Process & growth: an essay

I’m pleased to announce the launch of two new pieces to my dinnerware line: an 8” Lunch plate, and a 6” Soup bowl. These two pieces have been in the works since last November, and I’m so excited to finally add them to my site. In my own kitchen, I use the Shallow bowl for most dinners, but for lunch and breakfast, I prefer what I think of as a sandwich plate - about 8” across. I know lots of people like a regular dinner plate, so I still plan to offer it. As for the bowl, after launching my ‘Breakfast bowl’ a couple years ago, I found myself wishing I had made the design with a foot ring, as opposed to the flat bottom, so it paired better with my dinner plate. I also wished the bowl held a little more volume so it could be more versatile; used for soup as well as yogurt. So, I made the decision to redesign! At long last, the two new pieces are both ready. Check them out here!


This gives me a chance to talk about how I got here, and the production story I’ve wanted to tell for a long time...


When I first started my business in 2013, I threw each piece on the wheel by myself. I learned quickly this method really limited the number of pieces I could make.  As I started to get burnt out on the repetition of production throwing, I explored how I might increase my production in a way that felt natural to me. When I first hired an assistant, I had to learn what steps of the ceramic process to delegate and what to do myself. The wheel was my first love, and I knew I wanted to keep it for myself; I still throw and trim each piece myself 7 years later. I learned slipcasting to expand my work with colored clay, and that process created tasks that my assistants could do without me: making the plaster molds, smoothing each piece by hand, sanding them after the first firing, and glazing them with only clear glaze, since the color is added during the casting process with tinted clay. This is how the Beach and Meadow series are made.


By 2016, I wanted to figure out how I could offer dinner plates regularly. I knew that throwing them on the wheel one by one felt unsustainable (ask any potter why!). Plates have a high ‘seconds’ rate, they can warp or crack, and they take up a lot of shelf space as they need to dry slowly. I learned about a RAM press, which is a hydraulic press that uses many tons of pressure to press soft clay into a mold. I threw an original plate on my wheel in the studio, had an expert moldmaker make a master for the presser to use, and then sent it to the manufacturer. Each piece of clay is loaded by hand into the machine one by one, and each pressed piece has the edges smoothed with a sponge. Despite being relatively labor intensive for a mass production method, in a few days several hundred pieces can be pressed, and they are all the same in size and thickness - this was important to me so the plates would stack nicely in a cabinet. Investing in my own RAM press in-house would have meant a significant upfront cost (requiring a loan), a lot of physical space (all those pieces have to be stored as they’re drying), and expanding my team to include employees who could operate the press. Instead, I decided to work with a RAM presser out of state, who presses and then bisques the plates, firing them to a low temperature so they are safe to ship to me on a pallet. Once I receive them, I glaze and fire them to order in my own studio. 

 

Above: My 2016 dinner plate in production


Integrating this new RAM process challenged me to design in a new way. Part of what I love about the size of my production in-house is the freedom I have to change my mind if I’m not happy with how a piece is working. As such, my designs shift and flex all the time! Once I decided to work with the press, I had to design a piece that would remain in my collection for a long time: the setup to have my piece prepared for RAM by a master moldmaker is significant in both time and cost. It was a scary step to get the dinner plates made because it was the biggest financial investment I had ever made in my business (much bigger than a kiln or other equipment I had bought). But, I suddenly was able to say yes to orders I had previously had to decline; 80 plates in a few weeks for a dinner event would have been an impossibility if I was throwing them. The next year, I was ready to add another shape, my shallow bowl.

Above: My 'snack plate' mold at the moldmaker's workshop

In 2018, I took a road trip to visit several small ceramic factories in the US, or ‘potteries’ as they’re called. Seeing what parts of the clay process are the same and what are different at scale thrills me, and getting a peek into the rich tradition of American manufacturing made me proud to continue to support this process in my own work. There used to be hundreds of such factories across the US, and while most are dying out, it was a revelation to see some in action. Most of the people working at these potteries have been in this field for decades and are true masters of the craft. It was a challenge to find the right partner for my pieces since I'm a pretty small fry compared to the bigger orders they're used to. Visiting in person and leaving a cup behind at every stop, I learned so much about dinnerware design and came home inspired to expand my collection. This manufacturing allows me to incrementally grow my business and focus on sustaining my practice long term.

Above: My shallow bowl original, getting prepped

Above: Racks of pieces in various stages of completion

My interest in visiting factories and seeing how things are made is a long love affair: when I was a recent college graduate living in Ridgewood ten years ago (the same neighborhood where the studio is now), I lived next door to a defunct knitting factory where my 75 year old next door neighbor still went to work every day to sweep up and putter around. We made friends, and I helped him sell all of his antique machines on eBay, and photographed the process of clearing them out when the buyer came with a 28 foot tractor trailer. I had no idea then that I would end up starting my own business making products here in NYC, eventually settling just a few blocks away. While so much of American manufacturing no longer exists, I like to think that tiny companies like mine are carrying the torch forward in our own way. 


Above: My neighbor behind one of his knitting machines