Colin’s devotion to detail results in considered work that is in conversation with contemporary culture. His objects are at home wherever they are and serve their function with honesty. Colin’s incomparable craft and ceramics know-how allows him to craft attentive, desirable objects that will last lifetimes.


Colin is a professional artist ( who practices design professionally under his label CKTC ( where his work is exhibited and sold internationally. He earned an MFA from the University of Cincinnati, DAAP, alongside an MA in Fine Arts from Minnesota State University Mankato, where he also earned BFA degrees in both ceramics and printmaking.



Tim Karoleff: What is design?


Colin Klimesh: It’s a very open-ended, tough to describe question. As I was going through academia I had a very narrow viewpoint about what design actually was and then as I became exposed to new ideas, quickly grew into a larger concept. Now I think the best way to describe it is to ask, “What isn’t design?” That might be part of the academic background I was put through, in the first art class I can remember they asked a similar question, “What is art?” Then they began blasting us with images, which one could construe that all of these things are art. The academic background I went through was more to challenge you with the idea of intent, or content, or context, anything could be construed as art, or I would propose that anything could be construed as design. It’s just a matter of context, content, and intent.


TK: Interesting. I like that. Context, content, and intent. It’s a nice little trio of defining characteristics. So, would you say that design is more in the eye of the beholder – to go with the standard trope – or is that title something the creator him/herself would be applying to the work?


CK: We’re talking about design, not art, but they are very synonymous for me. I didn’t go through the rigors of design school, and I think there is a pretty wide spectrum of what some people might consider design, and some people wouldn’t. My standing on art, ultimately, is if it’s meant for an audience, it’s what the audience brings to it. What the designer or artist puts into the work obviously matters, and if he/she doesn’t do a good job as the creator, the viewer or the user will not get the context, the content, or the intent. Ultimately that was always the problem I had in critiques or discussions in art school: we’re all artists talking about what I’m trying to do with this work, but ultimately it matters what the viewer is going to get out of it. That’s the real test. We can talk all day about what us – this group of artists, designers, thinkers – are going to think about this in this critique space, but the general populace is not that person. What are they going to bring to it? What are they going to see in it? I’m much more interested in that conversation than what a room full of artists is going to get out of it.


TK: I agree. I think that’s much more interesting. It’s real world practice and not academic theorizing about the outcome. So something I wanted to ask you about was how might people – the general public, non-designers – contribute to better design?


CK: If we’re talking about design in a commerce sense, because I think that’s how the gross population deals with design, the best thing people can do is vote with their capital. That’s going to support designers. People can also try to seek out things that aren’t only available in big-box stores, because, unfortunately, that is a very narrow, limited scope of what’s available. With the power of the internet now it’s easier to find non-big-box store design, but also, because the internet is a big, wide space, it can be difficult if you don’t know where to look. But I think ultimately, in terms of commerce, the best thing that the general populace can do is seek out and vote with their capital to support design they care about. I think design and art is really about surrounding yourself with the things that make you feel good or define your space. I surround myself with things I like to create a world that I enjoy. That is something we can all do in our homes, and so I think that people can really directly support and perpetuate the design world by voting with their capital. It’s not always the most affordable thing though, is the problem.


TK: Certainly. I think that one of the main problems with helping to promote young designers or independent design in general is inevitably that the cost tends to be much higher because of the inability to manufacture objects at quantity. So we have IKEA where there’s a low investment for that initial product, but then it breaks after one or two years and you’re re-buying that product, and so forth. Whereas if maybe you buy an independent designer’s object that might last your lifetime, your children’s lifetime, and so on, for a bigger investment up front. Perhaps. Is it worth trying to convince people? How can we educate the general public – we’ll call them the voting populace since they’re using their capital to vote on things – about the need to select quality goods that might last longer, not only from an aesthetic standpoint but there have to be some type of environmental considerations that happen as well?


CK: That’s the question, right? It’s a difficult one. My other artist and designer friends, friends that run retail spaces, they know all about it. Most of them are makers, and most of them are makers that are trying to make a living or trying to subsidize some other form of income. Those people get it and they understand. Now that I’m a small business owner, that’s really opened up a new end of that perspective as well, with knowing how much things really do cost, and how there’s a lot of things that aren’t so black and white with the cost of product-making, and it’s really hard to communicate to the voting populace why – we’ll talk about cups because I make cups – why a cup that I make needs to cost double, triple, quadruple times the cost of a mug at “x” big-box store. I’ve also visited and made work in a very similar place (Jingdezhen, China) to where those big-box stores are making their ceramic work and I’ve seen that end of the spectrum, and it’s efficient, but also the quality of living and standard of living in those spaces, for those employees in that sort of manufacturing sector is not the quality that we experience here. But it’s hard to quantify and justify to an audience, the voting populace audience, who are not makers, who maybe get to work for a company where they get to go to work 9-to-5 and leave their work at the office, because they’re probably not the bean-counters of their business either. I’m not sure what the answer is and how to educate the populace because from my perspective I’m just trying to sell them on all of the great things that I do, and tell them about the process and the making, but I know I certainly wouldn’t want to hear all of the bean-counting things about why it costs what it costs to make the thing: like here’s my overhead. Here’s the cost of materials. Also the amount of labor, and even though you’re paying this higher cost I’m still making below minimum wage. I think that there is a disconnect in the reality of the situation with the goods that we consume and the people that make them. We’re all guilty of this. It’s kind of a result of globalization. But, that’s a hard argument to make, that’s something harder to teach because the market can’t necessarily afford to pay more for some of the goods we’re creating, and I can understand that end of it as well. Which means, that myself, and friends that I have that are makers, our market share is just a smaller percentage, because there’s a smaller percentage of people that can afford to purchase these goods at this cost. Of people that can afford to buy sustainably made in a Western society product. The other way around it is I see a lot of Western designers and artists having their products made abroad because it’s cheaper. That’s like the next stage of graduation. First you start making it yourself. Then when you’re ready to scale up the only feasible way to do it seems to be to go somewhere six months out of the year and have it made.


TK: And fall into the same traps as the major retailers… So, something that stuck out particularly to me in that last segment was the idea of dissociation, and the further the consumer is removed from the knowledge of who is making and how what they’re buying is being made, the less value they associate with it, and the less they’re willing to pay for that. Maybe design can look at the food community and start to play off the idea of farm-to-table. It seems like people that go to restaurateurs that are purveying this idea of farm-to-table, and can tell the full story about where the beef came from are getting people to buy into the story. And they are willing to pay more money for that meal because they know everything about what happened from that animal all the way to their plate. Is that something designers can use? Storytelling has always been a huge part of design, and plays a very important role in defining problems to solve, but does that storytelling need to come even further in the marketing of it? I guess that’s always been a main driver of marketing materials, though.


CK: I think people right now that are designers, makers, they’re aware that’s where their avenue of marketing is. I mean we all do it. We are our brand. Especially with social media now, and the main branding or marketing platform is Instagram. People expect and want to know the most compelling story you can tell about yourself to bring the viewer in. Something millennials are striving for in life is this authenticity. So one of the great strengths of millennials is we can see through the bullshit, supposedly, because we’ve lived in a world of saturated marketing. We know when it’s not real. So things like the marketing of yourself, your practice, your studio, how things are made, where it comes from, resonate with a certain audience. There are people that want to have that conversation with you. I think everybody, if they could afford it, would love to support their baker up the road, and their farmer down the street, and buy furniture from their local carpenter. That localized economy dream is a real romantic notion. I don’t know that many people that would say, “Oh that’s stupid!” But, when it comes down to it, we’re all just complicit in the system. There’s ease of purchasing goods. There’s cost of purchasing goods. Sometimes we need this thing now. Or sometimes the resources available to us are not quite what we’re looking for. But, most of the people I know are the kind of people that just make it themselves. “Well, I like that, guess I’ll just make that.” And that’s another romantic notion: everybody wants to be a maker of things too. That’s why we see all of these maker hobbies popping up. Like knitting was really trendy for a while. Now it’s weaving wall tapestries. Ceramics is having another renaissance. Everyone that I know is a ceramic artist, like you can spit to the next person. And I think woodworking to a certain extent as well. There’s a big revival of all these people wanting to make things and that’s really great. To make it a viable business model is the struggle though. Most people I know that are doing it are either subsidizing it with a spouse’s income, came from some sort of affluent background, or they have another job and they have to that so they can do this.


TK: So that’s something that I find particularly interesting about design is how democratic it is. Every single human being is a designer. That’s what I think is so intriguing about it. The skillset is inherent in anyone. It’s the ability to apply those rules to problem-solving or even have the thought to look for problems that’s developed. That’s a big reason why design matters to everyone. Everyone has some kind of relationship to design. They know deep down, “I can make this.” And I wonder too, is that something that applies to why people are reluctant to maybe even spend money on independently designed goods. Maybe they have the money but they’re still reluctant to spend an amount because they might look at something and think, “Oh, I could make that.” And maybe they actually could.


CK: Well, there was a point in time where everybody did.


TK: Right. You had to. You either made it or you bartered directly for that object with something that you had made. So I think that’s really intriguing, and maybe you can touch further on why does design matter?


CK: We’ve never been more surrounded by things. We all take so much for granted. We don’t necessarily think about the things we interact with. On the daily I am both amazed at the objects I surround myself with and how awesome they are. They either improve my experience, or make something easier, or they are something that’s going to be around forever. And then also simultaneously constantly disappointed with the garbage, that I’m like, “Oh, this thing’s a piece of shit! This thing doesn’t even do the thing it’s designed to do!” Some of those are just bad choices on my part, but behind everything we surround ourselves with, there is one, but probably more like a dozen to ten-dozen people that brought that thing into reality. Not counting the manufacturing, but just the overall amount of hands, eyes, and brains touched this one object before it got brought into existence. I’m constantly amazed. For me in my studio, it’s just two people that make a thing out of this very tangible ceramic material that will potentially exist until the end of time. To think about three-dimensional objects that get used and also just the mass at which things get produced these days, they should go through a lot of people. Or maybe they shouldn’t? I don’t know, maybe that’s a bad thing? Maybe things get watered down?


TK: Yeah. I go back-and-forth with that. I personally have always had, for whatever reason, this qualm with crowd-sourced products. Kickstarter. GoFundMe. And I wonder if that’s part of me having a product design background and knowing that when a product is designed by a company it has to hit all of these benchmarks – it has to qualify as quality to get to market. Whereas a Kickstarter product could be something that does not need to exist, couldn’t ever feasibly exist, but the consumer base doesn’t know that and they want to buy it all of a sudden this person has this money for something maybe they can’t even make or for something that didn’t ever need to be made, or isn’t actually filling a niche in the market. But maybe it is. Maybe that’s just my personal failings and general inability to ask for help that are talking.


CK: I do think that sometimes crowd-sourced design, when the crowd actually has too much influence, maybe it’s not such a good thing because then you take away the agency of the designer or artist


TK: Right. Intent is lost. The whole “too many cooks in the kitchen” deal.


CK: But, when it’s a designer who has an idea and says, “I want to make this thing,” and then he gets funded on GoFundMe or Kickstarter, that’s a different animal.


TK: Certainly


CK: But, again, I go back-and-forth on this a lot, because you can’t make work in a vacuum. You need feedback. But the corporate design world seems like such a crazy animal that so many people get input and feedback on this thing that, I’m sure a lot of times improves things, but when you’re a designer and you have an idea that you think is really great, it can potentially change so much that your intent is lost.


TK: I would say corporate design has the potential to destroy innovation. The more chances people have to say, “No,” the less likely a completely groundbreaking product will ever make it to market.


CK: Yeah. I’m sure wonderful things can happen with a great art director and designers. But…


TK: So, something that I was thinking about when we were discussing quality products is that, you really find out how much you loved a product when it breaks and you have to decide, do I fix this or do I replace this. Even if it’s a ceramic mug or cup that broke, I’ll keep it for weeks with the idea that I’m somehow going to piece it back together. Like this simple pot that’s sitting right here broken. It’s still here with a plant in it doing its job still. I’ve found that intriguing that we’ll find places and homes for things that we adore even if they are broken, and just let them take up space.


TK: I wanna shift things back to something I think you could offer a lot of insight on: what is the difference between art and design?


CK: That’s a loaded question, man. Especially in some circles.


TK: Right. A lot of people ask that question because they want to prove that one is better than the other or more important than the other. I don’t think that’s necessary at all. I think it’s quite crucial to humans that both of them exist.


CK: So, I took a history of design course during my undergrad at a very small state school that only had a graphic design program – which was the bread-and-butter for this school’s art program. So, anyways, this is the one class that all of the graphic designers took as their art history class. Which, I think every fine arts major should take a history of design class and the other way around too. At least a survey. It’s necessary for both. Well, we would always ask questions, “Does this count as art?” or, “Does this count as design?” because there’s a lot of overlap. It’s really easy to say one thing is design and one thing is art, but I don’t think it’s productive to make these distinctions really. Dependent on some circles that you would run in, you’d find people scoffing at something that you would call design and also people would scoff at you calling something art. I have an appreciation for both, and maybe that’s because I’ve always been interested in both and have always straddled that line between art and design. For example, typography is really interesting to me. I’m not a graphic designer, and I don’t know that much about typography, but, man, it’s still super intriguing and I think it’s an art form.


TK: I can see how your love of typography displays itself in your work with your attention to craft, detail, and materiality.


CK: Well, I also have a printmaking degree. People talk about how art is such a great communication tool. One of my favorite sayings is that art is conversational lubricant. You see this thing and hopefully you have a conversation about it, and hopefully you have enough conversations, or people have enough conversations that minds get changed. But, great design does the same thing.


TK: Something I’ve been thinking about in regards to that question recently is that maybe art is asking questions, whereas design is providing answers.


CK: I think a lot of people would agree with that. In both realms there are a lot of hierarchies, but at the pinnacle of both art and design the two meld together. Another similar conversation I’m steeped in because of my ceramics background, and printmaking to a degree as well, is there’s always been a really heated debate about art and craft. And I think that art, craft, and design are three very intertwined things. I view them all as a spectrum. Once you get to this upper echelon, we’re no longer talking about the logo for the high school sports team. Once we start to talk about design, art, and craft as academic pursuits, the things that they are all interested in: captivating an audience, getting people to think, communication on some level; they all have some sort of intent. Whether it’s craft, where things might be more concerned with materiality, perhaps, but design shares that, and art may also share that. Art, maybe, at this upper echelon, is a little more ambiguous and getting the viewer to think about things. This might be because I have too many college credits behind me, but it’s really hard for me to pinpoint the difference between how I would classify something as art or design. It’s easier to have a conversation about good art and design.


TK: That’s even something that in conversations with my students recently where we’ve been talking about the idea of good versus bad design, art, whatever it might be, and how maybe that’s the wrong way to structure the discussion. What we should actually be discussing is whether or not the work is successful or unsuccessful, because of aesthetic interpretation and all of the qualitative information that comes from art and design. I might have one aesthetic view on the world that is different from this other person. Maybe this other person like minimalism and I’m into maximalism. Two opposing ends of the spectrum. That’s not to say that all minimalism is bad just because I don’t like how it looks, or all maximalism is bad because he doesn’t like how it looks, but some might be more or less successful given the environment. I like to use this Stefano Giovannoni designed product, the Bunny & Carrot paper towel holder as an example with my students. The carrot is the holder and the part you rip the towel off against is a little bunny. And so I pose the question to them, “Is this good or bad design?” Most of them say it’s bad, but usually there’s one person that’ll say, “Well, I don’t know, I could totally see my grandma loving that.” That’s why it’s tough to say good versus bad, and maybe successful versus unsuccessful is a better question. Maybe for 95% of people the bunny thing is unsuccessful, but for that other 5%, phew, it is killer. They love it so much.


CK: Yeah. Success is difficult to quantify. And I wanted to touch on this before, but there is a big question of intent with all of this. So when you’re asking the previous question about the difference between art and design. Another anecdote I learned from that history of design class, was a lot of people started to figure the defining difference between art and design was that design had an intent for a specific audience, whether that was for a client, or boss, or business, or whomever, and had to be driven by something. But what about all of these designers where they themselves as a designer are the client? Maybe they have a specific audience that they’re seeking too, but it’s not like they’re designing a chair for this person, or this company, sometimes they are, but a lot of times designers now, at least a lot of the ones I’m looking at, are working much more the way a classical artist would work in their studio. It’s like, “I kind of have this vernacular that I’m working with, I wanna see what a chair looks like in that vernacular. I wanna see what a table looks like in that vernacular. A light. Whatever.” All of these “products,” these user objects. And not too long ago, that’s what artists did. Artists work very much in a vernacular whether it’s in any of the traditional mediums of painting, photography, ceramics, sculpture, etc.


TK: Well, and one of the main drivers of art has always been concept. What is the theory behind this piece? Where design has always been much less concerned with the idea of the concept and how that relates to what the final object actually is. The initial concept could get lost throughout the phases of the design process, but you could still have a successful design. Where I don’t know if that’s true with art?


CK: How do you distinguish between concept and intent?


TK: That’s a very good question. Aren’t I supposed to be the one interviewing you?


CK: Yeah. Hahaha. I’m thinking, like, “This is a good question!” Concept and intent, though. I think as artists, craftspersons, and designers we all work with intent. We also all probably have concept.


TK: I would say that the intent of an object, if it’s a successful design – and let’s just say we’re discussing successful design here – is obvious. I come to this object and it has this signifier that the intent, or the use, or the affordance of action there is obvious. So, intent always relates to an obvious thing. Where concept might not be obvious, or might not be apparent after immediate viewing, and requires a deeper dive to discover. Concept is the result of thinking. Intent is the result of intuition, reaction, or instinct. Intent is apparent in how you instinctually interact with an object, whereas concept is apparent when you delve into the meaning, or the thought, or maybe the more qualitative aspects about it. Maybe intent can be quantified, whereas concept is qualitative?


CK: Okay. I can agree with that last bit. What was the larger question that I kind of dodged? Successful design?


TK: We were talking about instead of saying good or bad, saying successful or unsuccessful.


CK: And you had the carrot and the rabbit. As I said earlier, from my artist background and perspective, ultimately what the viewer gets out of it, or brings to it, deems if it’s successful or not. We always had so many critiques about what these art students or art instructors – these educated privileged few – were thinking about this work in a small white cube in a fine arts school. Right? There’s a lot of context there to that. And then when this thing goes out into the real world some day, if it ever does, it’s going to wind up in a gallery, and there’s going to be a much larger audience. Potentially most of them will have not been educated in terms of fine arts. Well, you’ll still have a good number of fine artists, because seems to be a good number of people that go to art galleries and museums are higher educated artists. Not necessarily. But, ultimately you might have a statement on the wall that not many people will read, so what an audience member brings to that work is what really matters.


TK: I think that holds a lot of truth. To keep going on that topic, you had mentioned that because of your background in fine arts you have this feeling. So how does your background in fine arts, specifically the visual arts, affect your design practice? Because I would say CKTC is more of a design practice than it is an art practice.


CK: Yeah. It’s interesting. Even though I’m talking about how I have this spectrum, and art, design, and craft are all intermixed, I have always made a distinction with my own practice. Even when I used to make posters and prints, and things of that nature, I would call that an aside. “This isn’t my fine arts practice.”


TK: Because even the sculptures, or the pieces that you make for your installations and your more fine art objects are, to the viewer, obviously different from your designed objects.


CK: For me, the biggest distinction is when I come at my fine arts practice, which is oftentimes still vessels, not always, but mostly installation. It’s usually a composition. So I’m much more concerned with the relationship between objects and how I’ve arranged them in a vignette or a sort of display setting. Because with my fine arts practice, I’m much more compositionally invested. With the CKTC practice, we’re making things on a certain level of scale in terms of manufacturing. We’re making a lot of multiples. We’ve conceived a concept and then put it into production, and it becomes an object that is for sale. Every object has everything that any other consumable object would have, and for some reason, in my mind, those things make the distinction. I’m definitely in a different mindset when I’m in studio for my CKTC practice versus my fine arts practice. It’s the same physical space, but the mindset is different. When I’m working for CKTC I’m more like a craftsman than a designer at that point. The design happens early on and then I’m a maker. Even when I was working on my thesis for my fine arts practice – the installation work. I was writing a lot about the line between design and visual arts. Compositionally I was trying to arrange things as a designer would for a window display. I was talking a lot about how it’s nice to have nice things. A lot of the quantifiable tropes of having nice things are how things make you feel when you interact with them. If you’re in a space in a retail setting, those spaces are staged to be appealing. If you’re looking at things on Instagram, or social media, or in a catalogue they’re documented in a way to be appealing. Artists do that too, but I think designers are much more explicit about it. They are trying to make a desirable, seductive scenario, or experience, with objects or with space. So my thesis work was on both sides of that. I was coming at it as an artist that was trying to create a space that would make you think, and the objects were seductive, or trying to be seductive, and arranged in a way that maybe a designer would arrange them to be seductive. But, also the objects in and of themselves were inanimate, kind of simple, perhaps unpractical and unusable, but because of the arrangement of the space they became seductive. My goal was to get people to see these things and think, “Oh, for some reason I like this!” but maybe take a step back and think, “Why do I like this?” There are these simple tactics and strategies that designers, photographers, people in the visual media use to communicate to us, as consumers, “This is nice. You should like this. Wouldn’t you like to live in this space? Wouldn’t you like to be in this space?” So I’m trying to borrow from that realm, or that vernacular, to get people to maybe think about that. “Oh, this is nice and I do enjoy this space, but I’m not quite sure why. It must just be the arrangement of these objects. Aha! I’m being pandered to by this commercial realm.”


TK: This idea of installation is one of the main tie-ins between your art and design practices. When I look at your artwork it’s very reliant upon the installation and the gathering of all of these hero objects that you’ve crafted that are these standalone magical pieces, that are quite powerful in their own right, but when brought together into this specified grouping are something remarkable. Where your design objects maybe still rely on this idea of installation, but they don’t need to be a hero object necessarily. You do a great job of designing these products that can fit seamlessly into a wide variety of environments. Which is one of the reasons that your work is so successful in the understanding that none of these things are standalone. They could be, but they work best when they are in a lived-in environment around all of these other objects. They stand out by fitting in with everything else.


CK: So, I came up through art school at a time where the pedestal was always there, and especially for ceramics it was the expectation. You made work to go on a pedestal. It was kind of a radical thought for ceramics to go on a wall or be an installation. And none of these things were brand new, but in terms of what ceramics or sculpture traditionally was, installation was much more interesting to me. It’s a killer for me to walk into a gallery and see something on a pedestal, now. Could you have chosen a more boring way to present this? That’s why I distinguish what CKTC does from fine arts. I would never be satisfied to see a cup or a planter on a pedestal as an object in a gallery. That’s not where it exists. That’s not how it’s meant to exist. It exists best on a table. In a living space. In a juxtaposition with other objects. That relationship between those objects in a space is much more interesting, gives much more context. Context is everything with fine art. 100%. Something can live or die with context. Whether it’s presentation, or even the time of year, context is everything. There are so many variables that go into the context of work: your identity as artist, the city in which you’re showing it, the time that you made it.


TK: So, how would you describe your work, or practice, or ideologies? It seems like there’s this idea of curation that plays into your artwork especially, where you’re not just curating objects into these displays, or these visions, or these environments, but you’re crafting the vast majority of objects that are included in those experiences. Whereas with your product work and the designs you’re crafting, you’re relinquishing control of the curatorial aspect and you’re then just crafting. But, still the objects and what they’re saying in the future context that they fit into becomes important. So, context is obviously a huge part of your design process and artwork in general. We talked about intent as well…


CK: I’m a user of tactics and strategies. I’m a great borrower. I’m a collector of screenshots. They’re usually relationships between objects or color relationships. I collect a lot of photographs.


TK: As artists and designers we’re constantly influenced by the world around us. What is the most interesting aspect about the world that we live in?


CK: We’re so advanced, and we have so many opportunities around us at any given moment. It’s astounding. I wish we were all better at taking a moment and saying, “We’re so great! This world is so great! It’s amazing!” But at the same time we’re simultaneously burdened by so many things. Dragged down by so many things. Nothing against the university. I think the university is a great place, but talk about an inefficient structure. We’d get so much more done if there were half the amount of people working here. And I guess that’s the beauty of my business, when I want to do something, I can just do it. I have a space in my life, where if I want to make something I can just do it. I can just go, go, go. I can make anything. And I don’t know if it took me getting through school to get that, but ten years ago I would’ve not felt this way. And on a lot of days I don’t feel this way – like I can just do anything. And I think that’s kind of the problem with what’s going on with the world. So many people feel so helpless, so powerless that they can’t do anything. But, the reality, and I tell this to my students, is it will never be easier for you than it is right now. People are so good at coming up for reasons why they can’t do things, myself included. But, it will never be any easier than it is right now.


TK: That’s a good point. So, even going back to when we were talking about your work and ideologies, it seems like a main tenet for you is maintaining the opportunity for direct action.


CK: Yeah. Absolutely. Also, I work really well with a partner, whether it’s Taylor in CKTC or just having a good friend to talk to about something. To take it back to my tenets, something that’s been on my mind is: I think best out loud and with others. I can’t work in a vacuum at all. I know few people who can, and their outlets or their inputs might not necessarily be a physical person – a sketchbook is a great outlet for input as well. My practice is not direct at all. For a very long time I didn’t feel like a real artist or a designer because of that. Because I’ve never been one to make a finished thing by just putting pen to paper or brush to canvas. I don’t make direct marks. Occasionally in ceramics I will, but that’s something that’s taken me a really long time to do. I’ve always needed an intermediary or a process or something to get me going that is not direct. For ceramics, mold-making was a great thing because I could work on a prototype and not have it be a finished thing, just a step in the process. The more steps I had, the more finished a thing would become for me. I don’t know if part of that was a blue-collar background, and that I worked in restaurants, which was a method of production?


TK: Well it’s also directly relating to design, and I think that’s one of the key differences between design and art. With art obviously you’re doing sketches and studies before you’re crafting the final painting or sculpture, but that last one is the one. Whereas design is this constant iterative process.


CK: Iteration and multiples have always been constant themes for me. That’s why I was drawn to printmaking. The gateway drug for ceramics is wheel-throwing. Talk about a manufacturing process. The pottery wheel. What an innovation! It’s just a lathe, which is the most efficient production tool in the world. You’re just learning a skill, it’s a machine you’re working all day. It took me a while to get into casting. People always give slip-casting, mold-making a bad rap, at least within the craft world. “Whatever. You just cast stuff all day.” I felt like I wasn’t making real things. That I was just cheating. But then I started realizing I’m putting so much skill and effort into this production manufacturing thing, but the potter’s wheel it’s just a machine. It’s a piece of equipment. Yeah, you’ve learned a skill, and I started equating that skill to mold-making, and that put it on an even plane for me. But it’s still something I think about a lot.


TK: Interesting. I’m going to jump around a bit here. What is the current global issue that matters the most to you?


CK: Right now, the environment. It couldn’t be a larger issue, and the recent election, with the way things are shaping up it’s like we are stepping backwards so far. I hope that the rest of the global economy, when push comes to shove, makes the U.S. pony up, and says, “You are not going to operate like this anymore, and we will tax and tariff the shit out of all of your goods and you will not import anything from anywhere else.” The rest of the world needs to put the U.S. in check in terms of its supposed new ideas on climate change and the environment. The private sector of people can’t donate enough to save the environment. Literally can’t donate enough because we are all addicted to oil, coal, and beef. I don’t know what the answer is, but it seems like we’re in a world where we should be able to have that answer, and people need to realize that these other answers are very viable real things we can do, and we’ll all be so much better off for it. There’s no reason now, in the 21st century to not have great mass public transit. To be dependent on oil. To not have solar, wind, water, all of the other alternative energy resources. And we should also not be taking federal land and raping it. The environment is the largest issue facing our world and our generation. I think there are a lot of other issues that are very important as well, but whatever race, creed, gender, we’re all in on this one. There are some real gender and race issues that our country is facing that are very important and need to be addressed as well.


TK: Well that can tie into the next question which is: What aspects of culture are affecting your current work?


CK: I’ve never been a designer or artist to make a stance. As a white male I feel like I come from a place of privilege, and I’m very humbled by that. And so it’s really hard for me to come at any sort of cultural issues and still have it appear to be sincere. I’ve had a number of conversations recently about being a white, middle-class male in the U.S. I have certain beliefs, but I’m not a part of those demographics and I’m not sure how to access those, or make a difference. I feel like I’m at a point of privilege where I should be able to have an impact and make a difference, but again I don’t know how to access that, and that’s something that I’ve been struggling with. But the economy of the U.S. is something that affects me directly. In Cincinnati specifically there’s a pretty visible cultural divide economically. There are a lot of designers right now with the recent election, and a lot of the things that are happening right now, that are making limited editions, or donating proceeds to organizations, and I think that’s wonderful. But I’m not sure I feel like it’s entirely sincere. There’s still an avenue of marketing.


TK: There can be a sense of insincerity about that, especially with the cis white male population. It’s almost to me where it’s the classic trope of the white male, “Oh there’s a problem. Let me throw some money at it, and it’ll go away.”


CK: I think it’s great that these companies are giving profits and proceeds to these organizations, because the organizations will benefit from it and put it to good use.


TK: Certainly. My worry is it’s short-term change. They’re not promoting a cultural change. They’re just donating money. The reality is that all of those donations are tax deductible for all of those companies.


CK: Well not only that, it’s the 30% or 50% that I would give – let’s all just give 100%. But something is better than nothing, and if it’s a way to mobilize these people to donate that’s really great. But personally, I’m really conflicted about these things. It’s really hard for me to take that stance and come up with a marketing campaign that says this week we’re going to donate to this charity. I’m certainly not trying to shame anybody.


TK: Let’s move back to the environment, but in terms of inspiration. Are there any aspects of nature that are currently intriguing you?


CK: Well, I hail from Minnesota. The North Woods. And the sad truth is that I don’t make a lot of time for nature, but I have fond memories in these beautiful scenarios of the North Woods. There’s a part of me that thinks in the future I’ll probably find myself living somewhere with a lot of trees, and I think that’s the avenue I’m heading in terms of inspiration for future product development, that domestic space and what that looks likes. Because to me it’s very honest. It’s feel-good. A space that has integrity. And that’s something I’m channeling through my new ideas in terms of products that have integrity and would exist in that space. Because I’ve lived in an apartment for ten years, in a city. And, there are a lot of brands that have capitalized on similar things, like Best Made is one that is like, “Yeah! We all have a lumberjack inside of us. We all have a log cabin that we want to be in.” I don’t think I’m going to go that far, but I think that with my business it will end up heading that way of timeless simpleness, less is more, this thing is made to do a job and it does that. It’s in that demographic that I see myself heading. Kind of reimagining that space. What does a contemporary North Woods cabin or home look like? I’m pretty interested in the domestic space. So, what domestic objects are necessary and what do those look like? There’s also an integrity of the material that I’m really interested in.


TK: That’s something that has always intrigued me about your work and process. This attention to the material. I’ve always respected that within the work, and it seems like that’s always been a major tenet within your approach and philosophy, this honesty in materiality, attention to detail, and perfection of the parameters of a material.


TK: You talk about being concerned with the domestic space, and the ideal of the North Woods cabin. Are there any buildings you’ve been noticing lately?


CK: In Cincinnati, just look around. There are so many brick buildings in this part of the country. In Minnesota, everything that was old has either been renovated or doesn’t exist anymore. While in Cincinnati you have the full spectrum. Something that’s been torn down, been renovated, or needs to be renovated drastically. But culturally, the architecture in Cincinnati is so rich. My studio is in a big, old, cold, brick building. Just on my floor alone, half of it is wood floors and solid wooden timber beams still. Those are the buildings in Minnesota where you go in, and you’re like, “Woah! Look at these beams!” But, in Cincinnati they’re a dime-a-dozen. Every warehouse. But architecturally, I’m really yearning to go back home for Christmas and getting into some woods, and I’ve been trying to find a good a-frame to stay in. I really just have a deep yearning to get into a cabin near a lake with a lot of trees, and a-frames have always intrigued me. They’re so simple. Any sort of simple, small dwelling, I’m pretty intrigued by. In terms of residential dwellings, those sort of a-frames are what intrigue me the most. That open, vaulting space. There’s an honesty to the space. Even in Cincinnati with the row houses. They’re so simple. One room wide then three rooms deep with two or three floors. I think it’s synonymous with that integrity and honesty of material that I enjoy with ceramics.


TK: I’ve always loved a-frames. There is that honesty and that return to simplicity. So, we talked about the architecture of homes and buildings, what about the architecture of clothing? How would you describe your current fashion?


CK: Haha. I switched about two years ago. I’ve always had a pretty simple wardrobe. I grew up with blue jeans. I’m a five days-a-week blue jeans kind of guy. If left to my own devices I tend to pair things down to a very simple set of rules, and I don’t know where they came from, but my current rules for clothing: I pretty much always wear blue jeans, usually Levi’s, with grey on top. And/or maybe monochromatic. You might find the occasional white or black t-shirt instead of a grey t-shirt, but usually grey. That’s all seasons. Grey t-shirts. Grey linen button-ups. Grey flannel button-ups. Grey sweaters. Grey hoodie. Grey stocking cap.


TK: And since I’ve known you, exclusively leather work boots.


CK: Yeah. I recently bought a pair of grey Adidas, though.


TK: Haha. Excellent. Speaking of new things. What have you been researching lately?


CK: This is funny and pretty out of character for me, but the truth is, I bought a truck recently and my life has been nothing but trucks. Something about it. I don’t offroad, and I don’t overland, but there is a really romantic nature to that. And I see the truck I bought as being the work truck. This thing that I’m going to slowly build into the lifestyle that I want to live, which is where I can be a weekend warrior. Have the truck ready to go on a Friday. As soon as I get home from work I can just get in it and go somewhere. Or take a long trip and not have to worry about hotels. Just take this truck with me and I can go wherever I want. Something I’ve been working on a while is trying to be as self-sufficient as I can. So that was a big part of me having my own studio. The truck is another part of that. I mean I’m going to be in student debt forever, but, hahaha, eventually it’s this idea that I don’t want to be dependent on others. So for me, this truck has just been a new way for me to learn. I’m happy as long as I’m learning something. Being knee-deep in these truck forums and learning about this truck has given me a hobby that’s also a point of study. So I’m learning about vehicles, how to fix them, and what goes wrong with them. In the past a vehicle has always been a burden to me in terms of it being this thing that you have to have. This necessary evil. But when I bought this truck, I decided I was going to flip that on its head and turn it into this thing that I enjoy and that I don’t mind spending money on because it’s an investment in this thing that I want to learn, or live this lifestyle that I want to live. But, yeah. It’s really weird to me that I have a truck. It’s interesting though, the amount of research and thought that goes into this subculture. And after ten years of art school, I’m happy to have something that isn’t related to art at all. It’s not a manly, offroading thing that I’m interested in. I’m interested in more this notion of planning and preparedness, as well as outdoor travel.


TK: I’m not a prepper. I’m just prepared. But, something that I’ve found with my interviews and discussion with designers and artists who are incredibly talented and I think going to make a big splash in the world, is that they are all voracious learners. And it’s not necessarily always about art or design, or directly relatable topics. It’s about anything. Because it’s what Steve Jobs said about creativity, where it’s just making these connections between disparate points because you’ve thought more about experiences than other people have. That’s an incredibly important thing that the designers and artists that I’m intrigued by showcase. This interest in things that wouldn’t necessarily be related back to the art that they practice. But, it inevitably is going to tie into their work because it’s something they’re deeply interested, passionate, and curious about. On the topic of practitioners, what artist or artists have you been into lately?


CK: I was “arted” out pretty hard after art school and so I’m actually not super steeped in the art world, but I find myself being interested in artists that are working with materials that I’m not familiar with, and a good majority of them end up being from abroad. I’m usually interested in something vessel related, or a usable object when I’m looking for things. There’s this woman, Ariane Prin, that’s working with plaster and introducing metal powders into it, and they oxidize when the plaster sets up to create these wonderful surfaces.


TK: I find that intriguing, because that’s something I personally tend to reject the discovery of other artists and designers in the creating of my own work because of being “arted out” or “designed out.” Where there needs to be this removal from the saturation to maintain originality. About the oxidized plaster, that reminds me of this show Shinji Turner-Yamamoto did, I think last year, at the Weston. He did these paintings where he was introducing natural minerals and letting them grow into a painting.


CK: It’s pretty different from what I’ve been doing fine arts installation-wise, and what I’m doing with CKTC. But, there’s a series in CKTC that’s the basic series, which is just ceramic. And for a while in my career I didn’t use any glazes. I hated glazing ceramics. I wanted to use the material in a way that would be interesting without glaze. I still kind of view glaze as this candy coating on this other material that has so much integrity. It’s earth! And there’s so much variation you can get just with this one material, that to cover it up with a glaze, or a candy coating seems wrong. I mean there are a million amazing glazes, but I’ve always felt that if I can just adapt or work with this material in a way, or add an element to it, there’s a sort of minimal beauty to that surface, and it has this integrity. It has that material through and through. Even if you were to chip it, maybe it would still maintain this beauty because you’re not chipping off the paint.


TK: I love that and think it makes a lot of sense.


CK: Wood, fiber, metal, ceramic. All of these materials have so much integrity as they stand alone, that any choices or decisions about finishes used in conjunction with them should be heavily considered. There are great applications and uses of coatings and various finishes, but it’s maybe a decision people just make because that’s what is done, without considering the alternatives.


TK: Right. This honesty in materiality seems to be something that you’re stressing.


CK: It’s funny you brought up that Japanese artist, because that material honesty seems to be very Japanese.


TK: And the devotion to craftsmanship.


CK: To jump back a minute, I want to bring up this criticism that I received in grad school while I was talking about this material honesty: what’s the least you can do, and still make something interesting? That was given to me by Mark Harris who’s this amazing artist and painter. Smartest man I’ve ever met.


TK: I think that’s really intriguing. It reminds me of this problem I’m working on for my students about this idea of thingness: how little do you need to affect something to turn it into a thing?


CK: So there was this really short-lived thing that everybody went at really hard called “leaners.” It was a couple years ago. Everyone made work and it all was just things leaning up against the wall. It was amazing. I still am like, “Woah! I love that.” The right thing leaning up against a wall looks great. It’s a great photograph. A great experience in the gallery. Just lean something up against the wall. And part of that is because it was just an unexplored way of presenting something in a gallery. This simple notion of taking something and just leaning it. Gravity is holding it in place. It has fallen, but it’s not going to fall anymore. There’s a tension there.


TK: There are those trends in presentation, like with posters, I don’t remember specifically when, but for a year it was everyone holding their work up in front of their face. And that was a presentation of this flat object, that up until this point had just been presented as a flat poster. But that’s interesting. Upending things with just a simple presentation.


CK: Yep. In the ceramics world it’s the hand holding the thing. You gotta have a nice hand model, though.


TK: Haha. Alright. Let’s see. What books are you currently reading?


CK: My biggest failure in life is that I’m not a big reader, and when I do read it’s usually technical knowledge, but I am a big podcast listener. I have a daily revolving queue of “99% Invisible,” “Radiolab,” and “Things You Missed in History Class.” I’m a big proponent of “99% Invisible.” I tend to fall asleep when I read words on a page. I think that’s my trigger for narcolepsy. But, I do have an affinity for technical knowledge. Whenever there’s a new book out for ceramic technology I take it in. It’s not new, but it’s new to me, European Ceramic Work Center came out with this ceramic textbook recently. I just always have one of those books around.


TK: Yeah. From our past conversations I can’t really remember discussing novels, but I can remember discussing manuals, or textbooks, or articles about the technical aspects of things. I find myself tending toward nonfiction as well recently. The older I get the more I want to know factual circumstances. Which is strange, maybe you’d think that the older you get and the more you know about the world, the more you’d want to escape from it.


CK: Hahaha. Yes.


TK: So, that’s interesting, your devotion to biographical data or technology manuals, things of that nature, are relevant when we look at your work we can see how that understanding of the nonfiction or the data that makes up our world, and how that applies to the design objects especially that you craft I think is very obvious. Right now looking at the planter of yours on the table here that’s inspired by the Kong dog toys. It’s a reflection on the nonfiction environment that you noticed and turned into this fictional object that is a story inspired by this true life event. So tell me more about your process. Does sketching play into it at all? Is there anything you’ve been sketching a lot lately, either directly related to your work, or anything else?


CK: I sketch with lists of words. I’m constantly writing down lists. By the time I get back to them my ideas have maybe changed, but those lists will make me remember what I was thinking about at that time. And like I said, I take a lot of screenshots. So I think visually. Typically when I sit down to sketch it’s very much a technical drawing. It might start off as a two-dimensional line drawing in my sketchbook, and then it usually goes into CAD very quickly. Since I learned CAD, which most fine arts students don’t really learn CAD, it has been a game-changer for the business. For functional ceramics in general “Oh! The revolve tool? You can make any vessel you want in the world.” So, I collect a lot of screenshots of things that I think are going to be interesting. Sometimes they’re ceramic vessels, where I think, “That’s a good idea, but it’d be better this way.” And I reimagine it. So, I have a pretty extensive collection of screenshots that are either color palettes, vessels, other objects, sometimes just objects that I think would be funny as a functional object. Because of the business, if I’m thinking about drawing or sketching or ideas, they tend to take the place of vessels right now. For the last year or two I’ve been pretty heavily concerned with thinking about vessels and functionality. I’m also thinking about these ideas I want to put into the business. We’ve had drinking vessels and planters around forever, so it’s really hard to reinvent them, but it’s less about reinventing and more about what do I think is the best form of this right now. Often times the things that I need in my life are the things that I’m going to make.


TK: I think a lot of designers function that way.


CK: In terms of installation as well, things that I need or want in my life are what’s going to be involved in my installation. So I’ve been thinking a lot about functional vessels, and I’m really interested in this idea of a holder of things. Like pockets are this really useful tool we have in life, because we all have so many things that we carry around with us. So, the valet is my new point of study. This tray, or this dish. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s really hard for me to stop on a simple solution. It’s just usually a surface for these things to sit on. It’s very shallow. It’s not even a bowl.


TK: It’s just a place.


CK: Yeah, and it really elevates that space in the home where these things end up.


TK: And it gives things a locator as well. It’s not just on the table. It’s on the tray, on the table.


CK: Yeah, man. I have one of your Swell trays in my home and it’s become our key station. It’s a very simple object, and a very interesting surface, but it elevates that space in the home. It’s a really simple thing that changes that experience. It’s so quick when things go there and when they disappear from there, but they sit there for so long. My keys sit there for so long, but the interaction I have physically have with them are so quick, but so pleasant. And I really think when those types of spaces are considered, the better. So, when I think of my future valet, I can picture the spot on my dresser where it goes, but I can’t quite figure what it looks like in my space. Perhaps I’m struggling with it because ceramic might not be the best material for it? I tend to imagine everything in the world as ceramics. Like, toothbrush? Ceramic!


TK: Hahaha. I find that funny because the material we received our first training in is our initial reaction. It’s like how we think in English because that’s the first language that we learned. Someone that learned Spanish, thinks in Spanish. You knew ceramic as your first material language so you think in ceramics. I knew wood as mine, so I think in wood.


TK: At the beginning of this, we talked about how design might help people, or how people themselves might contribute to better design. What are you trying to get people to understand with your work? Or are you trying to affect people in any particular way?


CK: The short answer is that I don’t have an agenda in terms of affecting people. I’m just providing alternative solutions to functions that people are seeking. I’m not making any new inventions. I’m not solving any new situations. I’m just providing alternatives to other products that are commercially available, but that are hopefully more unique, or interesting. I think there are a lot of people in the world who think, “I want this thing. I need this thing.” And then we all wind up with the same thing. And that’s pretty boring.


TK: Well, what about the idea of curation? That curation you’re crafting within your fine art, and maybe it’s important for people to be thinking more about the curations they’re crafting in their daily lives.


CK: The world of big-box stores and consumer goods is a pretty busy place. People are slapping shit on everything. Everything has an image or a pattern. It’s very busy. The color schemes are either nothing going on, or way over the top. The CKTC ceramics are fairly eclectic. There’s definitely a curated style. But we provide a number of lines. Taylor’s input is a little more busy. Mine is a little more pared down. But we’re also just trying to hit multiple notes. I mean, there’s a consumer that just wants everything locally, or just something made in this country. That’s one avenue we want to provide, but consumers also want to buy something that not everyone in the world can buy. We sell to retailers across the country and now a little bit internationally. We don’t number our things, but it’s a safe bet our runs are under a thousand. There are people that just want something that’s limited. But we have a style as well that people buy into, or can buy into. We have an aesthetic that we’re seeking, and we try to make things within that aesthetic.


TK: So, has there been a recent life event that has greatly impacted you?


CK: I’ve lived a pretty privileged life. So, I’m 28 and this is the first full year of my life that I’ve not been in school. So that’s been a pretty big life change. I’m no longer under this scrutiny of critiques or making work in an academic setting. Making work “under the influence” as they say. And it doesn’t sound like much, but not being in school any more was a big sigh of relief, but also a big life change. No longer having that constant input from people about what to make or how to make it.


TK: Well, the stated societal goal of being in school is to gain knowledge. The stated societal goal of being a professional is to gain money. And that’s a huge change in process, devotion, and lifestyle.


CK: So that’s made things real in terms of decision-making and processes in terms of the business. If I wasn’t in school, I needed to find a studio to work at, so I decided to make one. It makes a lot more sense to have a business to go along with it to sustain it.


TK: Alright, so that leads to my final question: why do you design?


CK: Well, if I read this in an interview I’d think it was bullshit, but I am compelled. I wouldn’t say I’m compelled to design, but I’m compelled to make things. I’ve got to have a studio. I have to have something that allows me to make or improve or learn. The business is one avenue. The studio another. I probably end up creating more work for myself because of it. But if I just went to work at DAAP and came home everyday, I don’t know what I would do. I would probably just be really bored and watch a lot of TV or something. This is something that allows me to feel good and productive. It allows me to have an avenue to continue to do the things that I learned and pursued in school. The thing about ceramics, and anyone that is deeply steeped in any medium would say, it’s a lifelong endeavor. You can never learn enough. I would like to diversify, because I’m in general just interested. Science. Math. Making. Wood. Ceramics. Anything I can learn about, I’m happy to learn. I can find or make an interest in anything as long as I’m learning. That unconditional pursuit of knowledge is something that should excite people. How can you not be excited about learning?



–Tim Karoleff

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