Suji Lee runs an online plant shop and plant care service tinybloom, where she combines her two passions—plants and pottery—to create unique, one-of-a-kind planters featuring hand-picked plants.
This month, she kicks off 7115's first ever artist in residence program: where we collaborate with local artists and makers to share clever ideas that you can implement in your everyday life. Suji's handmade ceramics and plant sets will be taking up residence in our Williamsburg location this April. She is also hosting our first ever workshop: a 7115 x tinybloom guide to Plant Propagation; where you can learn how to create new plants from existing plants without having to spend a single penny.
We sat down with her ahead of her residency and workshop to chat about turning her passion into a career. Suji wears the Signature Dolman Shirt
Can you walk us through what the concept of tinybloom is?
I started pottery because I wanted to make more homes for my plants. (I currently have 120 houseplants—and counting!) I reached a point where I started to run out of pots to put all my little plants in, and I thought, “Why don’t I just make my own? My plants would love that.” I’ll never forget the first time I potted a plant that I grew into a pot that I made on the pottery wheel.
A tinybloom is a plant set that features a hand-selected plant, hand-thrown pot, and personalized care instructions from me. All tinyblooms are made to order and customizable, and I keep my customers’ plant and pottery dreams in mind during the entire process. You tell me what plant you want, and I’ll go above and beyond to find the perfect plant for you. One that is super healthy, picked with love, and has lots of personality. (I love plants with personality!) After buying the plant, I’ll also take care of it for a while. I think it’s important to get to know the plant, and to make sure that it’s doing well before I present it to you. It's also so that I can take the time to be thoughtful about the container I’m building for it. After that, I like to keep in touch with my customers to make sure the plant is happy in its new home. I’m there to answer all of your plant questions, and for your plant emergencies.
It's a very interesting because you want to set people up for success. So on top of sending people home with a custom-picked plant in a custom-made container, you also offer ongoing assistance and advice as a plant healer. Tell us more about the path to discovering that you were passionate about plant care.
I’m originally from a suburb outside of Los Angeles, where plants, especially succulents and cacti, grow effortlessly. My dad has always been into plants and nature, and is an avid gardener. I remember our backyard always being full of all kinds of plants: bonsai, cacti, apricot trees. Unfortunately for some reason I never took interest in plants while I was in California, even though they were all around me. I have a memory of him asking me to take care of his plants for a month while he went to Korea. I was in the second grade, so please excuse my bad behavior below. He said, “Hey, can you take care of my bonsai trees while I’m gone? All you need to do is take this hose and water it every blah blah blah.” I was like, "Sure dad!" Needless to say, I forgot to water them, and when he came back they weren’t doing so hot. (I really hope I didn’t kill any!)
I wish I had taken more time to notice plants when I was younger. I think something about being in New York, and living in a busy, chaotic city where there isn’t much greenery made me want to bring life indoors.
My personal love for plants really bloomed when I bought my first two succulents at my local hardware store in the East Village. This was about two and a half years ago. I didn’t know anything about how to keep a plant healthy, and sadly, my succulents started dying on me after a few weeks. I decided to do some research, and did everything I could to bring them back to life, including taking them back to the store and asking tons of questions. After a few days of changing the plants’ living conditions, they came back to life and looked so happy! During this time, I felt like I really got to know what it takes to make a succulent happy. Most importantly, this experience allowed me to develop a special connection with my plants. I began to appreciate the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and people.When you began tinybloom you were working at companies like Warby Parker and Of A Kind, but plant care was not your full-time job. It was just something that started out as a passion project. How did your love for plants evolve into approaching it seriously as a career?
At Warby Parker I was on the Customer Experience team but I also took on special projects in various departments such as Social Media, Social Innovation and Product Development. We had all these plants in the office from a workshop with The Sill. After the workshop, everyone took their cute little plants to their desks, which unfortunately did not have the best lighting. I remember looking out for the plants, and thinking that they could be much happier in better conditions.
After a few weeks, I just had to intervene. I would “borrow” people's plants from their desks leave post-it notes saying “Hi. Your plant is in rehab where it'll be much happier. Come visit us by the kitchen window. I'll bring it back when it's alive again! Love, Suji” The second floor kitchen window was lined with all of these plants that I took from people's desks, and people would come by to see their plants grow and thrive. Every morning while I had my coffee, I would check on them. Towards the end of my time at Warby Parker, I was thinking a lot about my job but I was also really invested in plant care. I wanted to be the office plant whisperer.
And that continued at Of A Kind too?
Yes! When I moved to Of a Kind, I immediately took interest in them. I made a plant care guide, carefully training our interns on how to water them, and made sure we’d place the plants by a window every weekend so they could get enough sun. I would also go shopping for plants before our photo shoots, which I loved doing.
At the end of the day it really came down to: what was I thinking about and what most excited me? It was plants. It was life. Ooh, and pottery! At some point, I just realized that I had enough passion and knowledge about plants, but also, that there was a massive amount of knowledge yet to cover. I kept asking myself, “what is the best use of my time at this point in my life?” I was the Customer Relations and Operations Manager at Of A Kind and I was taking on a lot of responsibilities helping to run a small business. And so I decided one day that I want to do this for myself. And the plants, of course!
Let's talk about your ceramics as well, which are an integral part of tinybloom. You make ceramics that go hand-in-hand with the plants that you pick out for clients. You've mentioned that you started pottery out of necessity because you were running out of pots. Can you elaborate more on your ceramics and what sets them apart from others?
First of all, they all have drainage. That’s really key with planting. No matter what kind of planter you get, even if it’s aesthetically pleasing, you should at least have some sort of drainage. With my pots I'm always thinking about the health of the plant, as well as the functionality of the pot. I glaze them thinly because too much glaze will keep the soil in the pot wet after a watering. Glazed pots lock the moisture in, while unglazed pots are porous and dry a lot more quickly. Plants, especially succulents and cacti, like the soil to be kept on the dry side. Because of this, porous terra cotta pots work well. I do like my pots to have some color, so I glaze them, but I leave the bottoms of my pots unglazed so they can drain easily.
What's also really special about my planters is that they're tiny. I think some people have a hard time making such small things on the wheel because it takes a certain precision, and a lot of time. But I'm really happy with the design that comes out of that, and with the craftsmanship I can infuse into each tiny piece. I find the combination of a tiny succulent, in a tiny little pot, stamped with my tiny little stamp to be very charming. Even though it’s a tiny thing, it has a lot of personality and says a lot without taking up much room. It's a tinyBOOM, which is also my nickname.
So is that the inspiration behind the running theme of your work?
I guess so. I've always loved tiny things. I don't remember where I got the nickname from, but to me, a tinyBOOM describes something that’s tiny, with a boom factor. It packs a punch. What particular glaze are you using for your debut ceramic collection? Is there a reason behind what you're using?
I use a lot of clear. Well, it's not really clear. It's more of a light blue that’s very beautiful on porcelain. Porcelain is the main clay body I use in my work, and it’s a very fine, white clay body. I also use a matte black glaze, and I love how silky smooth it looks. Lastly, I use Celadon, which is a very special glaze to me. Celadon is kind of like a light mint, or light jade. It's glassy, and almost like a clear glaze with a green tint. I've always been drawn to this glaze for some reason. When my parents saw my ceramics for the first time, they told me that Celadon was used in ancient Korean pottery, back in the Goryeo Dynasty, and that a lot of Korean ceramicists used Celadon in their work. I guess that's why I've always been drawn to it intrinsically. My dad would say to me, "Maybe you were a potter in your past life." I love that!
In what ways has New York informed your practice and what you create?
I live in the East Village in a tiny little bedroom, but somehow I've managed to fit fifty plants in there. Living in New York has taught me how to maximize small spaces, and has trained me to think carefully about the vessels I put things in. In terms of design, New York has taught me that you can't just make something. You have to have a story and be thoughtful about how you execute your design. This is why I stress that each plant and pot in a tinybloom are unique, stand out, and have lots of character.
New York has also taught me how to be super scrappy. Back in the day I learned about plant propagation, which is basically the practice of creating new plants from existing plants. It's a very cheap way of growing more plants, and I got into it because I wanted to stop spending money on them. Being scrappy and thinking about how to grow things from what I already have has taught me a lot about plants. I also keep it scrappy at the pottery studio. People jokingly make fun of me because I can take one ball of clay make at least six things, while most people would probably take a much larger ball of clay and make one thing. It still takes a lot of time to make one thing, but I take that time to carefully craft each piece, using all of the materials available. In general, New York has really pushed me to produce my pieces thoughtfully, while being scrappy and staying focused, driven, and hungry.
Challenges are always tough to talk about, but they are so formative in shaping who you are both as a person and a creative. What is one of the biggest challenges you've encountered so far and what have you learnt from it?
New York isn't the easiest city to live in. It can seem uninhabitable to some (especially transplants like myself), and I think this pushes people to cling onto the things that are stable, comfortable, and easy, even if these things don't necessarily make them happy or help them grow. I've felt this way about some jobs in New York. I would cling onto my stable job, schedule, and access to good health insurance, even though I knew I wasn't growing or learning new skills.
This scenario makes me think of root bound plants: plants that are confined in their pots because they have simply outgrown them. Soon there's no more soil or nutrients left for the plant to feed on, which prevents growth. To help the plant continue to grow, it's necessary to remove the plant from the pot, free the roots, and invest in a bigger pot, new soil, and perhaps some fertilizer. Doing so will allow it to flourish, thrive, and take on new life. In the same way, I think it's important for us to take a step back when we're feeling restricted in our own growth and think about the larger picture. Are we growing or confined? How can we invest in ourselves so that we can thrive, flourish, and take on new life?
It was honestly really scary for me to think about quitting my job without knowing where I was going, or how successful I would be. But I've always been a creative person with a personal drive to pursue my passions. Although it was incredibly scary, I had to quit in order to find out what could come of this. At the end of the day, I had to be-leaf in myself that things would work out!
Let's end this by looking towards the future. The environment is becoming more and more of an important consideration especially for our younger generations. Do you have any clever ideas that people can implement to be more mindful of plants, greenery, and the environment in their everyday lives?
I love this question. More than ever, it's becoming increasingly paramount to think about the environment and how we can take steps to preserve it. Children really are our future, and it's my biggest hope that we can help teach younger generations about the mutually beneficial relationship we have with plants and the environment.
Here are a few ideas:
1) Propagate plants! As you know by now, propagation allows you to create new plants from existing plants. It's really magical, rewarding, and can be done in many ways. It's also a clever way to multiply your plants without having to buy new ones.
2) Grow your own avocado plant from a seed. It takes up to 2-8 weeks, but it's a great lesson in building patience, and learning that growth takes time. Also a terrific excuse to make lots of guacamole!
3) Grow your own family herb garden. And then use the fresh herbs in your dishes at home. A great way to introduce healthy eating habits from a young age.
Suji wears the Pockets Shirt SS17 (Coming Soon)
What's on the horizons for Suji and tinybloom?
I'm going to have my debut collection at 7115 in April! I'd also love to take my horticulture and botany knowledge to the next level. I want to get that to a place where I can call myself a plant doctor who can diagnose and treat plant problems. I’m thinking a lot more about design lately, and spend as much time at the studio working on new forms. I just want to continue making and growing beautiful things, and spreading my love of plants.
To learn more about plants and tinybloom RSVP to our Plant Propagation Workshop on Wednesday 26th April, 7-9pm. Suji's debut collection of ceramic vessels and planters will be available in our Williamsburg location from April 15 until May 14. You can also follow Suji on her plantstagram @tinybloom.