1 Dishes made by students in the fall 2015 Food for Thought class, ready for use by the Asta restaurant staff.
In ceramics the relationship between form and function is rarely simple. When the latter encompasses conceptual and aesthetic purpose its scope can be as vast as thought and as infinite as art. Physical function might, in contrast, seem a relatively straightforward matter, but it, too, is subject to contextual variables: a vessel designed for special occasions may indulge in fragility in ways that an everyday bowl or plate, subject to regular knocks and scrapes, cannot. Experienced potters tend to consider the variables of context as a matter of course, but the idea that there is no such thing as a universally effective vessel may not be as obvious to the initiate. Ceramics pedagogy, as a consequence, does well to emphasize the contextuality of function in all of its forms: aesthetic, conceptual, and physical.
To ceramic artist Arthur Halvorsen, whose work in the studio focuses on utilitarian pottery, the idea of stressing context awareness in a ceramics class, one devoted specifically to an emerging niche market for handmade functional wares, came naturally. An instructor in the Ceramics Program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard, Halvorsen conceived of and implemented an innovative thematic course titled Food for Thought. Over the fall semester of 2015, each of the 20 students enrolled—a mix of Harvard undergraduate and graduate students, university alumni, and members of the community—worked toward final versions of a plate, bowl, cup, and serving vessel. The intent of the course was to stimulate thought about how such objects might be designed specifically for the context of an upscale restaurant. “In Boston there are restaurants catering to the farm-to-table movement,” Halvorsen relates, “and it seemed to me that if people were caring so much about where their food comes from, then they should also be thinking about where the dishes that their food is on are made.”
The idea for the Food for Thought course was spawned partly by fortuitous circumstances when Halvorsen, who also teaches at Mudflat Studio in Somerville, Massachusetts, met Alex Crabb, head chef and co-owner of Boston’s Asta restaurant (www.astaboston.com). An advocate of locavorism, a currently popular movement stressing local production and consumption of food, Crabb had committed to extending its principles to include the restaurant’s tablewares. “I got interested in handmade plates and bowls while picking out my service ware for the restaurant,” he recalls. “It seems to be quite a trend here in Boston for at least one line of your service ware to be from a local artist, and even more so to be made by yourself. I think it’s a logical evolution from the farm-to-table movement, and it gives you a little more control over how things are served to the guests. I decided to start making some vessels for myself, taking classes and working at Mudflat. People knew that I was a chef, and Arthur approached me and asked if I would speak to his class then cook a meal for the students and serve it on their work at the end of the semester. I went in twice to talk to them about my expectations for service ware. At the end we cooked a lunch, some plated courses and some family-style courses.”
The knowledge that their work for the semester would culminate in this event—a test of their ability to anticipate the physical challenges experienced by restaurant wares as well as the aesthetic expectations held for these in the context of serving a variety of artfully prepared foods—exerted a guiding influence over the students as they considered vessel surfaces, shapes, and sizes, the capacity, stability, and efficiency of forms, and the impact of such factors as weight on effectiveness in use. During Crabb’s first visit to the class much of the discussion focused on the need for durability in wares that would in a single evening make numerous trips from kitchen to table and back and be subjected to repeated cycles through a high-temperature industrial dishwasher. “We talked about rims and feet and the reality of the handling of objects in a restaurant,” Crabb remembers. “That was a key point of the conversation.”
Halvorsen built on Crabb’s observations, directing the students toward glazed white or brown soda or reduction-fired stoneware, and demonstrating techniques in throwing and handbuilding that might be employed to create durable restaurant wares. “I tried to emphasize that conditions would be different from those in your home,” he says. “Things were going to get thrown around, so they couldn’t have a lot of little doodads attached. For me that was a challenge, because in my work I like to decorate over the top. I had to rein myself in. Also, Crabb had talked about his ideology, what he’s thinking about when he’s in the kitchen. He tries to use everything, so that there’s very little waste. That was part of it as well. Still, the students were getting fancy in their work because they knew that it would be in a restaurant setting, and they thought that it should be something special.”
Crabb’s second visit with the students midway through the semester curbed the tendency toward ornamentation. Showing the class some of his own thrown bowls and bowl-plate hybrids as well as examples of the commercial vessels with which he integrates them in the restaurant, Crabb stressed consideration of the visual aspects of the environment in which the wares would be used. Asta’s exposed-brick walls, open kitchen design, wooden tabletops, and mixed-and-matched flatware, distributed by guests themselves from drawers beneath each table, composed the setting in which the bowls, plates, cups, and serving vessels would function. “We had a conversation about how I came to have this kind of service ware, my aesthetic,” Crabb remembers, “and after that, Arthur observed it as well, the colors and details in their work got muted. Everything was a little colorful in the beginning, the things they had already glazed, but I showed them what I had and we talked about what works well: that the food looks vibrant on grays and earth tones. When they brought their final pieces a lot was neutral colored.”
By the day of the lunch, which took place shortly before Thanksgiving, each student had made numerous decisions about effective form, surface, and scale. In some cases that meant modifying designs to adjust for the expected number of participants. “One of my students made a long, boat form,” Halvorsen relates. “She thought that it was too vast, too big a vessel to serve just one food. It was sort of like a trough, and she divided it with a wall in the middle. That was actually a great server for bread.” Crabb demonstrated that no mandatory parameters had to be imposed on scale, but rather that the sizes of vessels in relation to the portions of food that they carried could produce different aesthetic effects. “The students were all supposed to make a bowl,” he explains, “but some made big bowls for salads or something to serve in a family-style way. I put one portion of mushroom soup in those so they could see how you could use them as personal-sized containers as well: how a bigger frame sometimes can actually make food look more special.”
5 Arthur Halvorsen’s platter, designed as part of the project for the Food for Thought class. 6 View of a salad course served on one of the student-designed plates. 7 Students in the Food for Thought class pictured with Alex Crabb of Asta (front row, third from right) and instructor Arthur Halvorsen (back row, third from right) before their end-of-semester lunch at the restaurant. Student-made plates and platters are shown on the table in the foreground.
While the primary intent of the course was to raise these kinds of revelations about the design and use of functional ceramics as restaurant wares, a secondary benefit became evident as students worked toward sharing their vessels in a communal context. The meal at Asta served as a catalyst to consideration of the social implications of restaurant ware and of functional pottery in general. Invited to attend the lunch, Kathy King, Ceramics Program Director of Education at the Office for the Arts at Harvard, noted that “the class brought together a great combination of communities. We had people who had been taking classes for a while who were from the area and a few of the Harvard undergrads and grads. It was great to have this subject bring them together and start a new conversation. I think that the way that Arthur and Alex were able to talk about food and ways of presenting food really brought everyone into the conversation, regardless of skill level.”
The success of the Food For Thought class ensured that it would be offered again (the next iteration is being offered this fall), though with minor modifications based on Halvorsen’s experiences in teaching it. “I plan to work with Crabb again,” he says. “We’ll use the same guidelines: one bowl, one serving vessel, etc. That worked really well. But in the next class I want to make a point of tapping into the history of certain functional forms: very specific things like oyster plates, deviled-egg servers, and cake stands. I want to put those into context for the students. I want the students to think about the presentation of food and about making their bowls and plates simpler so that the food will be more in the spotlight. That’s what this class was all about: highlighting the food.”
the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.