RAVENSWOOD — Katie Lauffenburger quit her tech job in June to pursue her passion of building homes — and she’s doing it all without pulling permits or buying pricey lumber.
That’s because Lauffenburger is building miniature homes, one-of-a-kind replicas just 10 inches tall. So far, it’s been a runaway success — the Ravenswood sculptor currently has a three-month waitlist of customers paying $5,000 and up per home.
“It’s a little bit unique, kinda quirky,” she said while looking at her latest ceramic creation: a soon-to-be exact model of 3008 W. George St., a Chicago-style three-flat in Logan Square.
“Yeah, it’s a little weird,” said Phil Thompson, Lauffenburger’s husband who sells thousands of his drawings of Chicago-style homes — from the city’s iconic two-flats to its abundance of bungalows.
The couple share a dog, 7-year-old maltese poodle yorkie mix Vincent, and a business: Wonder City Studio, specializing in artwork honoring Chicago’s historic architecture.
Thompson and Lauffenburger live in a normal-sized craftsman-style home in Ravenswood, and commute just across the train tracks every day to the studio, 4636 N. Ravenswood Ave., they opened back in August.
Lauffenburger has sold about a dozen of her Chicago-style homes over the last several years — including two-flats 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 artwork are often gifts for lifelong Chicagoans who want to memorialize the homes they grew up in.
“People just have an attachment to their homes. A lot of times I make 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 that some of her clients have cried after seeing their homes resurrected in ceramic form.
“And here in Chicago, people are just wild about bungalows.”
There are about 100,000 bungalows in Chicago, but Lauffenburger’s bungalows may be the only ones with open-tops that double as planters. It was at Lillstreet Art Center in Ravenswood that she first got coined “The Bungalow Lady,” drawing local lore as she fired her unique Chicago homes inside the public kiln.
Ceramics seemed to be a “natural fit” to add to Thompson’s print-side of the 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 space — a big upgrade from the 4-by-5 walk-in closet that Thompson was previously drawing in at their Ravenswood home.
Architecture has always been at the center of their relationship. Thompson and Lauffenburger met on Match.com after they each moved to Chicago in 2006 as grad students from different corners of Pennsylvania. Thompson was glad to escape the drab “suburban McMansions” of his hometown, while Lauffenburger came from a small rural town with not much focus on architecture.
In Chicago, the pair got to know each other while getting to know the city’s built environment.
“Once we lived here and really soaked in the city, I asked Katie, ‘Why do people love Chicago?’” Thompson said. “I think the architecture is just beautiful. It’s harmonious. And it just works. And it just fits.”
“We would just go to different neighborhoods and walk around,” Lauffenburger said. “And we were just in awe of everything we were setting. Because it wasn’t something we 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 loves the one-of-a-kind top-levels of two-flats and three-flats.
Thompson studied international trade at University of Chicago, Lauffenburger specialized in animation at School of the Art Institute of Chicago — and both received a self-education in Chicago architecture. Chicago’s bungalow boom between 1910 and 1940 made the homes a sign of prosperity for the city’s predominantly white working middle-class. Homeownership exploded in that period after World War I, with homeowners often building their own bungalows. The architecture became “the hearts” 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 intact woodwork and stained glass,” Thompson said. “It gives Chicago homes a real sense of craftsmanship, because so many people were involved with building and maintaining their own homes.”
“And the houses went up when that sense of craftsmanship really mattered,” Lauffenburger added. “I’m still amazed when you walk around, and see what’s now become a taco place, but has these beautiful pieces of ornamentation on the side. You don’t see that with a lot of the newer construction.”
Thompson and Lauffenburger didn’t discuss homes on their first date. But they did drink craft beer at Empty Bottle. Four years later in 2010, Thompson got his start selling hand-drawn maps of the 14 best craft beer bars in Chicago (personally researched). Lauffenburger digitized it, colored it in and printed it to scale. The beer maps sold “well beyond our expectations,” Thompson said.
At the time Thompson was working for a consultant firm advising Swedish companies how to break into the U.S. market. Thompson took what he learned from working with the Swedes and applied it to his side business making Chicago home drawings. He made prints of the Lakefront currents with exacting city street maps. Next came “The Siblings,” prints of three two-flats in Lincoln Square that were featured in the movie “The Big Sick.”
Thompson was suddenly getting commissioned to draw custom portraits of people’s childhood homes. Lauffenburger supported his decision to quit his day job.
“My biggest surprise was that more people weren’t doing this,” Thompson said. “I thought it was something new, reflecting back to us what we appreciate about our environment. Nobody was focusing on how frickin’ cool two-flats and bungalows and greystones are.”
Lauffenburger remembers taking photos of homes growing up, and also asking Thompson for feedback on the tiny rooms she made for stop-motion puppet classes at art school. She channeled her passions and skills into architectural ceramics and joined Thompson in leaving normal jobs beyond.
“With sculpting miniature homes, it takes something that’s out of reach, but so gorgeous, and puts it in your hand,” she said.
This year Lauffenburger hopes to increase her production speed so she can scale her business and clear out her waitlist. She makes the homes from slabs of clay and models them off her iPhone. “You can be surprised how much you can just 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 there’s not a hook, you might just blend into the crowd.”
The couple’s studio is covered with art from 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 core of their business.
“People don’t want something that’s made elsewhere that reflects your neighborhood,” Thompson said. “You want art done by somebody, who lives in your neighborhood, who cares about your neighborhood.”
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