CHICAGO — Last summer, Katie Lauffenburger quit her tech job to focus full-time on building houses. But instead of a wood frame, insulation and roofing, she starts with a hunk of clay.
She takes about 12 pounds of it, slicing it into thin sheets before wrapping it in canvas and pressing it multiple times through a slab roller.
“It's compressing the clay kind of evenly,” said Lauffenburger.
Lauffenburger is a ceramic artist, whose pottery work doesn’t involve traditional wheel throwing.
“I start by carving in details like windows and doors first,” she said.
She’s creating extremely detailed 10-inch replicas of existing homes.
“I did a bungalow for a lady, and it was her mother's childhood home. And it was a Christmas gift,” said Lauffenburger.
Together she and her husband, illustrator Phil Thompson, started their company Wonder City Studio a few years ago.
“Wonder City Studio is dedicated to capturing the places worth preserving,” said Thompson, who playfully carries the title of chief illustration officer at Wonder City Studio.
The couple—who shares their studio space with their 7-year-old Maltese poodle Yorkie mix, Vincent—has been focusing their work on the unique architecture of the Second City.
“We make arts that honor the city's history, its architecture, its legacy. And we do that through creating illustration on one side and ceramics on the other,” said Thompson.
“We love focusing on Chicago because it's what we know and what we love,” said Lauffenburger. “But we are always open to working on homes in other cities.”
Commissions for what they call "home and building portraits" have come in from all over the world, including Italy and Australia.
“For both Katie and me, we're all about the detail,” said Thompson.
Each piece is meticulously handcrafted.
“We really try to make sure that we lovingly capture those details,” said Thompson.
No detail is too small down to the bricks and trim. Each ceramic piece is painted with a clay glaze.
“I work from photographs often that the client has provided, and then, I rely a lot on Google street view because you can go up and down the street, see different angles of the home,” said Lauffenburger.
Thompson completes his ink and paper drawings in about four to six hours. But the three-dimensional ceramic home can take six to eight weeks. Pricing starts at about $5,000 for the one-of-a-kind home sculptures. Right now, there’s a four-month waiting list.
“If you have a really complicated home or a building, for example, I'm working on a church right now. That price is going to have to be higher because it's just a lot more time and effort,” said Lauffenburger.
But it’s the final assembly that excites Lauffenburger the most.
“I really love the stage when I can assemble it and all these disparate pieces that I've been working on finally come together,” she said. “It almost feels like it comes to life right in front of my eyes.”
But becoming a part of someone’s life through the work, they say, is the most meaningful.