Helen Levi is one of the most admired potters in the design world (we want to fill our homes with her colorful planters and vases) and one of the most down-to-earth people we know. She lives and works in Brooklyn with her dog, Billy, always by her side. Here, she talks about how her career path took an unexpected turn, the childhood hairstyle she still wears and the French drugstore product she can’t live without…
What is your daily facial skincare routine?
I wash my face with a gentle cleanser from Neutrogena and then use Kiehl’s face lotion. I grew up a couple blocks from the Kiehl’s shop in Manhattan and it’s the one “fancy” product my mom always used. She taught me and my sister that you just need a little drop for your face and one bottle lasts forever. She started giving me a bottle in my stocking every Christmas and I feel like it lasts the whole year long!
Do you have any of your own “fancy” items?
I have somewhat sensitive skin and have had a lot of bad reactions to deodorants over the years. I’ve tried pretty much every natural deodorant on the market, most of which do nothing. But a friend introduced me to Roger et Gallet, a French drugstore brand, and for some reason their deodorant doesn’t irritate me and works great. I swear by it even though I pay exorbitant shipping to get it!
How about beloved drugstore finds in the U.S.?
My absolute favorite is Baby Lips lip balm! It goes on so smoothly without any residue. I hate when you get a waxy or creamy coat on top of your lips — this just absorbs. I generally stay away from the fruity perfume-y ones because they’re too artificial; I like the unscented plain one the best. I buy it every time I see it.
When did you get into pottery?
Pottery has been my hobby since I was a little kid. Growing up my parents worked full time, so after school got out at 3 p.m., I would go to the community center and take pottery classes. I loved it. The same woman taught me throughout my whole childhood, and in high school, I became her teacher’s assistant. When I graduated, she was going on maternity leave and she asked me to cover for her. But it never entered my brain that I could do this for a living. I had never met anyone in the design community or who had a small business selling their own work. I studied photography at Oberlin and was really passionate about it; I felt sure that would be my career.
So, how did you decide to start your business?
Well, I was 25 and the photography thing wasn’t really coming together. I was working four part-time jobs — waitressing, bartending, photo assisting and teaching pottery — and I had just gone through a breakup and moved back home with my parents. I was not in a good place. One night, I went on a date to an event at a Steven Alan store, basically because it had an open whiskey bar. I started chatting with a random man, and then my date came up and said, “Oh, hi, Steven!” It was Steven Alan himself, I’d had no idea! He told us he was opening a home goods store, and my date was like, “Helen makes pottery.” He asked me to send him pictures of my work and he ended up placing an order for 50 pieces. Nowadays I throw 50 pieces in a single afternoon, but at the time I thought that was insane!
How did you get your business off the ground?
After the Steven Alan order was a success, I started really small and limited my overhead expenses. In the beginning, that meant being in a big communal studio and having a roommate in a railroad apartment that was really not meant for two people. I worked seven days a week. The more I did, the more that came out of it, and it was addictive and fulfilling. Nowadays, I feel like this is what I am meant to be doing. It’s funny to think, I would have never planned it for myself.
Does your work affect your beauty routine?
Yes! In my day-to-day life I have no glamour. I literally wear Crocs in the studio, and all my clothes are pretty masculine. It’s a shame that women’s workwear is so limited! I end up wearing men’s cuts: overalls, Carhartts or jeans. I used to wear my work clothes around the clock, but my whole life started feeling dirty, which made me feel a little sad about myself. So now I have a dedicated work wardrobe — it’s helps with the mental separation, too.
I love the boiler suits you wear!
Thanks! My favorite one was my mom’s. When she was a teenager, her mother gave her the Sears catalog and said she could pick something out. She was a bit of a rebel, so she chose a men’s jumpsuit to stick it to her mom. But she bought it for her anyway, which was pretty cool of my grandma. And, now I wear it! I feel very sentimentally attached to that jumpsuit.
Do you ever feel the desire to dress up outside of work because you’re dressed down so often?
Yes! Last year I got a really beautiful, over-the-top silver lamé gown and had no occasion to wear it. So I asked my boyfriend to plan something specifically so I could get all dolled up. Since he’s an extremely good sport, he bought us tickets to the ballet! I wore a vintage coat and felt so fancy.
What about makeup on special occasions?
I wear Bare Escentuals dark brown eyeliner, Maybelline Great Lash mascara and red lip tint. Or I sometimes use Bobbi Brown pale pink lipstick. Whenever I wear lipstick, it makes me feel like my childhood image was of a fancy lady. In most ways, I feel like an adult, but when I put red lipstick on, it’s like the excited little girl version of me is still there.
Do you wear makeup on regular days?
I don’t really know how! My mom never used makeup — she was a punk and really didn’t conform to the traditional standards of what a woman did those days. I’m also a bit of a hippie. When I was a kid, I went to a Jewish communist-slanted summer camp where our sports teams were named after historical movements and the bunks were named after revolutionary writers. But sometimes now, if I get my photo taken and someone puts makeup on me, I’ll be like, “Oh, wow, I look nice and awake.” I wish I knew a little more.
Have you ever thought about watching some YouTube tutorials?
Well, I did teach myself how to French braid my own hair from YouTube a couple years ago! I watched like 45 minutes of videos, but found this one to be the best because it has you focus on your hands rather than your hair. My mom used to French braid my hair, and when I used to waitress, I’d ask the other girls working to French braid my hair before shifts. After that, I figured I should finally learn.
How do you take care of your hair?
I’m currently using Davines Love shampoo, which was recommended by other wavy-haired ladies I know. And I let my hair air dry. (I used to have a blow dryer, but I brought it to work to use for pottery, and now it’s a pottery blow dryer.) Thankfully, I recently got a hair lotion by Arrojo that is the BEST. I put it on my wet hair, let it air dry, and it looks effortlessly good and never frizzy.
Was there any feature you weren’t into growing up that you’ve now made peace with?
It took a lot of years to love my body. That’s probably a pretty universal experience for women because of all the pressure put on us to live up to certain standards. But particularly having a smaller bosom took me a long time to make peace with. I thought there was something not feminine about it. When I was young and learning about “our changing bodies,” it seemed like having boobs was what turned a girl into a woman. But as I grew older, I accepted it and even started to love it.
Do you have any non-beauty rituals that help you feel great?
People always say that exercise is good for your mood, but I had never experienced it personally until I took a swim class during my senior year of college and fell in love. Since I hadn’t learned to properly swim until then, I figured I’d never be that great at it, but I feel proud of how comfortable I am in the water now. I swim laps at the YMCA — it’s the one activity that really clears my mind. No matter what I’m stressed or upset about, it’s pretty much a guarantee that when I get out of the pool, I’ll feel better. And it definitely helps that I can look forward to sitting in the sauna afterwards.
Your mom wasn’t into makeup, but were there any other women in your life who taught you about beauty?
Our close family friend his my ideal of glamour — she’s a grandmotherly figure who has been friends with my mom forever. She lives in a loft in the Meatpacking district and has hosted an annual Christmas Eve party for decades. We go every year, and it’s hard to believe that she’s about to turn 80. She has a fabulous wavy bob and always wears red lipstick and high-waisted pants that cinch at the waist. She reminds me of Katharine Hepburn, whose trouser-wearing taught me that slacks could be sexy.
Are there any scents you love in your home?
My favorite scent to use at home is beeswax. It’s just the warmest, coziest, most inviting smell. I actually just made my own candles! When taking baths, I can’t stand the overhead lights in my bathroom, so I’ll just line up a bunch of candles on my little sink. My boyfriend probably thinks I am doing a séance in there.
What is your bedtime routine?
I moisturize my hands and feet as I’m getting in bed with Neutrogena Norwegian foot cream. It works really well on both. And I try to keep a full glass of water by my bedside to drink as soon as I get up. I read somewhere once that it’s a good practice to drink a cup of water before you even stand up! I mostly forget, but I try to do that.
Thank you so much, Helen!