This Ravenswood sculptor wants to make you a mini replica of your Chicago-style home
RAVENSWOOD — Katie Lauffenburger quit her tech job in June to pursue her passion for building homes — and she’s doing it all without getting permits or buying expensive lumber.
That’s because Lauffenburger builds miniature houses, one-of-a-kind replicas just 10 inches tall. It’s been a resounding success so far – the Ravenswood carver currently has a three-month waiting list of clients paying $5,000+ per home.
“It’s a little unique, a little quirky,” she said, looking at her latest ceramic creation: a soon-to-be-exact model of 3008 W. George St., a Chicago-style three-apartment in Logan Square.
“Yeah, that’s kind of weird,” said Phil Thompson, Lauffenburger’s husband who sells thousands of his Chicago-style home designs — from the city’s two iconic apartments to its abundance of bungalows.
The couple share a dog, Vincent, a 7-year-old Maltese poodle, and a business: Wonder City Studio, which specializes in artwork honoring Chicago’s historic architecture.
Thompson and Lauffenburger live in a full-size, craftsman-style house in Ravenswood and commute daily across the train tracks to the studio, 4636 N. Ravenswood Ave., which they opened in August.
Lauffenburger has sold about a dozen of his Chicago-style homes in recent years, including two-unit apartments in Portage Park, bungalows in Mayfair and workers’ cottages in Roscoe Village. Her work is a creative complement to her husband’s three-dimensional forms of his architecturally sound prints and drawings.
The couple said their artworks are often gifts for Chicagoans who want to commemorate the homes they grew up in.
“People just have an attachment to their home. Often I do a childhood home for someone’s parents. There’s just a lot of nostalgia to the place they want to honor,” said Lauffenburger, who said some of his clients cried after seeing their homes resurrected in ceramic form.
“And here in Chicago, people are crazy about bungalows.”
There are approximately 100,000 bungalows in Chicago, but Lauffenburger’s bungalows may be the only ones with open roofs that double as planters. It was at the Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood that she was first coined “The Bungalow Lady”, drawing inspiration from local lore as she burned her unique Chicago homes inside the public oven.
The ceramic seemed like a “natural fit” to add to the printed side of Thompson’s business, originally named Cape Horn Illustration, Lauffenburger said. Their recent success together as Wonder City Studio has allowed the couple to sell Chicago artwork full-time, invest in their own kiln and open their own studio – a big improvement over Dressing Room 4 on 5 that Thompson was before. sketching in their Ravenswood home.
Architecture has always been at the center of their relationship. Thompson and Lauffenburger met on Match.com after each moving to Chicago in 2006 as graduate students from different corners of Pennsylvania. Thompson was happy to escape the drab “suburban McMansions” of his hometown, while Lauffenburger came from a small rural town with little focus on architecture.
In Chicago, the couple got to know each other while learning about the city’s built environment.
“Once we lived here and really got into the city, I asked Katie, ‘Why do people like Chicago?'” Thompson said. “I think the architecture is just beautiful. It’s harmonious. And it works. And it’s just fine.
“We would just go to different neighborhoods and walk around,” Lauffenburger said. “And we were just in awe of everything we were putting together. Because it wasn’t something we had experienced before.
Thompson was drawn to the symmetry of art deco skyscrapers like the Carbide and Carbon Building, the cozy woodwork of Craftsman-style homes in Irving Park, and the Sullivanesque ornamentation on buildings like the Kraus Music Store in Lincoln Square. Lauffenburger likes the unique upper floors of the two apartments and the three apartments.
Thompson studied international business at the University of Chicago, Lauffenburger majored in animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – and both were self-taught in Chicago architecture. Chicago’s bungalow boom between 1910 and 1940 made homes a sign of prosperity for the city’s predominantly white working middle class. Home ownership exploded during this period after World War I, with homeowners often building their own bungalows. Architecture has become “the heart” of distinct neighborhoods, Thompson said.
Chicago’s historic architecture has endured to this day, as many homes have only been passed down a handful of times, Thompson said.
“That’s why you still see a lot of woodwork and stained glass intact,” Thompson said. “It gives Chicago homes a real sense of craftsmanship, because so many people have been involved in building and maintaining their own homes.”
“And the houses went up when that sense of craftsmanship really mattered,” Lauffenburger added. “I’m always amazed when you walk in and see what’s now become a taco place, but has these beautiful ornamental pieces on the side. You don’t see that with a lot of new construction.
Thompson and Lauffenburger did not discuss houses on their first date. But they drank craft beer at Empty Bottle. Four years later, in 2010, Thompson began selling hand-drawn maps of Chicago’s 14 best craft beer bars (researched personally). Lauffenburger scanned it, colored it, and printed it to scale. The beer cards sold “way beyond our expectations,” Thompson said.
At the time, Thompson was working for a consulting firm advising Swedish companies how to enter the US market. Thompson took what he learned working with the Swedes and applied it to his side business doing home drawings in Chicago. He made impressions of the lakeside currents with accurate road maps of the city. Next are ‘The Siblings’, prints of three two-unit apartments in Lincoln Square that were featured in the movie ‘The Big Sick’.
Thompson was suddenly tasked with drawing custom portraits of people’s childhood homes. Lauffenburger supported her decision to quit her day job.
“My biggest surprise was that more people weren’t doing it,” Thompson said. “I thought it was something new, which sent back to us what we appreciate in our environment. No one focused on the coolness of the two apartments, bungalows and gray stones.
Lauffenburger remembers taking pictures of houses growing up and also asking Thompson for feedback on the little pieces she made for stop-motion puppetry classes in art school. She channeled her passions and skills into architectural ceramics and joined Thompson leaving normal jobs beyond.
“With miniature house sculpting, it takes something that’s out of reach, but so beautiful, and puts it in your hand,” she said.
This year, Lauffenburger hopes to increase his production speed so he can scale his business and clear his waiting list. She makes the houses from clay slabs and models them from her iPhone. “You may be surprised how much you can glean from Google Street View,” she said.
The artist has embraced her identity as “The Bungalow Lady”.
“I think you want to be known for something,” Lauffenburger said with a laugh. “People can make art, but if it’s not catchy, you might blend in with the crowd.”
The couple’s studio is covered with works by other local Chicago artists, from Steve Shanabruch’s neighborhood prints to Will Quam’s “Brick of Chicago.” The city’s buildings are its beauty, Thompson said, and Chicago will always be at the heart of their business.
“People don’t want something that’s done elsewhere that reflects your neighborhood,” Thompson said. “You want the art to be made by someone, who lives in your neighborhood, who cares about your neighborhood.”
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