You can tell a lot about two people from the story of how they met. Jessie Rose Vala and Emily Rae Counts’s tale begins in 1995, when they were freshmen at the California College of the Arts and Vala spotted Counts from across a field on campus. “She just looked so stylish and cute,” Vala says. “I was with my sister, who leaned over and said, ‘She’s from the same planet as you.’” The rest is history.
After graduating, they collaborated on installations and drawings for a few exhibitions. They’re still close now, despite having developed individual art practices in separate cities. Counts, 42, lives in Seattle and creates sculptural mash-ups of stoneware, wood, and acrylic that evoke abstract stained glass-adorned churches; Vala, 41, hails from central Oregon, where her obsession with nature and dreams informs everything from trippy collages to phantasmagorical short films. But years of working alone has left both women feeling isolated, and, as most people do in the throes of loneliness, thinking of happier times—specifically, of when they toiled away together.
So earlier this year they joined forces again, channeling their mutual fascination with magic into a line of slip-cast porcelain pipes. (This cheeky, Toiletpaper-esque video sums them up perfectly.) They released the vessels in March, under the moniker Vala Rae. “Neither of us are big weed smokers, but we’re attracted to the ritual notion of [the pipes],” Counts says. The palm-sized tubes were also a practical way to make objects that blur the line between art, design, and craft—a notion that has interested Vala and Counts since college.
Today, Vala Rae launches its inaugural homeware collection, a surreal, New Age-tinged sensation of lamps, vases, planters, pendant lights, and more—things you’d expect to see in a Portland rock-and-gem shop, but better. The artists worked on the series, available through Vala Rae’s website, for nearly a year, sending photographs back and forth and periodically meeting up to complete pieces side by side, feeding off each other’s ideas.
Each one-of-a-kind stoneware piece is hand-built and glazed in a palette of chalky white, sandy beige, peach, and cream that accentuates weird forms and textural variations. Tactile embellishments like corded ribbon and leafy vines were made using an extruder, then placed on top of a form in an additive process that results in a glorious, muted-maximalist triumph. Animism abounds. There’s candlesticks shaped like a two-headed tiger or a weeping llama, and a sterling planter, where arched handles and schools of wavy lines form a bull’s head, flecked with gold.
“The Pacific Northwest is quite dramatic in its landscape and beaches. Everything has a kind of awe to it,” Vala says of their penchant for the fantastical. “We’re interested in bringing magic into everyday life and how we, as artists, can introduce that into the home environment.”
Some pieces, including a blissed-out feline candleholder, sold before the collection was completed—a sign that Vala Rae is onto something. “The idea is that Vala Rae will constantly evolve—much like how we function as artists, which means having space for improvising,” Counts says. Whatever comes next, one thing is clear: So long as these gal pals stick together, the force is with them.