The evolution of furniture design has spanned many styles and eras, oscillating between various degrees of clean-lined minimalism and ornamental maximalism. Then there’s the furniture of Eny Lee Parker.
Possessing the neotenic qualities of objects from adolescence, the ceramic designer’s hand-spun pieces take on the amorphous forms of stuffed animals, cinematic creatures, and cutesy marshmallows that induce the same childlike joy of youthful memories. Eschewing utilitarianism, Parker’s gallery-worthy pieces are sculptural, whimsical, and objects of beauty. In her hands, clay has unlimited potential. “It’s so fun and therapeutic,” she says of the medium she’s sculpted into totemic lamps inspired by 20th-century medical drawings, four-legged bouclé stools, and rotund daisy-shaped sconces. Parker’s viral Oo Lamp bears resemblance to the organic composition and texture of skin—which also happens to be one of the colorways (terra cotta and white sand being the others).
From her studio In Queens, the Brazilian-born, Korean designer is challenging the possibilities of ceramics—wielding her kilns like an artist with an unencumbered brush. Lately, glass is catching her interest. “It kinda melts and adheres to itself, and creates these blobs,” she says. “I definitely might have ADD when it comes to wanting to mess around with other materials.” Despite the complexity and technical skill behind Parker’s craft, the most triumphant aspect of her work is elemental: it makes you feel smiley.
We caught up with the ceramicist in her new studio to discuss her evolving application of clay, love of bluegrass music, and how she’s grown her digital business using her Squarespace website.
How have you been spending your time during the pandemic? Did you take a pause? Head to the studio?
Both, actually. At the beginning of the pandemic, in early spring, I quarantined in Savannah, Georgia, for about two months. When I came back to New York, I started messing around with new materials because I have my own studio and a car. It was a good time to learn and explore. I got into glass a little bit. I have a good situation where I can leave the apartment and go to the studio and be creative. I’m lucky.
Is it hard to be creative right now? Is it difficult to find inspiration when you’re closed out from the world?
Yes, because everything is stagnant. I don’t go to art galleries or museums. It’s a very stagnant time to try to make new things or design. I think back to when I’d go about my life. My husband and I love to travel and go vintage shopping but obviously haven’t been able to this year.
Inspiration usually comes naturally but lately, it’s harder. Now I really have to go after those concepts. This morning, before you called, I was having trouble trying to figure out what to do for a project. But yesterday, I got to meet a rug lender that I’m hoping to collaborate with and create a collection. It was really inspiring because of the energy that comes from people who are excited about what they do. It’s a father and son, and they were so endearing and passionate, wanting to teach me about yarn and weaving. That’s what I love about furniture: getting to meet people like that. It’s contagious and makes me want to take it back to the trade and do something really fun.
Studio Visit: Eny Lee Parker
What tactics do you use to get into your creative flow?
A lot of hip-hop and bluegrass—very opposite, I know. If I listen to bluegrass while I’m designing it flows much better. It’s easier to relax because it reminds me of college. You’re a lot more fluid when you’re a student because you don’t have clients. You’re just working for a grade and you’re excited because you’re around other peers who are working on similar projects. Bluegrass takes me back to that moment, especially the Hager Brothers. It’s like a sense of smell that takes you back to a time in your life. For hip-hop, Ric Wilson radio is on right now.
How did you adopt clay as your medium?
In school, I thought I’d get my masters in furniture. But it was very male-oriented and they were good at working with wood or metal, especially at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). I enjoyed metals but never fell in love with wood.
I went to Korea to visit my family and my aunt who is a traditional rotary artist. She rotors with silk and lives in the oldest town in Korea. She took me to a little village with vintage handmade ceramics, where I bought a teapot and fell in love with the material. She decided to find me a class at a little community place when I got back to Georgia, one of those places where kids go. That’s when I became really excited about the material—it was so fun and therapeutic. I had an opportunity to do an art residency even though I didn’t really know much about clay at all.
I ended up pitching ceramics as my main medium for furniture and SCAD accepted it, so I had to make it work. I YouTube’d a lot and asked a lot of questions. The products that came from the residency got attention in the press and on social media, and people started thinking I was a ceramic artist. I was getting project inquiries, so I purchased kilns. Once I had kilns, I had to utilize them. It just became a thing.
How has your Squarespace website helped you grow your business digitally?
I’ve had my website since my graduate years in college, around 2017. It started as a portfolio website, but I included a little shop to sell things, like jewelry and small home pieces, to make money on the side. If you’re an artist, designer, or entrepreneur starting your own thing, you need it to be accessible and easy. Squarespace makes it so clear and their customer service is really what won me over. If I have any questions and go on chat, the people there are so helpful. It’s one of the most important things.
My work is mostly promoted through social media and press, with the website [acting as] a digital face to introduce my work cohesively and collectively. The designs and aesthetics relate because for product designers, we need something that makes sense graphically, but isn’t so overwhelming that it takes over your products. You need something that compliments it well but doesn’t fight with it. I also wanted it to be easy for people of all ages to navigate. I like to share as much detail about my furniture and lighting as possible so people have all of that information right away instead of waiting for us to respond to an email inquiry.
Is it tough to succeed as a small studio when you’re competing with large-scale furniture companies?
It’s hard for smaller studios to have good price points. We’re not working with huge factories and wholesale orders. We’re not sitting on inventory. We don’t have a huge team and deep funds. Everything is made-to-order. However, we’re more on the ground than the [big furniture] corporations. We can literally create, make something, post about it while we’re creating it, see how people react, and learn as you go. We’re more interactive with what’s happening now and what’s going on.
Do you work with the big brands? How do you generally feel about them overall?
I would love to say “fuck corporations,” but they have their place. The conversation should be, “How can we work together? How can we combine smaller studios and larger corporations and have honest conversations?” Larger corporations get in trouble when [they don’t credit designers]. If a piece was inspired by somebody, I have nothing wrong with it. Just say so. Many times you just see it and you’re blindsided. There’s no backstory about how these pieces were designed and created. The younger studios look at it and say “wow, that looks very much like something we did last year.” It’s likely your product photo was on their mood board. There’s nothing wrong if it’s inspired by something, but it’s missing communication. We can learn a lot from each other.
There’s one particular brand whose pictures people would forward to me. Some of their pieces were very similar to mine. I contacted them and called them out on it. They responded by asking me to collaborate. Having those conversations is important because people are watching and it’s so easy for companies to get in trouble nowadays. You can’t really get away with things, especially with social media.
What are you working on right now?
I took a glass and ceramics class at Sculptures Space, a ceramic studio in Long Island City recently. So I’ve started buying a lot of crushed grass. When you put it together with clay it kinda melts and adheres to itself, and creates these blobs. I’m hoping to translate that into lighting soon.
How did you become interested in glass?
I want to make massive ceramic things. I definitely might have ADD when it comes to wanting to mess around with other materials. The reason I love furniture so much is that you can work with so many different materials and different vendors, and you learn a lot. I don’t know how to push ceramics further than scale, but I’ve been getting more into glazes, which is unusual for me. That’s been fun, but I don’t think I’ll ever make my own glazes. Some people are fantastic about it and create their own recipes. That’s not me—I’m a horrible baker and glazing takes a lot of precision. But I like how it goes into the kiln and comes out completely different. It’s unexpected.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
I’ve always loved Xavier Corberó. I love Solange. She’s the coolest person. I can understand Faye Toogood’s pieces so clearly. Her communication style is very obvious and clicks in my head. I think that’s why I love it so much. There’s a warm simplicity and a naive emotion to it that I really enjoy.
You guys definitely speak the same language.
That’s such a great compliment because I don’t think so! I wish I was that cool. I’m still very young and new to the business. I need to grow.
What do you like to do for fun? Do you have any hobbies?
It’s hard when you turn your hobby into work because you’re working on the weekend, too. But I like having friends over for dinners and driving to Connecticut or Upstate New York to look at old furniture in vintage shops. We do that quite often. We’re hopefully closing on a house in Connecticut next week! That’s going to be a big project. It’s a fixer-upper and my husband’s an architect, so we’ll be working on that for a little bit, which is really exciting. That’ll probably be my hobby for a while.
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