what's in your toolbox

What’s In Your Toolbox: Xenia Taler

by Annie Werbler

What's In Your Toolbox: Xenia Taler, on Design*Droits-Humains

When I first came across Xenia Taler’s ceramic work for this column, I fell in love with her unique sensibility riding the full illustrative spectrum between gesturally playful and rigidly geometric surface patterns. As I clicked through her archives, I was surprised to find that I was already very familiar with her whimsical designs — the cup of coffee I was working through at home that morning was indeed resting on her . Xenia and her partner Steven Koblinsky, who crafts the pieces on which Xenia’s designs are applied, created their studio 20 years ago. In addition to handcrafted tiles, they have added home accessories, paper products, and soon a children’s novel to their collection.

Always filling notebooks with her constant stream of creativity, Xenia never lacks for new ideas to explore. “I have more of a problem with creative focus than creative block,” she admits. “I really enjoy that initial part of designing, which is just exploring and seeing how many variations you can come up with.” If she ever needs inspiration, Xenia dips back into earlier fixations. Speaking to some of her influences, she finds “folk art across all cultures to be extremely inspiring, and also a big help in solving many design problems.” —

Photography by


What’s in your toolbox?

My sketchbooks, markers, pencil crayons, and various other art supplies. I also use gouache for cards and illustration. For many years I used ceramic glazes on tiles to create all our images. Steven (my husband and business partner) would develop the glazes and clay bodies and I would design the images. I am no longer doing that, but we have a large archive of designs we’ve built up which we use to create many of our cards.


Fill in the blank, “When I am in my studio, I feel ____________.”

eager to develop my designs.


What’s on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?

I’ve been looking at a lot of early abstraction and geometric art. Malevich, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Kandinsky. For years I was very much into folk art and the Bossert Folk Art books were my bibles. I still find folk art across all cultures to be extremely inspiring and also a big help in solving many design problems.


How do you keep yourself organized?

For daily tasks I use notebooks. Even though these get messy with doodles, it’s very satisfying to be able to physically cross things off. For long-range projects, we create a schedule that we review every couple of weeks.


If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?

I would like to be really stretchy like the mom in The Incredibles.


What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?

Finding at least one or two people in your field that you trust to offer feedback is extremely helpful. Working alone and even with a partner, you can get tunnel vision, so a fresh perspective can help you avoid that.


How do you combat creative blocks?

I usually use my sketchbooks to get started. I really enjoy that initial part of designing, which is just exploring and seeing how many variations you can come up with. It’s rela and I sketch almost daily, so I always have a lot of undeveloped material waiting to be worked out. I have more of a problem with creative focus than creative block. I often have too many ideas and am excited about too many things — often things that have nothing to do with what I should be working on! Lately I’m trying to use a mood board to keep on track.


Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?

Art and culture. Any urban environment, whether it’s a museum, bookstore, or supermarket. I love thrift stores, too, and just walking around the city. I like Instagram and Pinterest, too, for discovering new art and for getting a feel for what other people are into. It helps you stay open and consider things you might have overlooked.


If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?

I really like the work of Christopher Dresser. It has ornamentation and historical reference, and at the same time it goes forward into modernism. It shows that the two are not incompatible, but maybe just a little difficult together. There’s a tension from that and it’s sometimes resolved with playfulness. The materials are also very rich and a lot of the techniques were artisanal and highly skilled. I am curious about the thought process behind it and the kind of imagination that created it.


What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?

I never get tired of: Ronnie Lane, Big Star, The Feelies, Wire, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, Joe Cocker, BB King…Blondie :)


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