Groove Is in the Art

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could fit her life into a teacup —especially a life as full and successful as Jill Rosenwald’s—but somehow, this top Boston artist has managed to do it.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could fit her life into a teacup—especially a life so full and successful as Jill Rosenwald’s—but somehow, the Boston artist has managed to do it. In fact, there have been hundreds of teacups, as well as serving trays, lamps, rugs, even giant beanbag chairs. Each is filled to the brim with Jill’s bubbly personality. It spills over in energetic loops and whorls of color that characterize the bold geometric and oversize floral patterns she handpaints on each one of her original creations.

The designs have changed to chronicle her path from struggling single gal to working mom to nationally renowned designer for the likes of Neiman Marcus and Lilly Pulitzer. Despite this success, the overachieving artist still pours every ounce of herself into her work, from hand-designing each piece in her Fort Point Channel studio to finding new inspiration for her seasonal lines. She even dresses in the same bright hues that grace her pottery (pink and lime green is a favorite combo).

Jill Rosenwald HQ is a surprisingly small studio in Boston’s historic district, crammed with half-finished ceramic bowls, trays, vases and lamps piled high on workbenches and tables. Though every piece is still handsculpted and -painted, Rosenwald’s team is only four members strong. But the artist is used to multitasking. In her early days on Boston’s clay scene, she worked solo and shared a studio in Somerville; before that, she hawked her wares on the streets of SoHo in her native New York.

“People came right over and made purchases, and I thought, ‘Now that’s a business,’” she says.

She never dreamed that one day major retailers would be knocking on her door. Shortly after relocating to Boston, a city she calls “clay-friendly,” Neiman Marcus became one of her first clients. Her giant sculptures and Italian-inspired mosaics—some of which are still on display at Via Matta in Boston—caught the retailer’s attention. “Each one reflects my state of mind at the time,” she says, “like ‘Remain a Mystery’ and ‘Honesty Is Unpopular,’” pieces all titled to reflect her experiences on the Boston dating scene. “They were all about the boys and how I felt being a loud, aggressive female in a world of men who were not appreciative,” she says.

The woeful dating collections were phased out when Rosenwald met Lawrence McRae, a fellow ceramist, in 1993. They married several years later and joined forces in business, with McRae creating the company’s marketing collateral. As Rosenwald’s success grew, she recruited sculptor Mark Mancuso to make the forms and designer Ichiko Kato, who draws each design in pencil before hand-painting every piece. The ceramics are then glazed and fired. Often, Rosenwald adds a rim of 14-karat gold to her bowls and plates.

The Rosenwald line is known today for its seasonal collections, something de rigueur in the fashion world but unheard-of for housewares. Rosenwald was one of the first designers to debut a new line every winter and spring, collections inspired by fashion trends and the season, such as Velvet (plush shades of brown, green and turquoise), Verve (swank orange, yellow, white and blue combinations) and Sour Apple (the artist’s favorite pink and green with yellow, brown and white). “I’d do a series like you do in art school,” she says. “That’s how the seasonal ceramics came about.”

Pottery remains her true passion, but Rosenwald has also branched out into other media. The arrival of her first child, Thea, now six, inspired the debut of Jill Baby, a line of petite ceramic lamps, soft linens and onesies emblazoned with elephants, frogs, lions and monkeys. It was the first time Rosenwald reached outside the pottery realm, and like everything else she had done, it was a success.

“This was the beginning of the Jill brand,” says Rosenwald. She followed up with rugs, pillows, outdoor furniture and giant fabric bean bag chairs called Ipads for Laneventure, a North Carolina-based home furniture company, and a line of wall decor for Boston Interiors, a furniture store with locations throughout Massachusetts. Her next venture will be an upscale line of colorful melamine serveware in her signature prints, and place mats, napkins and table linens for Magenta, a California-based company that will distribute to retail stores throughout the country.

Rosenwald masterminds each design’s vivid colors and retro-mod patterns, and her inspiration can come from just about anywhere. “I may be out with my kid and I’ll see the way the grass looks juxtaposed against corduroy fabric,” she says. “You don’t know when the ‘aha’ moment, or the ‘eureka’ moment, is going to happen, but when I’m looking at the world, I see design.”

Regardless of what inspires her, the style is unmistakably her own. “Jill’s work has a very distinctive look,” says Victoria Wallins, owner of Essentia, a home furnishings store in Wellesley. “When you see it, you know it’s Jill’s.” Wallins knows it well—not only does she stock the designer’s line of platters, bowls and lamps, but she’s also a collector in her own right. “I won’t have company over without setting out her tray that I use as a butter dish,” says Wallins. “It’s aqua and orange.”

These days, Rosenwald tends toward rusty oranges and browns, avocado greens and turquoise patterns that recall 1960s fashions with swirls, stripes and whimsical florals. “She uses such gorgeous palettes that can fit into both contemporary and casual decors,” says Panamai Manadee, owner of Bliss Home on Newbury Street, which stocks Rosenwald’s bowls, lamps, vases and trays. Manadee is another convert: She recently bought one of the Jill Baby lamps for herself. “It has a frog with an orange crown on it,” she says. “It’s adorable.”

Regardless of how many new lines Rosenwald creates, ceramics always will be the anchor of her work. “I want to keep my hand in pottery because it’s the laboratory for all the other design work,” she says. “My absolute favorite thing is when all the work that you put into everything comes together in the collection, and then you see the collection coming out of the kiln and up on the shelves and you just say, ‘Yes, I’ve done it.’”