It isn’t immediately noticeable.
Our brains often skip over the scramble of shapes and patterns that make up our world, but after spending a morning in Lauren Ko’s West Seattle home, they began to surface — like a new spectrum of colors my eyes had never picked up before.
Two abstract-style prints of triangle and half-circle formations hanging in her dining room were two obvious examples, but then I started to notice the thin strips of kitchen tile backsplash, which mimic Ko’s artistic pie creations; an anthropomorphized sun mirror was brimming with pin-straight sunshine beams; a plant next to the fireplace had long ribbons of ruffle-edged foliage; the living room chairs were reminiscent of weaved wicker baskets; even the Alexa Home perched on the counter had an intricate comb of circular speaker holes for sound projection.
Everything in sight looked like inspiration for a Lokokitchen pie. The famed Instagrammer started posting her series of geometric- and tangram-inspired pies on social media a year ago, just to have a dedicated space for her food art. She’d only started baking pies in 2016 after moving to Seattle. She was in between jobs and had some extra time on her hands. Ko, who grew up in San Diego — her parents immigrated from Honduras and Hong Kong — had baked cookies and other simple treats with her mother and grandmother, but she’d never dabbled in pies. Pie dough seemed finicky and intimidating. But one day, in her light-filled kitchen, she decided to try a simple, woven lattice pie crust with a braided edge.
Not long after creating her Lokokitchen Instagram, she had a sizeable following. But once a few mega popular accounts — including Design Milk — reposted her pictures, Ko’s following pie-rocketed (wink) from there. A couple times a week, or so, she reveals a new pie or tart that’s been reimagined as a stunning canvas of razor-sharp linework or a motif of precisely placed produce. Maybe more unbelieveable than the myriad of designs she’s arranged is that none of her creations are pre-drawn or planned. She uses whatever perishables she has in the house — mostly sourced from Costco or whatever is on sale at the grocery store — and she lets the project take her wherever it ends up.
Her personal Pinterest is an archive of textures, tiles, architecture, eye-crossing geometric patterns, and abstract art. A photo of antique terra-cotta Chinese roofing tiles became the inspiration for a pie crust that looked like it was blanketed with banana bunches.
“Everything looks like pie to me,” she said. “As I’m walking around, or shopping for clothes, or when I’m out and about in the city, or at a museum, or pretty much any place, anytime my eye gravitates toward color pops and patterns, and repetitive geometric sequences — any sort of texture — my mind immediately goes: Oh, that could be my next pie design or tart design.”
In order to ride the fruit-filled wave of her sudden fame and accept the flurry of opportunities that were filling up her inbox, Ko left her job in January at Seattle Colleges and is focusing on her art full-time.
If you’re one of her 216,000-plus followers on Instagram, you likely already know that, no, she doesn’t sell her pies (each one takes four to five hours to make, and she doesn’t want to sell them for hundreds of dollars a pop), nor does she ever intend to open a bakery. Anything she makes is happily sent off to friends for consumption. She and her husband, Ben, don’t have much of a sweet tooth.
Currently, she’s making a living doing media shoots, TV appearances, and teaching workshops. In April, she flew to New York and filmed two segments with Martha Stewart. Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine published an article on her in its May issue, and she’s even done an interview with Vogue.
Her newfound career as a pastry artist has been exhilarating, humbling, and unexpected for this self-taught baker, who considers her specialty more in line with artistic design than culinary arts. Many assume that because her work primarily features intricate patterns that she’s a mathematician or former engineer, but Ko’s career background is more in line with humanitarian work.
She graduated from the University of California San Diego with a major in international studies — with a focus in sociology — and a minor in Latin American studies. From there, Ko was a social worker for several years and even worked in South America for a time. The foundation of her early career has mostly been on the frontlines, interpreting and advocating for immigrant abuse victims seeking asylum or refugee status, and as a crisis intervention and case manager for domestic abuse survivors. At one point, within her role as a social worker, she founded Lo’s Kitchen, a youth empowerment program equipping at-risk teenagers with vocational skills.
“I’m super grateful for all the opportunities that I have now to meet people, and go to events, and teach classes, and make pies and tarts for a living,” she said. “But sometimes, it really does feel like, ‘Ugh; I’m just making pie.’ It feels a little frivolous. I don’t know if shame is the right word, but maybe guilt? It feels selfish to have this sort of career, based on the kind of work I was doing before.”
Ko isn’t angling to be an activist with her social media platform, but at the same time, she said it feels wrong to simply post about pie with punny captions. During the week of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing, she posted a rainbow-colored apple tart with a caption that included the phone number for the sexual assault hotline.
“I think there’s been a lot of conversation and discussion about sexual assault, and as someone who worked in that field for a while, it felt really important to me to say something,” she said. “I think it doesn’t necessarily mean I have to make broad sweeping political stances, but it felt bad to just post about pie and make a joke that day. I feel a little bit of an obligation to use my opportunities and use my voice in productive ways. I’m continuing to explore how to do that in a way that is respectful and takes advantage of the platform I have.”
But doing so isn’t necessarily easy for Ko.
She already has a collection of internet trolls who criticize her for not posting pictures of her pies after they’re baked (she does, by the way), which influenced her to fight back with a haters-gonna-hate tagline: #yeahbutwhatdoesitlooklikebaked. People get worked up over her pre-baked pie photos, so she knew she’d get some flak for anything even slightly political. Some sent her nasty messages via email over her sexual assault hotline caption, among others she’s posted, and she’ll occasionally lose some followers. Overall, though, it’s worth it.
“I think there’s this moment where you want to be on the right side of history,” she said. “As in any situation, you want to do the right thing, and sometimes that means speaking out.”
Over the last year, she’s partnered with some Seattle and Eastside charities — including Hopelink — donating pies for auctions to raise money for the nonprofits. And she uses her social media to promote local and national organizations doing work she feels passionate about. In some ways, her career has come full circle — just like her pies (can’t help the pie puns).
“I hope people will take away that this is art, this is fun to look at. Of course, my medium just happens to be edible,” she said. “I hope people will see that it’s also kindness-motivated. There’s a sense of humor to it and a sense of engaging in things that matter.”
The Art of Lokokitchen
Just when Lauren Ko thinks she’s maxed out her creativity for another geometric-inspired pastry, something else provides inspiration for her next creation. She’s archived pages and pages of photos on her personal Pinterest for future muses. See more of her creations on Instagram at @lokokitchen.