Although the Internet is now a common vehicle for discovering, displaying, and selling pots, it was not that long ago that such a disembodied medium seemed incapable of adequately representing ceramics. In Iowa City, a gallery that grew out of an architecture practice was a pioneer in the digital presentation of ceramics, and AKAR's website remains one of the most vibrant and extensive places to see pottery online. SP editor emerita Mary Barringer spoke recently with owners Jigna and Sanjay Jani about pots, how they came to Iowa City, and the web as a showcase for pottery. The following is edited from a conversation that took place on April 5, 2014.
Jigna Jani: I came to the States in 1990 to go to university in California to get my masters in architecture. Sanjay had just finished at the University of Michigan and was looking for a job.
Sanjay Jani: At our school in India, we grew up with pots. The architecture school we went to had an art program under the same roof. But we went to school from 7:00 to 12:00, and the art school students came from 12:00 to 6:00. So there was not a whole lot of interaction between art and architecture… though I must be the weird one who always saw that, you know, art and architecture are the same thing. Architecture is functional art, and so is pottery. They’re both trying to define function in the voids of the form.
The first time I ever formally took a ceramics class was at the University of Michigan. We had two—what do you call?—electives we were supposed to take, outside of architecture. Most of the people took urban planning, but I was dumb enough to do ceramics and life drawing. [laughs] It makes so much sense, right? It was a fifteen-day crash course, two credits, and it was never about the technical side of the pots. It was about exploring ideas—the creative part of the pots. We didn’t even do glazing. It was my first literal “getting dirty with pots,” and I loved every minute of it. That’s when I saw Matt Metz for the first time, too. Matt was our studio lab [tech]. He used to fire the pots.
Then the pottery sort of went into the background. I got laid off from my job in Ann Arbor. I was a foreign student, and I was on the verge of becoming an illegal alien. So I went to California, where Jigna was going to school, and tried getting a job. Nothing. Finally somebody said, “Oh, somebody has a job opening for a draftsperson in Iowa City. Perfect kind of job.” And so I applied there, and they said, “Well, we have a draftperson’s job, not an architect’s.” That’s just a nice way to say, “We will not pay you as an architect.” And I didn’t have options. Being a foreign student, I took the first job I was offered and didn’t care which city I’m going to.
JJ: We got married in 1990.
SJ: I moved to Iowa City. Jigna joined me after she got done, in nine or ten months. Jigna joined the same firm, and in three years, we both were partners. And that’s when I think that Iowa City sort of became home, and we love Iowa City.
JJ: Well, even though we thought it was a drafting job, really it was a lot more than that. We got to design, we met clients—you know, it’s a small firm, so you get to do everything. It was basically the dream job. And we’re here and doing what we’re doing because of that job. But we just took it out of desperation, you know?
SJ: It was just a perfect decision. The firm did mainly residential architecture, and if you do residential architecture in United States, it’s impossible not to mimic what Frank Lloyd Wright tried to do, which is to have control of everything that goes in it. We started designing a lot of things that go within the house: furniture, fireplace, hardware, everything you can get your hands on. And we were young, didn’t have kids; we had extra time. We had two or three new projects where the fireplaces had a lot of surface area, and I said, “Hell, I can make the tiles myself.” That was sort of my getting dirty again with pottery, because of architecture, and saying, “Well, I’m gonna do it myself because I know exactly what I want.” Looking back, I think I had a little bit of arrogance. But it worked out.
I joined the local craft guild. Most of the women were in their seventies or eighties, and they didn’t like this kid—I was twenty-five, twenty-six?—being there. They were firing the kiln once a month, and I was firing every three days! So I bought my own kiln, converted one of our apartment rooms into a studio, and kept on doing ceramics, between fireplaces and functional pots. Visually, I always liked corners and slab-built; it was more like architecture or building models. I tried learning how to throw pots, but I never got attracted to throwing.
In the firm we were in, our partner was in his seventies by then and he was slowing down. He saw the practice as the end of his career, but we were young, and we saw it as the beginning. So it ended, the partnership. We had the option to leave Iowa City or to continue. So we [stayed], and started our new office.
What I saw was, there is a friendlier way to show how architects are different from engineers and to show how creative this field is. And if we find this bridge, we will be successful architects. We decided, oh, let’s have a gallery where people will come, and when they do, they will see the architecture we do. We will engage in new conversations, build up relationships, you know, get new clients. The gallery was a form of advertisement, but also a friendly bridge between the pavement and the architecture office.
And then we had to decide what to fill the gallery with. Obviously, we wanted to fill it with pots, and we wanted to fill it with design. So our first gallery was full of things designed by architects. Half of the pots were my own at that point, and we asked friends and some local potters to contribute. That’s how it started. And it did work; we got clients. But as you know, that was not good enough for us.
JJ: Well, we only had space to do one show at a time. That was the reception area: 150 square feet?
SJ: Once we started doing this—of course, you educate yourself about what a good pot is. And in the meanwhile, we were also becoming collectors. Now that we were suckers for pottery, you know, every time somebody said “potter” or “pottery,” we said, “Oh, oh! We want to see! We want to buy!” So even before we started doing this gallery, while we were selling our own stuff, we were becoming snobs about pottery. We were starting to know what “good pottery” means, I guess.
As our architecture [practice] grew, we had to find a larger space, which was a pivotal point, because we decided to make the gallery a lot larger until we ended up with more gallery space than space for the architecture offices. We bit the bullet.
At that point we figured, Well, we’ve got to up the ante with better potters. So I picked up the phone, and I remember, Michael Simon and Ron Meyers were our very first calls. I called Ron, and Ron said, “What? From Iowa City you are calling?” And he knows Chuck, right? So he says, “Really? You are thinking about doing something in Iowa City?” I said, “Can you send me five pots?” He says, “Really? I still don’t get it. Why do you want my pots in Iowa City?” I said, “Send me five pots.” And he sends me five pots. And I called Michael Simon, and he says, “In Iowa City?” I said, “Well, I love your pots, we always did, and I want to fill the gallery with the people we love, right?” Randy Johnston felt that same way. I called, and he says, “What the hell? Iowa City?”
Forget about sell-ability. We just called the people whose work we loved, and I must have sounded excited or dumb enough: I convinced them each to send five pots. I think this was the beginning of the “30 x 5” show. It’s still, in essence, that asking for five pots.
This was 16½ years ago. The way we remember all this is, our son Akar will be sixteen in June, and Jigna was pregnant the day we started our office. We had just found out that week. I think it didn’t even take three months before I figured, our pots are too good for Iowa City. We cannot sell them in Iowa City, right?
JJ: Well, not necessarily too good for Iowa City; we just don’t have the population to buy pieces like that.
SJ: So the first show was coming, Chuck Hindes. Don’t forget, nothing was proven about the Web at that point. We had no knowledge of the Web, nothing. I’m old enough to know now that as you get older, you become more of a realist, and you are scared that things can fail. But I was young and energetic, and in a good way stupid enough to say, whatever we dream can be possible. Somehow architecture school teaches you to believe you can do whatever you want and gives you enough ego to think, I can do whatever. It’s that arrogance or stupidity to say, “Oh, if someybody else can do it, I can do it, too.” We had a young girl [working for us] called Emily. She was what, eighteen? nineteen? I said, “We all are going to learn HTML, and we’re gonna start designing a website for ourselves!”
JJ: Because we knew that if we wanted to continue doing what we were doing, we couldn’t do it in Iowa City unless we had another venue.
SJ: We crash-coursed ourselves in whatever the software was. I had a small Sony camera, and I knew that I could take good pictures of pots; that I was not afraid of. It’s not about the camera or the pottery; it’s all about lighting. So we started programming our own HTML. This was not a database program. Every time a new show came, we started everything from scratch.
One thing that worked for us was we had a good sense of graphics, of quality. So when we did something bad, we knew it sucked. We didn’t necessarily know how to make it right, but somehow we always figured it out. So the postcards got better every time we made the next one. The website got more complex and better, every time we did next one.
Mary Barringer: In those early Web shows, did you have multiple views of each piece?
SJ: Yeah, it started from the very first day. It was uncharted territory, remember? So, we were experimenting. Why would anybody buy pots on the Web? People like to weigh, people want to feel the rim. We felt that if we were going to do this on the Web, we would like to show enough that people would feel as though they knew the pot.
I think we started taking two pictures and one detail. And this was our way of saying, you’re not going to hold the pot in your hand, but we’ll show you enough, maybe, to know what this pot is about. Soon we knew that most of the people who were buying already had had a pot of that artist in their hands.
Wood-fired pots, pictures of them come out a little bit too well, because the oranges and the reds really pop. We used to think, “Damn, the pot in the picture looks better than the real pot.” It’s okay that they look better, but not so much that somebody will get the pot and say, “That’s not what I bought.” When we started the Web, first year, we would always talk about “Oh, don’t make it look too good.” [laughing]. Don’t edit or don’t push the saturation. There’s a limit to what you can do to an image before it becomes not realistic.
With a white piece, a flat image just gets really dumb. So we shot with one light for a white piece and said, well, we’re gonna show the curve a little better. The white cups—oh, yeah, they are hard to get pictures of.
JJ: They are. The yunomi show is a good example. After about a week of the online sales, we display all the remaining yunomis in our window, because we have a huge ledge and a huge window. And you know, it used to be that the local people would not be too happy that it was an online event and they couldn’t see. But there are so many treasures [whose qualities] just did not get conveyed online—how it feels when you hold it, touch it—because they’re simpler. … If it’s a new potter, and if it’s a simple piece, it’s really hard to sell. But once somebody touches it or feels it, it’s a whole different thing.
SJ: There’s another thing to talk about. When I photographed pots for the Web, I did pictures differently from how I would do a slide or a picture for a magazine. In a magazine, my favorite way to take pictures of pots is lit from one side so that the curve would show up a lot better. But on the Web, I thought that everything would have to be visible so that people can see what’s in every corner. So I did take flatter images than I would for a magazine cover. We would purposely shoot it evenly and well-lit so somebody looking at it would feel as if they have it in their hand, and when they turned it, they could see everything.
THE YUNOMI SHOW
JJ: We wanted to create an annual show, something big, that we would look forward to and work toward all year. And we wanted it to be in March. January and February are typically slow at the gallery, so we would be able to work on it and keep everyone involved, instead of having to cut hours. And we can only do so many shows in a year, so this would be a way to involve more artists. This year is the eighth year of the show.
SJ: Yunomi has become this object everybody loves. We figured that, one, it’s the cost, right? Because you and I know that a yunomi could be $500, but the average is still $50, which is a kind of great number. It’s a lot of work for one small object, but Jigna and I see it as an investment, a way to attract new buyers - right? - who are interested in ceramics. It’s a good way, to pay forty bucks and buy a piece. It’s not a big commitment … real estate-wise or cost-wise.
JJ: Every year I change the show about twenty percent. This year, for the very first time, I actually made a chart and wrote down everybody I’d invited in past years. [I didn’t invite] anybody whom I’d invited for two, three years in a row or who had participated. I decided to give somebody else a chance.
There are a few artists I just love to see every year, artists we’ve had a relationship with since the day we started our place. But it’s fun, also, to see new artists. It helps me: I touch their work, it’s in the gallery, I’m working with them…you build a relationship on a small scale, and you kind of know how it will be, rather than just have somebody you’ve never met. It’s a good trial. And some artists who don’t make yunomi regularly make them for this show. So you see artists trying different forms.
MB: How do you find those new artists? Do you guys go out to shows? Where do you see pots outside of Iowa City?
JJ: Anywhere we go, we always go to whatever gallery is there. Magazines, Ceramics Monthly, other websites… People send us things; we get a lot of submissions. Dan Anderson, all year long I get e-mails from him, saying, “Oh, I met this person. You should…” Or customers will say, “I wish you would carry this person or that person.”
SJ: Also, the yunomi show has been a way to find out if something is wrong with our website. The very first time we did the show, our website crashed. Second time, it got really slow; we bottlenecked. So the programs and how we deal with them has changed a lot, too. The show gets published all around the U.S. on multiple networks, so the download time for images is very short. It has become a lot more sophisticated. We don’t require it for every show, but because of the yunomi show, we had to upgrade everything we do. That’s the crash course in how everything performs.
JJ: As far as resources, the yunomi show is more work for us. For a forty dollar yunomi versus a more expensive piece—the amount of work is the same, selling, putting it online. Three or more years ago, I never thought about what it cost us … but the last two years have been different.
SJ: I think you know and I know that there are more galleries on the Web than ever before. There are more young people who have their own website or are on Etsy. When we opened the gallery, the Web was like the wild, wild west. But I think everybody is getting savvier, I think the model has changed. And Jigna has realized that this new generation probably has to learn the ethics of doing business. When you are competing in the global market or national markets, you cannot have a show at AKAR and decide to use it as a platform to boost your pots on Etsy at the same time. It’s not the way.
We have been lucky, in both the gallery and architecture, that they were successful. What we thought was impossible, every time we did it, it was like, oh, it can work. But unfortunately, we paved a very successful pathway for everybody to walk very quickly behind us—which is okay, which is good for the field of pottery. Sometimes there are days when Jigna says, “Oh my god, this is so much work for the living we make, for pottery.” But it takes only a minute to come back and say, “But my god, it’s so much fun to do.”
JJ: We aren’t stopping. I think we are becoming maybe a little more practical than we used to be, and it’s not just because of other galleries. Being able to treat my employees well, you know, things like that. This is just because I’m looking at how it affects my business, not how it compares with others. It’s realizing that, okay, if I don’t make money, I can’t provide good things to my family or to my employees, who work really hard. And that’s what makes me want to be more practical about things. But we’re not going to reduce anything we do. I would never be able to do that.
MB: So is it now the case that you, Jigna, are mostly managing the gallery, and Sanjay, you’re in the backroom doing architecture?
JJ: He has a whole separate building with his staff. We had to have more space, so he moved out. So yeah, it’s true: he takes care of the architecture, I take care of the gallery. But we’re talking about it all the time.
SJ: My daily involvement in the gallery has gone down a lot. I used to design every Modern Postcard card. I used to design all the graphics for the shows. Now we have done it so long that we don’t have to invent a whole lot. It’s easier. I see myself as quality control. There are still times when I see an image, and I say, “Oh, it’s just not looking right, Tanya.”
JJ: Yeah, I depend on him for things like that. Every time we have a show, he does review it before it goes online, to see if something needs more pictures, more…
SJ: Or “Move the text a little bit left here, right there.” My role has become—yeah, I’m in the background, definitely. I talk with Jigna all the time about ceramics, but I’m not dealing with any of the employees.
JJ: It really changed a lot when he moved out of the space. When we were in the same space, our desks were next to each other, so there was a lot more communication, whether he wanted it or not. You know, he was there all the time.
SJ: But the success of the architecture office is directly related to our gallery. The more people came in, the more clients I got. And the funny thing is, now that I love pots myself, I’m always designing houses and putting in these shelves, which are elements of architecture. But now, every time I see horizontal lines, I think, “Oh, it would be a great shelf for plates. Oh, it would be a great thing to put yunomis on.” So I have noticed, I’m always designing these shelves thinking somebody can put pots on. And the clients always tell me, “What do I do with these shelves?” And I say, “I know the perfect thing you can do. Just go to Clary and buy whatever you want.”
MB: Do you think that because of your architecture practice, you’re more drawn to certain kinds of pots and cups?
JJ: Yeah. I am drawn more to pots with very strong forms. The shape always gets me. Form is more important than decoration to me, for things we use in our personal life. That’s for me.
SJ: Oh. You know what? It’s funny how in architecture, I like everything very white, everything very simple, right? But one of my favorite potters is Ron Meyers, whose work is so different from that kind of architecture. I love Kevin Snipes’s work, which is, again, figurative. I love Michael Simon. Who doesn’t like Michael Simon? But they’re all figurative.
MB: Do people ever buy something based on the way it looks on the website and then send it back because they don’t like the way it feels?
JJ: Yeah, but not a lot. You know, it’s actually happened more than once for a mug, your finger doesn’t fit in, it’s either too small, too big, or too heavy. Happens more with cups, ’cause that’s something you handle, than with a bowl or a platter that’s going to sit on a table. Depending on the way you hold it, the balance may feel off. In a whole year, I may get three, four pieces returned because it wasn’t what the customer thought.
SJ: I think earlier on—remember, Jigna, when we started the gallery? We used to get a lot more phone calls, people asking you to describe the pot, the lip, how it felt in the hand. People would ask me to tell how it feels when I touch it to my lips or when I hold it. But those questions have evaporated.
JJ: I have a few customers even now who look at the shows online, but would never buy something online until they talk to me or somebody in the gallery, to ask how it feels—but that’s very few. One person who buys all the time, she would never buy a single piece, anywhere, without talking to somebody. She knows her way around the computer, she’ll look and she knows exactly what she wants, but she will say, “Would you buy it?”--you know, before she’ll buy it.
People are just used to buying things online…Trusting, knowing that you can send it back. It really depends on the piece or the function. For certain things, people are willing to live with a piece that has a thicker bottom or is heavier than they might really want. It depends how they are using something.
SJ: Well…yeah, I think with known potters, people have handled their work, so they know how it feels. Ron Meyers, Randy Johnston. And we understood this in the first two years of having the Web gallery. The power of a good gallery is, you can bring in new potters and give them stature, just by having them next to Ron Meyers, right? There is that trust. I think that’s where the gallery can be successful.
JJ: The brand does help. I mean, people who walk in the gallery, they are exposed to new work they don’t normally see...
SJ: And they take it seriously because it’s surrounded with other, proven, pots. And I think that’s what a gallery can bring to selling pots, this sort of platform they have created, a stage with a spotlight.
If somebody asks about a piece, “What would you do with it?” I say, “I don’t care. I just like it for what it is.” My favorite line over the years, when people ask, has been a quote by Bob Archambeau. He would do these vases, you remember, with facets, and people would say, “What do you do with it?” And he would say, “Well, what do you do with a sunset?” I think that’s the best line, such a right answer if you get that question. And if you don’t understand, you will just never get it. It doesn’t have to have a function to be beautiful. I love that line.
JJ: “Would you buy it?” I get that a lot. “Would you buy that even though your credit card was maxed out?” That’s a rough question, and I don’t know how to answer. I want to sell the piece because it’s good for us, good for the artist. I also want to be honest. It’s, like, okay, I like it, but I don’t love it that much! You know, that I would go into debt for it. It’s sad in some ways, but we need these people who love art, who love ceramics, and who are supportive no matter what’s happening in their life.
At the store we get people who have never seen pots, never handled pots. Takes them a while to get used to what we have, till they start noticing them. And then they start buying them. It’s usually a cup or a yunomi, for people who have never bought.
SJ: Every employee of my architecture office, they come to architecture with no interest in pottery. And no exposure. And in the first year or two, they all are converted! They all suddenly get yunomi cups. They all have their favorites. And these are the ones who didn’t know anything about ceramics, not a single name of a potter.
JJ: I always say, “I love making pottery suckers out of you!”
SJ: But I have friends who have no interest in pots. They are successful; they make lots of money. But art is not their focus at all. So they’ll come and pick up this [yunomi], they will turn it, and they will say, “What the heck? This is fifty dollars! Why would I pay that? I can buy a dozen or more for the same money.” And it’s like the Archambeau thing. I cannot even begin to convert them if that’s the only rationale they have, and they don’t see the beauty.
But often friends will say, “Can you use them? All these ceramics?” Then we have dinner, and Jigna has everything in pottery, and they realize, “Oh, everything doesn’t have to match; this could be different and it’s okay.” Suddenly this light bulb goes off. “Oh! The plates or cups are all different, and it still looks beautiful,” which is so different from a lot of people’s living habits.
JJ: Our kids ask us, “Why do you need so many?” I say, “I don’t know, I just have them.” When the kids have friends over, I say, “Oh, no, not here.” And they say, “Mom, there’s no room to play. There’s pots everywhere!”
SJ: You know you have a lot of pots when you go to your walk-in closet and every ledge is full of pots.
JJ: We will take over their rooms. I have plans for their toy closet already.
SJ: We have so many pots, it’s hard to justify having any more. Why do we need them? The hunger is visual, it’s not the need to use them every day. But there’s not a single day I don’t notice all the pots I’ve got. And there will be ten seconds when I will stop for one pot and either touch it or have a smile on my face because I saw something I didn’t see before. That’s exactly what we have pots for. It’s that glimpse of inspiration when you are passing by. That’s what beauty does. I see one pot, and I see something, a speckle of gold, and I will say, “Oh, wow. That’s cool.” That’s all I might need, ten seconds to enjoy something so small. But why do we need so many pots? I don’t think we need it, but I definitely wouldn’t live without them. I don’t need it; I want it. Well, that’s what we do.