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Shop Indie: Uno + Ichi's Laughter and Melancholy

If there is a motif that unifies the work of ceramicists Uno + Ichi, it would be sadness, in all its different forms. Through handmade goods like cups and planters, Joanna Lee and Hana Ward depict contemplative melancholy, eye-drooping heartache, and teary-eyed regret.

Solo Life, a hand-painted tumbler that rotates the letters “C” and “T” to compose an eyes shut frown, is pure kawaii sadness. But its product description pointedly insists otherwise: “The SOLO LIFE cup may look sad, but they’re actually just really content. And maybe slightly annoyed by other people asking if they’ve ‘found anyone yet.’” The cup is featured on Uno + Ichi’s website resting over a rusty sink, holding a single toothbrush.

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This sense of sorrow stands in stark contrast to the demeanor of Joanna and Hana, who over the course of our 45 minute phone interview, erupt in multiple bouts of laughter that are slow to subside. They laugh when I ask if they designed the dimensions of Solo Life to fit just a single toothbrush, and about the difficulties of packing their ceramics for pop-ups. “We joke that we’re actually professional movers,” says Hana. They laugh about how much they laugh.

“It’s funny because when we’re working we have to take breaks because we’re laughing too much,” says Joanna. “But none of our pieces have laughing faces.”

“In fact, I remember one day I was having a really shitty day - and that was the one time I drew happy faces,” adds Hana.

Cue more laughter.

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The frown depicted in Solo Life originates from a place both instinctual and deliberate. “I felt very repelled by happy faces, particularly on home objects,” says Hana. “I just think they’re more cute with the frown - I don’t know what that’s about.” Joanna hopes it inspires a sense of care and compassion for the objects. “You create a space for it, almost like adopting a little puppy,” she says.

The sad faces are also the product of spending long hours together in their Los Angeles studio, workshopping ideas, throwing clay, and having the kind of intimate conversations that occur between close friends. “We end up talking about our dating lives, so I feel like that’s subtlety in the back of our minds,” says Hana. “I guess being in our twenty-somethings that’s a predominant topic.”

Although the 28-year-olds grew up in Los Angeles and have a friend in common, they didn’t meet until their first week at Brown University, during an orientation for students of color. “Because of that our friend group and community were very diverse. And I think that has stayed with us,” says Hana, who’s half Black and half Japanese (Joanna is Korean American). “I feel like our ceramics attempt to create the same kind of diversity, and that world of people.”

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This multi-culturalism is most urgently expressed through a series of cups called Niñas y Chicos. An assortment of faces in various shades of brown flaunt distinct characteristics that share a common resolve, the closest Uno + Ichi comes to approaching realism. Some characters sport quirky frames, others pink circles of blush flanking a slicked up moustache. Hair styles range from straight to curly, parted to messy. Other than a unibrow-inspired Frida Kahlo, the rest of the characters are inspired by listening to the clay.

“We have this clay body and sometimes it reminds us of someone we know, whether that’s a friend, or my mom,” says Joanna. “We’ll be directed by the clay to form it into what we feel it’s calling to be. Like ‘Oh, the nose goes here.’ It’s often asking to look a certain way.”

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As much as Uno + Ichi intends to portray an array of ethnic backgrounds that reflect their inner circle, Hana says they also have a desire to keep the characters open to the interpretation of viewers. The same goes for usage. They created bigger “Mama” sized cups after they noticed that people were using them as planters.

The pair intended the Niñas y Chicos cups for celebrating life’s accomplishments, “for this moment of people connecting,” says Hana. They were initially just Niñas, intended for women’s celebrations and sold in stackable pairs - women literally holding each other up. But even at Uno + Ichi’s most joyous the faces appear lost in thought, resolutely stoic even. Hana describes it as their interest in “the complication of emotions.”

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The onus behind starting Uno + Ichi, at the end of 2015, came during an emotional period for both of them. Hana had just quit her career in education - her major at Brown - to pursue painting. “I had to teach all these college prep classes and had to do those tests that were like ‘What are your interests?’” she says. “And I think I was like ‘What are my interests?’”

Meanwhile, Joanna was processing the loss of her sister. “Uno + Ichi was very instrumental in my life in terms of processing grief,” she says. Uno + Ichi, the number “1” in Spanish and Japanese, derives its name from the process of taking things slowly, one step at a time.

One way Joanna pays tribute to her sister is through symbols. Playing off of the pairs experimentation with language, a now defunct Funni cup employed the motif of the Korean letter “ㄴ” - pronounced “nee-eun” - sonically reminiscent of Neener, her sister’s nickname. (Funni plays off of the Korean word unni, which translates to “older sister.”) Besides that “we have a lot of pieces that secretly, through certain elements, remind me of and pay tribute to my sister,” says Joanna.

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Through social media, Uno + Ichi has been less subtle about expressing their politics. On the day after the election, they posted a picture of six Solo Life cups with the caption: “At least our job is painting sad faces on pots, cuz that’s all we feel like doing today.” Post-Trump, the characters populating Uno + Ichi’s work resonate on a different frequency than the political climate in which they were created. In particular, Niñas y Chicos feel punctuated with a newfound urgency. Instead of looking contemplative, the various faces of color look like they’re readying themselves for battle. Jokingly, I mention that Trump has been great for the brand.

They respond in typical Uno + Ichi fashion: by breaking out in laughter.

Mitchell Kuga is a journalist, editor, and creator of SALT. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter.