Spend a few minutes scrolling through blogs, Pinterest boards, and Instagram feeds, and you'll stumble upon Rae Dunn. There are the MR. and MRS. dishes announcing an engagement, a jar helpfully stamped SUGAR, and a mug marked CALM being clutched by someone sitting on a cozy sofa.
Recently, the San Francisco-based artist has developed quite the cult following. People stand in line to snatch up her pottery the minute it hits shelves at HomeGoods, sometimes simply to resell it later at an inflated price. We spoke to Dunn about why this makes her sad — and what she wishes her fans knew.
When Rae Dunn (now 54) first touched clay, she was in her 30s. It was 23 years ago, and the woman behind those now-famous wordy works knew nothing about pottery. Sure, she began taking piano lessons at the age of four, studied industrial design, and for a while, made and sold baby blankets, but she had never even taken an art class. Dunn had only found herself in this ceramics class by chance — literally.
While walking in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the California native spotted a beautiful building that she thought looked like a castle. That building turned out to be Sharon Art Studio, a public space offering classes and workshops.
"I just decided I needed to be in that building, and the two classes that fit my schedule were stained glass and ceramics — both of which I'd never done," Dunn tells CountryLiving.com. "I flipped a coin and it landed on clay. I took the first class and completely fell in love with it. It slowly started taking over my life until it became my life."
Clay With a Cult Following
Years later, and Dunn's pottery has probably also taken over your Instagram feed, particularly the series stamped with long, handwritten letters, which is licensed to Magenta and sold exclusively at T.J.Maxx, HomeGoods, and Marshalls.
"It really has become this crazy cult," Dunn says. "I never expected it to be this insane."
Think we're joking? Go to any one of those stores and inquire about their Rae Dunn mugs. The employees will likely look at you like you're crazy and say, "No, people wait in line just to buy it." Dunn heard those exact words when she looked for her mugs at a store the other day. "So I can't even get any of it," she laughs.
That's because there are avid Rae Dunn collectors out there — including the popular blogger Liz Marie Galvan, who recently wrote an entire guide to scoring Rae Dunn pieces — not to mention whole Instagram pages devoted to sourcing her ceramics. Right now on eBay, there are 10,493 listings for Rae Dunn pottery, often for a higher price.
As thankful as she is for the enthusiastic support, Dunn says, "It also makes me sad that people fight over it and people will go in and buy everything and resell it." Unfortunately, she tells us, there's nothing she can do about that. After designing the pieces, Dunn essentially has no part in the production of the Magenta lines, meaning she has no control over where the pieces are sold and who buys them.
The real Rae Dunn is painfully shy, an excellent parallel-parker, and a lover of all types of food. Her dream job is to be a puppy-petter ("Wouldn't that be heaven?" she sighs), but she loves her current occupation so much that it doesn't even feel like work. She starts every morning with a pint glass of tea, brought to her by Johnny, her husband of nine years.
She'll play piano for a while and go for a run before beginning her workday at 10 a.m., first designing at home and then in the studio. It's usually midnight before she calls it a day.
Dunn's style is simple, cozy and organic. She's inspired by the Japanese art form of wabi-sabi, or the beauty of imperfection.
"That's the beauty of everything," she says. "When you try too hard it just becomes unauthentic."
When she first started making pottery, the instructor would tell her to smooth out the fingerprints and flaws in her pots, but Dunn disagreed.
"I just liked it because it looked like someone made it rather than a machine... I've always been drawn to things that are not perfect," she explains. "I love ruddy skin with freckles. To me it has more character. I love wrinkly clothes, things that show life and usage."
Now, she's built a whole business around that philosophy — even though she never had a business plan to begin with.
"When I started I kept my head down and was doing this because I loved it," she says. "I wasn't doing it to make money — there was no ulterior motive — it was just passion. I think where there's a will there's a way and when you have passion it drives the truck."
The proudest moment in Dunn's career so far? When her mom read an article about her in Martha Stewart Living and finally understood what her daughter did — and stopped worrying about whether or not she could make a living in the art world.
"Up until recently she was like, 'You should really go back to school and get a teaching credential so you'll have something to fall back on.' Or she'd come to my house and see all this pottery and say, 'When do you find time to do all this?' And I'd be like, 'Mom this is what I do. Don't you understand this is my job?' But I think when [that article] came out, she could connect it with someone famous and was really proud of that."
More Than Mugs
Many Rae Dunn collectors have impressive collections that practically spill out of their cupboards and hutches, which begs the question: Does Dunn even own that many of her own pieces?
"Absolutely not," she says. The ones she holds onto are not from her Magenta line but her handmade, one-of-a-kind works, which are often nonfunctional.
"All of that writing stuff that's out there invading the world, people probably think that's all I do, but it's nothing of what I really do and love about clay."
There's her other boutique line through Magenta, which you can buy online, and in her own Etsy shop, where she stocks handmade pieces (she's currently taking a breather on Etsy, however).
But she also has two books under her belt: The first, 2015's Wilma's World: Good Advice from a Good Dog, is a collection of photographs featuring Dunn's beloved four-legged friend, who serves as constant inspiration for the artist.
"Wilma has changed my life more than anything I think," Dunn says. "She brings me so much joy and makes me happy — and she's hilarious. Still to this day she does things that she's never done before that make me laugh, and she's 12."
Dunn's second book, released this spring, is a collection of daily sketches from her annual France residencies called France: Inspiration du Jour, inspired by another experience that transformed her into the artist she is today: While in Spain in 1993, her camera was stolen, forcing her to record her memories another way. She began sketching in her journal, filling the pages with moments she now remembers so much more clearly than if she had merely pressed a button.
Her third book from Chronicle, slated for 2019, will be filled with ways to get inspired—the working title is In Pursuit of Creativity: Things I Do. "When someone gets a new sketchbook, it's very daunting, so it will give you ideas of what to draw," she says.
Don't worry though: She's not stepping away from pottery. But Dunn does have plans to switch things up a bit. This October, expect to see some of the sketches from her second book popping up on the porcelain pottery in her boutique line at Magenta, in lieu of words. And there will be color!
"My work is mostly white and colorless, but I just got back from Italy and I was so inspired by color, so I'm going to start adding more color into my work," she says.
Also on the horizon? A mouth-blown glassware collaboration with Home Essentials, which will also be sold at T.J.Maxx, HomeGoods and Marshalls.