Among Chicago’s beautiful and distinct neighborhoods, husband-and-wife artist duo Katie Lauffenburger and Phil Thompson run Wonder City Studio—a local art studio that focuses on honoring the unique building styles of the city with custom ceramic portraits and detailed architectural illustrations.
The Chicago transplants fell in love with the architecture of the city shortly after moving, and were particularly drawn to the smaller residential styles of the cottages, bungalows, and 2-flats that are so common throughout Chicago’s many neighborhoods.
Katie and Phil have been gracious enough to take the time and answer some interview questions about their professional histories, work, process, and studio. Read on below.
Interview with Katie Lauffenburger
Boris: When did you first come to Chicago? Why the move?
Katie: I moved to Chicago in 2005 for graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Boris: What initially drew you to studying animation, and how did that interest transition to ceramics down the line?
Katie: I started studying animation in undergrad. A friend of mine introduced me to some of the techniques of stop-motion puppet animation, and I was intrigued. I always loved sculpture–I’d been experimenting with sculpture for years, and making the sets and puppets and then bringing them to life with animation was a total delight and felt very natural. Knowing that there aren’t as many job opportunities in this area, I decided to also learn motion graphics. That led me to a 15-year career in digital media, and when I was about 8 years into my career, I started to miss making art with my hands. I started taking ceramics at a nearby community art center, and it felt like I was coming full circle. Building miniature sets for stop motion short films felt very aligned with making miniature ceramic houses.
Boris: Can you speak to some of the challenges in making these types of home portraits? Are there certain architectural styles that are more difficult?
Katie: There are certain types of homes that are more straightforward than others–like workers cottages, for example. They’re small, and often 4 walls and a simple gabled roof. The larger and more complex the home, the more difficult it is to build.
Bungalows are also small homes, but they often have a bay window with its own roof, and that roof connects to the primary roof at the front of the house which slopes back. So, getting the angles and bevels of all of those various roof slabs is challenging. Every home, whether large or small, has its own complexities–multiple roof-lines, different types of bay windows, porches with columns, delicate ornamentation–and it takes problem solving and planning to figure out how to achieve those details in clay.
Then there are the technical challenges of working with clay itself. It’s all about managing the speed at which the clay dries throughout the process. The slabs of clay need to be damp enough that they can be joined together securely, but dry to the point of being “leather hard” so that they can support themselves and not lose their shape when assembled, which is crucial when using the slabs vertically, as walls, and as pieces of roof, etc. It can take substantial time to get all the detail work in and if I’m not careful, the clay can dry too quickly while it’s exposed as I’m working on it, so I have to keep as much of the piece covered in plastic as I can while I’m working. Clay drying too quickly or unevenly can lead to cracks, and once a crack forms it can be very difficult and often impossible to get rid of it.
The sheer amount of detail can be daunting too. Windows take a lot of time to carve and clean up. Every brick is carved by hand. There’s always ornamentation to add.
Boris: How long does one of your custom commissions take on average?
Katie: On average, I’d say about 6 weeks start to finish. Simpler homes can take about 4 weeks. More complex homes can easily take 8-10. Not all of that is hands on, though. It can take a week or two for the piece to completely dry before it can be fired for the first time. Each piece gets fired twice, which takes a total of 4 days.
Boris: Is there any kind of client input that you take into account before starting a ceramic portrait?
Katie: I’m always open to client input. Some clients want me to omit certain exterior details. Sometimes the client wants me to portray a home like it was in the past–maybe the home was repainted, but the client wants it to look the way it did when their family lived there, for example. For one project, a client is about to renovate the home and wants to commemorate it the way it is now to remember how it was when they moved in.
Boris: Do these ceramic commissions tend to be more commemorative (people moving elsewhere that want a reminder of their old home), or are people kind of celebrating their current home? Basically, what are clients looking for in these commissions?
Katie: It’s absolutely both of those. There are many reasons someone might want to commemorate the home that they’re currently living in–it’s where they raised their kids, it’s the first home a couple shared, it might be the 100th anniversary of the building of someone’s historic home–a lot of times these are gifts for a spouse or partner. Then on the other hand, many people commission me to commemorate their childhood home for themselves, or the family home as a gift for their parents. In general, whatever the reason, the home tends to represent the lives and memories people share with their loved ones.
Interview with Phil Thompson
Boris: I read on WTTW that you were initially pursuing a career in international relations. Can you speak a bit to your background, and how you ended up getting into architectural illustration?
Phil: My mother immigrated here from Cuba after the revolution, and so I think I was always attuned to international politics and history. I had been enamored of the idea of joining the Foreign Service. Over time, though, my interests veered more toward the economic side, like international trade and investment, and that took me to a career in the same. I was always into drawing, but I started to love architectural illustration through the books of David Macauley, who wrote and illustrated some amazing books about the way Cathedrals, Castles, and other historical buildings were built.
Boris: Do you prefer drawing a certain style of building? Are there some styles you avoid?
Phil: I prefer drawing buildings that have some harmony, some intention to their aesthetics, like a use of symmetry. I prefer to avoid all the many homes that completely disregard those elements in the service of showing off status–like cramming in way too many windows or gables–or making the garage 75% of the house.
Boris: How long does an average building portrait take?
Phil: A home generally takes 4-6 hours, I’d say. A building might take a few more hours if it’s got a ton of detail on it.
Boris: I noticed on the studio website, there are a quite a few prints of maps for sale. What drew you into these kinds of Illustrations? Mapmaking and architectural illustration seem to have a bit of a technical and aesthetic overlap in terms of how they would be produced, so I’m wondering if making one kind of Illustration kind of informs or inspires the other…
Phil: The kind of maps I’m drawn to create, mainly birds eye view maps, are, like architectural illustration, a way to visually capture the built environment. What I like about the birds eye views, is that they can show how the buildings relate to the environment, how they grow around rivers, and how the various heights relates to the value of the land they’re on. A home or building portrait is one snapshot that might indicate what the owners over the years chose; a birds eye view indicates how their choices might have been constrained by their neighbors or the land.
Boris: Your work differs from Katie’s in terms of a client base. Can you speak a little bit as to what corporate clients such as local businesses and universities are looking for out of your illustrations?
Phil: In many cases they want a drawing that will show off a building that their clients or students or alumni associate with their brand. That might be a beloved library, office headquarters, or an entire campus. Typically they want to use it as part of their marketing, as on a homepage or merchandise or the like.
Questions for Wonder City Studio
Boris: Could this kind of studio operate in any given big city, or is there something special about Chicago and its architecture that makes it a good fit for the type of work you do?
As far as commissions, not all of our clients want to honor a historical home or a home that’s a “classic” Chicago style. Homes of all shapes and sizes are special to people so for that reason, I think that we could find success in other cities. That said, there’s definitely something special about Chicago. Distinctive architecture in Chicago goes far beyond the downtown and the skyline–the residential architecture is so unique, and it’s a real point of pride for a lot of Chicagoans.
Boris: What have you found challenging or surprising about starting and operating your own studio?
I left my day job pretty recently, in June 2021, to join our business and pursue ceramics full-time. It’s very exciting, but also scary because Phil is also self-employed and has been for years. Now, we have to pay for our own health insurance on top of all of our other expenses, including studio rent and utilities, and have no safety net of a salary to fall back on. We both have savings, of course–it’s unlikely I would have taken on this risk without any savings–and while it’s sometimes been uncomfortable to no longer have a regular paycheck, it’s also very motivating.
Boris: Do you have any advice for people that might try and take the plunge into starting their own artistic practice?
We’ve learned that it’s really helpful to share our work often, even when in progress. It may seem like it’s too early to share work before it’s finished, but we’ve found early feedback to be critical. Phil will share work on Reddit before he finalizes a new print, for example, and people’s comments have often led to changes that make the final piece better. Also, sharing work in progress helps us gauge if there’s enthusiasm for a new product early in the process.
Check out more of Wonder City Studio’s Work!
The studio has prints, ceramics, and more for sale on their print and ceramic shops. If you’re looking to get your own home or building commemorated, then reach out to Wonder City Studios and get a quote! You can also follow their work through their instagram: @wonder_city_studio.
A big thanks to Katie and Phil for taking the time to answer my questions and let us all have a bit of insight into their work, process, and studio.