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Q&A with Laura Cowan, Judaica Designer to the Stars

Tel Aviv-based Judaica designer Laura Cowan is about to get the star treatment—that is to say, her space-themed mezuzot are on their way to the International Space Station. Astronaut Greg Chamitoff contacted Cowan himself in an effort to get his hands on her work, which combines traditional silversmithing techniques with modern production processes. He'll be bringing two of her mezuzot, the "Apollo" and "Shuttle Pewter" designs, along for the ride in May. We got in touch with the delightful designer to learn more about what inspires her, and what other cosmic projects she has up her sleeve. Like her style? You can pick up your very own Laura Cowan Moon Seder Plate right here in the Jewcy store.

Tell me about your entry into the world of Judaica design. Is this something you've always wanted to do? Not at first – it is something that evolved. As a child growing up in Manchester, England, the range of Judaica was very limited and uninspiring. Mezuzot were ancient looking things that no one really paid attention to. My favorite lesson at school was art but looking back, the classes were really old fashioned – only painting and pencil drawing. It was quite an academic school and it didn’t occur to me that there were other types of art. After school I did an art foundation course, where you experience different types of media and the teachers try to break you down and then build you up again. It was probably my most challenging year. I remember crying as I was told to bin about 100 life drawings in my midterm review. I found myself happiest in 3D design and went on to study BA Silversmithing and Jewellery at London Guildhall University, where I developed my techniques of stamping, lathing, and anodising. It wasn’t until I moved to Israel and started designing for myself that I became interested in Judaica. It can be challenging to apply the ancient teachings of Judaism to our modern lives, but your space-inspired mezuzot symbolize Jewish modernity. Beyond aesthetic design, what does this mean for you? I like to think of Judaica as a fun educational tool. By creating designs that people want to use and display I feel like I am adding a way for people to express their Judaism. There is a concept in Judaism called Hiddur Mitzvah – a directive to make a mitzvah beautiful – which is an amazing gift to Jewish artists. As I create new pieces I research the needs of the specific piece. My research can be anything from talking to Rabbis to surfing the internet and reading biblical texts, so it’s a learning process for me, too. When I started designing ten years ago there wasn’t the range of well designed Judaica like there is today. I felt that by creating desirable designs, it would encourage people to practice Jewish rituals, which in turn would be my small way of preventing assimilation. When did space and the Sixties mission to land a man on the moon become interesting to you, and how did it come to translate into your design work? I remember sitting on the university library floor surrounded by space books, absolutely overwhelmed and excited by what I was seeing and reading. It puzzled me that it seemed so futuristic, yet it was something that had actually happened. The shapes of the rockets connected with a project we were working on in class, and I began stamping out simplified rocket shapes based on what I had seen in books. I got hold of some moon landing tapes and saw how carried away people were. You could feel the energy even through the footage which was then 30 years old. How did you become acquainted with astronaut Greg Chamitoff? Greg’s former professor and close friend contacted me in order to purchase mezuzot for Greg to carry on Expedition 17, the next mission to the ISS. When his friend’s email kept bouncing back, Greg contacted me personally. His email started “I am writing to you from Houston, Texas, regarding your Apollo mezuzah design. I’ll be flying on the next Space Station Mission, Expedition 17, and would very much like to take one of your Apollo mezuzahs with me…” I almost fell of my chair reading it! Given the opportunity, would you travel into space? I think I would be too scared!
The pieces you create are all ritual objects. Which Jewish rituals are the most meaningful or moving for you? Tricky question. I would say I am most drawn to Havdallah…the beginning of a new week, the smell of the spices, and the light of the candle flame… You've created mezuzot, candlesticks, menorot, and seder plates. Are there any other objects you haven't made yet that you're planning to try your hand at? I am on a design roll at the moment, so I am working on several pieces at once: A Shabbat set of candlesticks and Kiddush cups called the Creation Series, which is almost finished. Also a dreidel inspired by Saturn’s discs which is at the production stage, and a new mezuzah design which is at the sketch and model stage.

Related: 5 Jewish Astronauts Who Brought Their Judaica into Space, Must Have: Laura Cowan's Moon Seder Plate

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