Photos by Chelsea Erdner, Elise Birnbaum, and SUPPLY UNICA
Marcus Im: I’m thrilled to get to hear more of your stories today. For those that might not already know, could you share a bit about yourselves?
Chelsea Erdner: I am the artist and owner of Bombabird Ceramics. Most of my work is wheel-thrown functional pieces made from stoneware. I have worked with clay my whole life but prior to making Bombabird a reality, I was a designer full-time. I still have a strong love for design and like to think that love is reflected in the work I make now.
Elise Birnbaum: I own a little business called OATMEAL, I make jewelry and functional objects as well as sculptural pieces. I’ve been making my whole life but only found clay about 5 years ago.
MI: So, how did you two meet? And how did you decide to work so closely with each other? What inspired your collaboration as OAT BIRD?
EB: I like to say we met on a blind date, which is kind of true. Pittsburgh is a small town in a big town’s body and the creative community is very tight knit, so we knew a lot of the same people, went to a lot of the same places but had never actually met. We met up for coffee to talk about ceramics and business and haven’t really stopped meeting up for coffee since.
CE: I have a very specific memory of working out of a community studio before starting my business and watching someone dressed in cool jumpsuits making knots every Saturday. Being a bit introverted, I never got the courage to introduce myself. Fast forward two years and we were both selling our work in the same shop and I thought to myself, “there can’t be more than one girl in Pittsburgh who makes these,” so I reached out on Instagram and asked her out for coffee. Our interests are so closely intertwined that working together, communicating, and being friends came so naturally to us and whether or not we’d collaborate was never a discussion—it just happened and I think that is one of the most beautiful aspects of our friendship.
MI: You’ve had such an exciting year - can you share a bit of what you’ve been up to?
CE: We really hit the ground running in 2019. Between getting married in May, moving studios a week later, events, travel, and exciting new projects there hasn’t even been a moment to take it all in. Some mornings I wake up and wonder how we even managed to pull it all off. Now, heading into the busiest season of the year, I am really looking forward to seeing where we net out at the end of it all.
EB: This year for me has been a lot about growing my practice and getting out of my comfort zone. We found and built out a studio space together that we have been dreaming about for a long time, which was huge for both of us. Right after we made the space what it is, we threw a party and then I left town and was living in rural Japan all summer doing a residency. We’ve packed a lot of big life-changing events into a 6 month period. I still kind of can’t believe it all.
MI: The shared studio! That’s the dream. Can you tell us about that? What’s it like? What are some of your favorite parts of the space? Your least favorite parts?
EB: The space is incredible. Like I said I was gone all summer after only working in the space for maybe 2 weeks, everytime we talked Chelsea would say how great it was, now that I’m back and have been working in it for a few months I’m the one catching up and feeling all that she was feeling while I was gone, saying “THIS IS SO GREAT”. It’s got big windows, is affordable and we can bring our dogs, it’s really everything we could need or want in a space. Least favorite parts have probably just been that with all that growth comes red tape, working with leases, landlords, lawyers and insurance… it’s all just normal business stuff, but my heart is in the making and the bureaucracy of owning a small business can get tedious. Also, I was so physically exhausted by building out and moving into our space, we build every table and shelf and moved all our kilns and equipment ourselves. But both of those things are what you’ve gotta do to have the good parts.
CE: I get real emotional when I think about the impact that this space has had on my life. I am a true workaholic and prior to moving into this space, I was working out of a home studio for three years. There were NO boundaries between work and life. It would all blend together and lead to me loading kilns at 11pm after an already-long day. I was very nervous for the transition out of my home studio and into a space because in my head, I was working all. the. time. But, in reality, there was a lot of waste throughout my days that I wasn’t even aware of. Having a space where I get to “go to work” everyday has helped me create much healthier boundaries and to my surprise, lead to a much more productive day-to-day. The list of “least favorites” compared to “favorites” is so small it’s comical...but I guess if I had to choose, I’d say that our air conditioning is too cold sometimes. In all seriousness though, like Elise mentioned, owning a business really requires you to put in the work. We do it all and it can really take a toll on you if you don’t make it a priority to care for yourself. The space is beautiful now but there were MANY long days that went into getting it here.
MI: How did the studio happen?
EB: Like most things with us, over coffee. I don’t even remember how or when it came up, but one of us mentioned potentially sharing a space one day far in the future and we kind of just didn’t stop talking about it. We were both energized by the idea and honestly, I think sharing your scary hypothetical dream with someone and have them greet it with excitement and the same level of enthusiasm is a really liberating, joyful feeling. We’ve both worked in shared spaces and alone in our basements and I think we both knew we wouldn’t want to share a space with just anyone, but we have had a really great connection and deep understanding of each other from that first coffee date. We reached out to some connections we had, saw a few spaces and waited around for about a year until a perfect space opened up in the building we had been eyeing.
CE: I have timing to thank the most. Last year, I received an email about an available space and the person really wanted me to take advantage of the opportunity. But, in my mind, it was a pipe dream that was years down the road for me and my business. Fast forward a couple months, Elise and I were chatting (over coffee, yes) about what growth meant to our respective businesses. We were both feeling a little burnt out and growth seemed ominous. When you are a business our size, growth can mean many things and I say I have timing to thank because we were on the same page 100%. Walking into a conversation feeling a little lost on what is next and walking out with a grand plan of how it could all work out was a great feeling. Then, once the idea of merging forces came to life, that was it. We definitely searched and waited for a space that made the most sense for us but knowing what could be gave up both a renewed sense of drive for sure.
MI: How has having that space affected your practice?
CE: I kind of touched on this a little but, condensing my to-do list into a solid “work day” has been life changing. I am able to come here, focus, and do my work then go home to my family and be present in a way I wasn’t before. Of course, small things come up at home and I still stress about all I have to get done but overall, it has been great. As far as my day-to-day practice goes, I have definitely gained confidence here to make some shifts in my business that felt scarier before. Shifts that will hopefully make more space for less “production” work and room for work I can spend a bit more time on that reflects the potential I see in my head.
EB: It’s really helped me be more productive and not feel so constricted. I feel a bit like a plant that has been moved into a bigger planter, there’s a lot of growth and joy in this space.
MI: How about your time away from the studio? How was traveling and what does it mean to you?
EB: Like I said I was in Japan all summer, Japan is a place I’ve been twice now and spending an extended amount of time there was pretty life changing. It’s a place with deep roots in ceramics and the cultural identity really affected me deeply. The attention to detail and the consideration to every part of life. Travel is really inspiring to me, but I also think my work inspires a lot of my travel, I’ll look up places that relate to what I’m making or my artistic inspiration at home for a trip and find that in the places I go. It’s a never ending cycle.
CE: I grew up in Pittsburgh, this is home to me and travel is something that doesn’t come as naturally to me. I tend to find inspiration in the colors and textures around me on a daily basis or where most ideas come to me...in my sleep. But, I have to say, I have traveled more this year than I ever have and it has been super inspiring. I went to California for the first time in August and came back really understanding the impact traveling can have when you marry it with art you are passionate about making.
EB: I want to plan a trip for Chelsea and I to go on together, I love to travel and sharing that with the people I love is one of my greatest joys.
MI: Okay, I also need to ask... Where would you recommend I grab coffee around Pittsburgh? Where does the magic happen? Elise, any place in Japan you’d recommend to readers?
CE: Pittsburgh has a long list of places worth a visit BUT if I had to make a short list it would go something like this: The Bureau, Adda Coffee & Tea House, 4121 Main, Zeke’s, and the Ace Hotel.
EB: As for Japan… In Tokyo, Koffee Mameya is, in my opinion, the best place to get coffee in Japan. The folks who work there are super kind and knowledgeable and usually have one person who speaks english, if you have any coffee knowledge they will love to chat with you and give you other recommendations. There is also a Verve in Tokyo, which isn’t a Japanese brand but only has shops in California and Japan and is really good coffee. I think honestly the cultural attention to detail in Japan leads to some pretty amazing pour over coffee all over.
MI: What are the things on your minds lately? What are you excited about?
CE: How to grow my business in a sustainable way has been on my mind a lot. I have been doing this for 3 years and I am at a stage where I no longer have to prove to myself I can do it. I am very lucky that my work has been received well and I have been able to call this work for as long as have already. Now I am working on shifting my mindset a bit and acknowledging how far I have come. I’d love to continue to make progress towards healthier work habits that have a positive impact on my business. Which is exciting in of itself but I am also very excited by the idea of making work that is less about making 30 of the same mug but more about celebrating the style of my work in a bigger, bolder way.
EB: I’ve been making some more sculptural work since my residency this summer, so that’s where my head is. It’s fun and scary and has been a big shift for me. I’m excited about seeing where that takes me, how I can shift my practice and how that relates to my business. It’s kind of terrifying but I’ve never felt so personally fulfilled.
MI: It’s been so inspiring getting to see both of you over the years. As a small business, we can definitely connect to your joys and fears - but more than anything, your dreams. Thanks for sharing with us.
CE: Thank you Marcus!! You have been a supporter of my work since day one and it has been so fun to see how the past 3 years has shaped both our businesses!
EB: Thank you! It’s really fun to reflect on how far we’ve come. It’s easy to just keep your head down and work and not take the time and celebrate. We’re really lucky.