. I did a talk a couple of years ago about why clay and making things out of clay maybe fulfills people as human beings. We’ve become more attached to more virtual things—nothing is really tangible. There is something really amazing about having a vision for what you want to make and then being able to make that. The reason why clay is different to other craft mediums is just our connection to the earth—we’re earthbound creatures. 

Well you see it in the metaphors, like in a John Donne poem, where we’re actually made of clay. And it’s one of our earliest activities—I believe shards of pottery have even been found from Neanderthal sites. But in your view why did ceramics become a sort of step-sister to other kinds of art?

[Laughs] That’s … a really good question and my historical knowledge of ceramics is scant at best. The interesting thing about ceramics as opposed to other art forms is that it’s really a material catch-all. Painting is about paint but ceramics can be sculpture, ceramics can be craft, ceramics can be functional, ceramics can be non-functional—but you run into the argument of art versus decorative art.

In a corner of the front parlor a portrait of Cecilia’s great grandmother, Sadie Nash, hangs above a maple American slant top desk.
Peeking into the front parlor seating area. A print painting on paper by artist Norman Bluhm hangs above the sofa.

Two photographs by Jacques Henri Lartigue hang above a table from Holler & Squall in Brooklyn Heights.
A crystal chandelier purchased at an Atlantic Avenue antiques store hangs from the high-ceilings of the light-filled front parlor. Cecilia’s daughter, interior designer Allegra O. Eifler, helped in the overall design of John and Cecilia’s home.
Two of John’s works are arranged on a small table along with a vase by Nicolette Johnson and a shard by sculptor Devra Freelander.
Hanging above the family piano are original Inuit prints from western Canada.
The top of the piano is now a display area for family photos and music books.
A view into the corners of the front parlor and a second living room.

Does that irritate you?

When I first moved to New York, over 25 years ago, I wanted to be an artist and I had a very circuitous route from there to where I am today and my feeling is that was my dream in coming here. I am thankful to be able to do that in any kind of capacity. If somebody wants to call what I do decorative art, I don’t find that insulting. It’s been like a total life-changing gift to be able to do this and to actually have a positive response to my work.

I was curious when I saw your work and your website how there is this fine line between them being pieces of sculpture but you seem to market them more as decorative work. What made you go that route as opposed to the gallery route?

Those were the people who were willing to buy … [starts to laugh].

What do you think is hard about doing what you do? What do you struggle with when you are making something?

[Long pause] …I don’t understand … um … better studio practice, more efficiency. I kind of know what I’m doing but not really. I have someone who works for me who is amazing and says things like, “How about getting a damp box so that you don’t have to wrap everything in plastic all the time?” If this gets included, people will be like, “Are you kidding me? You didn’t know to do that?”

Original pocket doors open up the flow between the spacious ground floor rooms.
A drawing by Norman Bluhm hangs on the far wall.
A portrait of Cecilia’s ancestor, General Charles Scott hangs above an American tilt-top. Arranged on the table are more family photos, books and a lamp designed by Allegra, using one of John’s pieces. The tin ceilings and marble fireplace mantel are original to the townhouse.
Curved metal étagères from Holler & Squall display a mix of ceramics by John, as well as Simone Bodner-Turner, Julie Ahn, Clair Catillaz, Jenna Lee, Stephanie Shih, and Chinoko Sakamoto.
Another view of the two main floor seating areas.
A “Portrait of the Artist” by Kate Teale hangs above a good old-fashioned hot water radiator.
A photograph by Joel Meyerowitz from The Howard Greenberg Gallery hangs above stereo equipment and Cecilia’s collection of vinyl.

How did you come by your method? [John buys ordinary household objects from places like IKEA, Crate&Barrel or Target and, lines them with a piece of plastic then presses them into slabs of clay which is then dried and slipped and scored to other similarly-molded pieces, thus assembling a finished piece.]

I started doing this because my wife got me a [pottery] class at Greenwich House for a Christmas present. I had been working in advertising and I was pretty miserable. It was just as a kind of artistic outlet but I was so busy with work that I knew I was not going to be able to devote the time to learning how to throw really well on the wheel. So one day, I just think it was in our kitchen, I looked at our things stacked on the shelf and I took these two bowls and I set one on the counter and turned the other one on top of it. It was like, “Oh … hmm”. [Nowadays] some of the shapes get kind of complicated.

Looking past a grouping of John’s pieces toward the main staircase.
John and Cecilia’s bed is positioned in an alcove with wallpaper from Laura Felicity Design in the UK.
Bedtime reading is stacked on side tables from the Brooklyn Flea.

A print by Vija Celmins hangs above another original fireplace mantel. The ledge of the mantel displays a painting by Sean Sullivan and family photos, including a childhood portrait by Slim Aarons of Cecilia with her mother.

A postcard from Café Luxembourg, more photos and rocks from Cape Cod all find a home on the top of a bedroom bureau.
French doors open up to son, Simon’s room.
Simon’s room.

The sparely-furnished but charming back room now serves as the family’s TV/reading room, affectionately known as “the beach room”.
Never enough family photos!
The flat screen TV introduces the modern age into the family’s 19th century brownstone.
A whimsical wallpaper from Hygge & West adds a bit of pop to the back hall.
Vintage and recent family photos are arranged on the bedroom hallway wall.

I didn’t even know you could do it this way! How did it go down at Greenwich House as a method?

No one cares. 

So most people love the idea of someone being a miserable advertising executive who throws it all in and becomes a ceramicist. It’s the stuff of dreams, isn’t it? How did you do it?

Yeah, well … honestly I am really only able to do it because of my wife. At the time I was working in advertising, she had started her own non-profit and they did amazing work but I was the breadwinner. Then another opportunity came up for her and she said, “This is finally your chance to get out of advertising.” Last year I made maybe $20,000.

Celine, one of two family cats.
Looking down the front staircase. A rug from Anthropologie introduces a colorful element into the otherwise white space.
A photo of David Bowie is front and center on the back staircase landing.
The family kitchen with open shelving and curtains hiding the pots and pans gives the space a homey, welcoming feel.

A tableau of favorite objects on the kitchen windowsill.
A corner of the spacious, eat-in kitchen with a table from a now defunct Court St. antique store, chairs John found on eBay and a mix of kids’ art and a French flea market find.

The corner kitchen pantry was created from the space formerly used by the house’s dumb waiter.

As a potter, that’s pretty good! What did you hate so much about advertising?

A lot of long hours. It’s a service industry so it’s hard to say no. I was doing pharmaceutical advertising and I was a creative director. You weren’t really making nice things. I used to tell people on my team that you have to be so good that by the time everyone else has chipped away at it and added their bad ideas, it still has to be pretty good. Kind of going back to your original question about why ceramics is having this particular moment, advertising is not really “making” anything. Everything you make is disposable. The people I worked with were great. I really enjoyed that part of it but at the end of the day, it wasn’t satisfying for me.

Did you love it in the beginning?

[Laughs] I loved it in the beginning because I was making a lot of money! It’s kind of one of those things where you tell yourself, “I’m going to start doing this but at nights and weekends, I’m still going to make art.” But eventually, if you become pretty successful in the business, that sort of goes away.

Now, I can see that you like “style” and you have a picture of Robert Redford on your Instagram feed … do you identify with Robert Redford?!

[Laughs loudly] No, I just like that shot.

A painted tole chandelier from eBay hangs above the dining table made from recycled barn wood and Danish modern chairs once again found by John on eBay.

A mix of art and family photos creates a lively gallery wall in the dining room.

How important is social media to getting your stuff out there?

There would be zero Humble Matter without Instagram. It’s all Instagram. But I don’t have a really good answer as to why that should be. Some people are really good at marketing themselves that way. Some have had it organically happen—I have been pretty hands off in making any kind of solid decisions about … um … anything … it was a slow process. I didn’t really understand it at first. 

What is your understanding of how it works for you now?

For me it was simple things like you need to put hashtags on things because that’s how people find them—really super basic things I didn’t know. For me the thing that really changed was when I stopped doing just ceramics-focused hashtags and started doing hashtags that were interior design focused like #decor or #interiors. It took me a while to understand that the audience of people I’m looking for is people interested in interior design.

Do you feel impelled to promote your work when advertising was what you wanted to get away from in the first place?

It’s a really interesting question—there’s probably some version of me that would promote this in a much smarter way, given my background and what I know about building brands … but I’m trying to get back to the roots of what I love, which is to be able to make things.

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