A Q&A with Franca Ceramic Studio Co-Founder Sierra Yip-Banniq

“We want our pieces to be enjoyed and used every day.”

A Q&A with Franca Ceramic Studio Co-Founder Sierra Yip-Banniq

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Sierra Yip-Banniq, a ceramic artist who co-founded the Brooklyn ceramic studio Franca in 2016. The studio is known for its elegant slip cast ceramics featuring bold, distinctive patterns. Sierra studied industrial design at Pratt and enjoys exploring new materials and production methods. We asked her about starting her own business, developing new products, and the relationship between her practice as a designer and her practice as an artist.

Photo courtesy of Sierra Yip-Banniq

Q: How did you come to start your ceramic studio?

A:  I’m actually only one half of Franca. My business partner is Jazmin De La Guardia. She’s based in Florida at the moment. We started Franca together back in 2016. We both went to Pratt: I went to Pratt for ID [Industrial Design], she went to Pratt for printmaking. In 2013, a few years after we graduated, we met up for dinner and realized that we both wanted to start our own thing, but we weren’t a hundred percent sure what it should be. We decided to work on a studio together but we didn’t settle on ceramics right off the bat. We had the idea to start a design studio and then we were trying to brainstorm what medium or what products we could feasibly make ourselves in Brooklyn. We both really liked ceramics. It was something we did as a hobby. I had a membership space in a ceramic studio and she had a background in hand building. Ceramics was something we were both interested in but it is also something that is relatively quick to make. From start to finish you can come up with a design, make a sample, fire it, and test it – all within about two weeks. That’s uncommon. For most other materials, to make a finished sample in the right material would take a lot longer. And now it’s been six and a half, almost seven years of us solely doing ceramics. It’s not what we had originally planned, but it’s a happy accident, I guess. 

Q: Did you have business experience when you started Franca?

A: I took this introductory course. I didn’t do the full course because I was working full-time, I only did the evening and weekend sessions that I could fit into my schedule. It was about how to trademark designs and how to start a business. It was a really good course. That prepared me a little bit. 

Not everyone is built to work for themselves. It does take a particular type of person. Jazmin and I are very different in terms of our personalities and how we work. I think we’re really fortunate to have found each other. We met at Pratt in the first year and we lived together, so we knew each other well as roommates and we got along really well. That gave us hope, even though we knew that we were very different going into starting Franca together. There are things that I’m better at and things she’s better at. I think it’s very hard to find a good business partner. That was the one piece of advice I got from a good friend of mine who started a foundation. He wishes that he had started his business 20 years ago with a business partner. He says it’s almost impossible to find and bring on a business partner later. Not impossible, but it’s very hard. The idea of me doing Franca by myself… I don’t think we would be sitting here right now. It’s so much work that I can’t fathom doing it all by myself. We can lean on each other and we do everything together. 

Q: Do you distinguish between a design practice and an artistic practice in your process? What is the relationship between the two?

A: We see-saw back and forth because we think of ourselves as designers but at the same time we also think of ourselves as artists. I think there is kind of this gray area. We are not fine artists in the sense that we’re not making one-off pieces. We wanted our pieces to be producible in a way such that the price point wouldn’t have to be at that fine art level. But because our things are handmade and all of our patterns are hand painted, our product falls in this price point where they’re designed objects. We want them to be as accessible as possible, and it’s important for us to try to keep that in mind when designing new things. So we see ourselves as both artists and designers, both at the same time. Ceramics is traditionally more of a fine art field but I think, especially in the last decade or so, so many small practices have been started.

Also, the power of social media has allowed makers to share the process of small batch manufacturing. A lot of it is how to produce things efficiently, and how to be able to produce well-designed and intentional objects.

Q: Have you seen changes in the market for artisanal ceramics since you started your business?

A: We have. Even before Franca was founded, there were definitely studios we looked up to. It’s interesting to see that now, six years later, some of those studios have stayed the same, some have closed, and some have gotten a lot bigger. But we’ve always had customers—both stores and individual customers—who really appreciate handcrafted and handmade objects. That’s our ideal target audience; someone who appreciates handcrafted design and pieces. Because you can buy a mug at Target for $1.50, and you can also buy a mug from us that is definitely not $1.50. Then there are mugs that are $200 on the market if you go to a place like ABC Home.

We want our stuff to be used and cherished. We don’t want it to be so expensive that someone buys it and then doesn’t want to use it because it’s too fragile, you know? Or too precious. We want our pieces to be enjoyed and used every day. We love hearing stories from people who say, Oh, I broke my wife’s favorite mug and she’s upset because she uses it every day for her coffee. We like hearing those kinds of stories, and we’ll work with them to replace it. The pieces are actually being used and enjoyed and they bring happiness into people’s lives.

Q: Could you walk us through how you develop a new product or collection? 

A:  It varies depending on the time of year but basically Jazmin and I usually come up with an idea for a collection that we want to either expand or launch. We’ll test a small new product or pattern or shape and see how it does at these in-person sample sales. We’ll see if it seems like people are really interested in it, or if people don’t buy it at all. It lets us do these little user tests organically before we actually invest in making molds and producing the product. 

We usually come up with an idea of what product we want to make. Maybe we want to make new planters or we want to do lighting. Lighting is an example of something that we’ve been working on for many years and are finally hoping to launch later this year. Once we pick the product type, we both sketch separately. Then we come together, see which designs we both like, and work on developing those further. Basically we design everything together. Jazmin, because of her printmaking background, is stronger in pattern-making. I have more of a production background. Our goal is to design products that are producible by our studio. We decide if they are going to feature a lot of surface finishing or hand painting. We don’t want to make anything that’s too complicated or that’s something that we don’t specialize in.

With slip casting and mold-making there’s quite a lot of freedom. Sometimes we make a mold and it doesn’t work, and we need to fix it for production. But other times we come up with a design of something that we already have a mold for. We just don’t punch the hold in it to make it a planter, flip it upside down, and it could be something else. We like to play around with existing forms and see what else they could be. It’s a lot of stacking things, playing around with things, and trimming things down to different sizes so we can physically visualize the forms three dimensionally. We can sketch in 2D, but it’s really different when you can see something and manipulate the clay with your hands in 3D. Clay is a very therapeutic material in and of itself. You can shape it and sometimes it cooperates, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it cracks, sometimes it blows up in the kiln. You never know.

Q: Could you tell us about one of your favorite projects and share why it is important to you?

A: One of my favorite projects has been one of our longest ongoing projects, a collaboration with the New York Times. We were already making our own products and showing them at trade shows and different fairs around New York when the creative director of the New York Times store e-mailed us out of the blue. This was probably in our first year, maybe our second year. Our brand recognition was quite low and he actually e-mailed us…and we kind of ignored the e-mail because we thought it was spam. Then he followed up a second time and we replied. They were working on a project to restructure the New York Times store to bring production back to the U.S. and to New York in particular.

While they make certain products overseas, and they have for a while, they wanted some of their knitwear and their ceramics to be made in New York, to be true to the brand name. They chose to work with us and with our price point, and they’ve never pushed back when we need to do a price increase because it’s important to them to have products made in New York. We deliver small batches and mugs whenever we can and they’re really flexible, working with us when we’re too overwhelmed or having production problems. It’s nice to see bigger brands that want to work with small artisans 

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?

A: We’re working on a bunch of lighting. Before starting Franca, I worked at a higher end residential and commercial lighting studio. So I knew the background of not just wiring lights but also lighting certification and everything goes into selling lights. Lighting has always kind of scared us because we don’t want to launch a product that isn’t fully ready to go out into the world. We’ve spent a lot of time researching different types of lighting and how we want the lights to look. We’re going to be launching a couple of different collections of LED lights that don’t look like LED lights due to glass diffusers. Mainly we didn’t want the bulbs to be producing too much heat, as ceramic retains heat quite well. So it will look like a traditional globe light but essentially produce no heat. It’s a big project but we’re hoping to launch pretty soon! In late summer.

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