I was soaking wet and sitting in a rental van in downtown Houston, Texas. Three full bins of pots had fallen onto the street while I was rushing to pack up in the middle of a thunderstorm. I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear-view mirror, bins of work stacked haphazardly, shards of pottery on the street, remnants of a craft-show booth all piled up behind a very defeated-looking person. I’m not big on mirror selfies, but I took one and then sent it out in two messages, one to my wife and one to my parents. It read, “This sucks. Something has to change.”
This was in 2011. I had been making pottery ever since I took my first class in 1994 at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. It was my life. It was all I knew. I had an amazing cadre of friends and mentors. For twelve years, I had run a craft gallery adjacent to my studio on Cape Cod where I had a solid group of collectors. I had taken part in juried group shows, attended various craft shows both back in the Northeast and in Texas, where my family and I moved to in 2009, and participated as a host in the Art of the Pot studio tour in Austin. I had done everything I thought I was supposed to do as a working artist. This massive failure hurt. It was painful enough that I knew that I had to change things. Was I going to finally go get the MFA I was thinking about? Was I going to change things up and go to law school?
Making a Change
I drove back home to Austin, unloaded the van, took a minute to reset, Googled the LSATs, and promptly did not apply to law school. What I did change, though, was how I viewed and presented my work.
My adopted city of Austin was growing rapidly and the restaurant scene was growing with it. It was listed in every national publication as the dreamiest city to live and work in. It had become a darling of the food press and every new restaurant added to the allure that our city was a dining destination. All of the people buying my work were thrilled to chat about this. While everyone was excited, the thinking about the relationship between food and tableware was underdeveloped among the general public. There was an entire group of people that went to the farmers market as often as they could, joined CSAs (community supported agriculture) and thought about how their meat was raised. That said, they were putting their impeccably sourced food on industrially made plates that didn’t align with the rest of what was in their kitchen. Collectors of handcrafted ceramics were, in my view, completing the cycle. They were giving their food the vessels those ingredients deserved. I wanted those who thought about food, but not about how it was served, to be my customers, too. How could I get folks who spent their hard-earned dollars on quality ingredients to also invest in quality kitchen wares?
I stopped doing craft shows and decided to build out a new collection of work to show at the NY Now handmade wholesale tradeshow and tried to launch a wholesale version of my business. In doing so, I gave a lot of thought to how I wanted to portray my work. I took as many photos as possible of my pots with food, followed food stylists and chefs on social media, and hosted events that could showcase the intersection of ceramics and food in a way that would attract new collectors. My friend Ryan McKerley and I started a series of dinners called “Make. Eat. Drink.” in which we paired chefs and artists course by course to create a one-off experience. All of this was intended to get the chefs’ clients to become collectors of our work. What I didn’t expect was for chefs themselves to begin calling to ask me to make them plates. While plates were never my favorite form to make, the chef angle seemed fun. It was a challenge, especially when I thought about the scale of our first order. It wasn’t huge (about 250 pieces), but it was bigger than any wholesale order I had ever filled. I had a wonderful assistant at the time, so I said yes to the project and the two of us figured out how to make it happen. It was a mix of slab-built plates and wheel-thrown pieces. I assumed it would be a one-off order—we’d get a bit of a bump on the retail side of the studio and get back to work.
Six years later, working directly with chefs has become about 40% of the studio’s production and a key part of what people think of when they see my work. I stopped selling my work wholesale as collaborating with chefs took its place. I realized that the most important thing was for my work to be used. Suddenly, instead of it being a family of four using my work, it was now hundreds, even thousands of people interacting with my work as part of a night out at a restaurant. When I step back and think about the life my work gets to live, it’s pretty humbling.
The conversations with chefs are always an inspiration and each project gives us each a chance to problem solve. Similar to when I was doing craft shows, a lot of my job is educating my clients on what is and isn’t possible—what can we do with clay, which glazes are durable, what will work in a busy kitchen setting. My aesthetic is pretty crisp and clean and this lends itself well to showing off the chef’s recipes and plating. We play around a lot with color for smaller batches of work and sometimes a chef brings it to life in a way I never imagined. We have a beautiful matte turquoise glaze in the studio and while I always pictured it on my vases, one day I used it to glaze a plate. A chef used that plate to serve a tartare at a cooking demo, and everything popped. It’s now one of our most popular options.
Like a lot of trends, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. We’re in a particularly cool moment for ceramics, and the influx of handcrafted work in restaurants is only one example of this. I am very up front with potential clients about being focused on working with a chef who is specifically interested in my tableware. The word handmade has as much intrinsic value as does the word local. The intent and the quality of the item matters more than generalities.
Scaling the Studio
We now work with over 40 restaurants across the country and make work for special events including the Austin City Limits Festival, SXSW (South by Southwest), and Billy Reid Shindig. For that to happen, we’ve changed how we make things. Instead of throwing everything as I did for the first part of my studio career, we use a Shimpo jiggering arm to help keep our productivity up and our wares consistent. I currently have a team of three people in the studio. In addition to jiggering, we use slip casting for some projects and we’re still making some slab-built dinnerware from our original hospitality collection. Our largest order for a restaurant was for Alex Stupak’s flagship restaurant, Empellon, in midtown Manhattan. We made over 3500 pieces, with about half of them being fully custom pieces, including a ceramic tortilla warmer. We had to make 75 stackable vessels whose lids could be interchanged. Obviously, within a restaurant setting there was no way each lid could stay with its original base. This was a challenge as I had spent the majority of my life as a studio potter making lidded vessels one at a time.
The mantra in our studio is always “solve one problem, create another.” That’s what keeps us moving forward and allows us to continuously improve. Working with chefs has only accelerated finding and solving those problems. All of these opportunities created the question of if and how to scale our studio. After an enormous amount of thought, I decided that we’re going to continue to grow organically. There are plenty of studios that are scaling big and it’s inspiring to watch from afar; however, through introspection I realized that wasn’t the right move for me. I like my small and dedicated team. As we continue to improve how we make things, that will continue to open up more opportunities for us. This still gives me time to work as an independent artist and make one-off pieces. I like the scale of the projects we work on and value the direct relationships that I have with all of our clients.
There are moments when I realize that my work has had its biggest success outside of the traditional ceramic world and I sometimes feel disconnected from the ceramics community. What I have learned is that the restaurant world is very similar to the clay world. Chefs are trying to make the best version of something that they can. My work is successful when I can bridge the gap between the communities. The creative world in any city is made up of interconnected disciplines and I believe we all need to support each other for an art community or restaurant scene to flourish.
the author Keith Kreeger is an artist, designer, and maker based in Austin, Texas. He had been working in clay for over 20 years and currently focuses on made-to-order dinnerware for restaurants and homes. His work can be found in over 40 restaurants across the country. To learn more, visit www.keithkreeger.com.