By embracing the imperfections in her work, potter Janaki Larsen taps into a more resonant beauty.
Vancouver-based potter Janaki Larsen likes it best when things go wrong. While many potters would throw out a piece with torn edges or uneven sides, she embraces the imperfections. Rather than ruining the effect, these supposed defects give her work a wonderful organic quality. The flaws make her ceramics more beautiful, not less.
“What’s amazing to me about ceramics is that it’s just dirt,” Larsen tells me enthusiastically over the phone. Her excitement for pottery overpowers her naturally humble, thoughtful way of speaking. “You can take this piece of mud and transform it into something beautiful. When I first tried ceramics, that’s what blew my mind.”
“I’ve only ever wanted to make one of something,” Larsen explains. “Even if I have to make 20 plates, each one needs to be kind of different.”
It’s this natural expressive quality that has made Larsen’s work so celebrated and admired. Her work has been featured in cookbooks from authors and chefs like Francis Mallmann, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Nadine Levi Redzepi, and in publications like Bon Appétit, Martha Stewart Living, and Vogue Paris. But it has also led her to turn down opportunities to sell her work on a larger scale so she can focus on making ceramics that are more distinctive and personal. This exactingly independent approach has allowed Larsen to focus only on the projects that excite her.
In 2018 the influential chef René Redzepi hired her, along with five other potters, to create thousands of dishes for his legendary restaurant Noma 2.0 in Copenhagen. Working with a team of five potters, Larsen created ceramics to fit the menu’s three seasons: seafood, vegetable, and forest and game.
After over a decade of making ceramics almost exclusively in neutral, earthy tones, Larsen dove into colour, creating a range that included cobalt blues, dusty pinks, and dense greens.
Redzepi would often send her a sample of a rock or a piece of moss, then ask her to create a glaze with similar qualities. “Chefs used to want just a simple white plate that didn’t compete with the food, almost like an invisible background,” says Larsen. “Now, more than before, chefs see their food as art. They want the plate to complement and interact with the food they put on it.”
Through projects like Redzepi’s, Larsen welcomes the opportunity to incorporate the natural world — its textures, light, and shadows — into her work. Growing up, she split her time between the vast, expansive skies of Alberta and the coastlines and tide pools off British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island. Those two worlds made a lasting impact and have continued to animate her search for inspiration in natural environments.
She’s especially drawn to the impermanence of nature, its continual shifting and morphing. For Larsen, pottery offers a way of channelling the beauty that can be found within the cycles of creation, growth, and decay. Her approach resonates with the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, the view that all things are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. “We always get stuck in this attitude that things aren’t supposed to change and are supposed to be forever perfect,” she explains. “But our ideas of perfection are just fabricated.
“A leaf is beautiful at every stage — when it’s just sprouting, when it’s at its prime, and it’s also beautiful when it falls to the ground and turns into a lacy skeleton of itself. Nature is this theatre that’s all around you.”
Between a body and an object
While Larsen works as a potter full-time, she has also lent her creativity and entrepreneurial energy to a few other businesses. Most recently, she worked on the design of the newly opened La Fabrique St-George, a Vancouver winery, alongside her painter/potter mother, Patricia Larsen. Created by Pascal Roy, La Fabrique St-George makes low-intervention wine that is aged in-house in massive earthenware pots from Georgia, called qvevri. Order a picnic of local salty goat cheese or Spanish stuffed olives and you’ll receive them on one of Janaki’s plates. Her minimal, eloquent pottery permeates every project that she works on.
I first met Larsen several years ago, when I worked at Le Marché St. George, a café she co-founded in 2010. Le Marché St. George. Located in a century-old house in a residential neighbourhood of Vancouver, Le Marché St. George is part café, part general store, and part community meeting place. I would spend my mornings making coffees and crepes in the warm, homey atmosphere, sheltered from the mist and rain of the West Coast. Larsen was a co-owner and also had her pottery wheel in the back room. She would emerge from time to time throughout the day, a bright, purposeful look in her eyes, her apron and hands covered in clay. Her earthy aesthetic informed everything in the café, from the piles of textural linens and the bouquets of branches and dried flowers to the mismatched silver plates from the thrift store.
Today, the pandemic has narrowed her focus to her ceramics, and she spends nearly all of her time in her studio. For Larsen, it’s been a renewed opportunity to double down on her own personal work and vision. “When COVID happened and my contracts stopped, all of a sudden I was exclusively making what I wanted, as opposed to what other people wanted. And it was selling,” Larsen tells me. In the past year, she’s observed that people are increasingly drawn to objects created by hand.
“People suddenly just want to be connected to something,” she explains. “Ceramics are the most amazing interaction between a body and an object. You put part of yourself into everything that you create.”
Choosing to use a ceramic plate — made by hand with clay pulled from the earth — can be an entirely different experience than using a glossy factory-made plate from a shop. You can sense the artist and feel the shape of their intention. With so many people feeling a lack of connection to people and to place, ceramics help us reconnect with something that’s as satisfyingly imperfect as life itself.
Charlotte Boates is a writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her editorial work focuses on telling stories about the connection between people and place. Her writing has appeared in independent publications like Tiny Atlas Quarterly, Roam Magazine, and HAMAM magazine.