It’s not everyday that you meet the talented ceramicist behind one of the most storied restaurants in America. Julie Hadley, whose handmade wares grace the tables of Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in New York City, is also the co-owner of La Mano Pottery, a studio that just happens to be down the block from Food52 headquarters. It also turns out that both artist and chef have a friendship that spans years. I’d like to think it was a somewhat serendipitous union that brought us all together: Hadley’s thoughtful, handmade pieces speak perfectly to farm-to-table pioneer Barber’s natural food leanings. Pair that with our own philosophy of eating thoughtfully and living joyfully, and you have yourself a match made in art-food heaven.
I have known Dan Barber from way back when he was in cooking school and trying things out in his kitchen at home.
HANA ASBRINK: Tell us about yourself. Did you always know you wanted to be a ceramic artist?
JULIE HADLEY: I received my BFA in painting from Cornell and then went on to grad school for early childhood education, making art in my spare time. I did not know I wanted to be a ceramic artist. I had dabbled in pottery in college and it never amounted to much. But I craved the studio atmosphere—the community, quiet space, and time to create. Eventually, I stumbled onto La Mano and began taking wheel classes there. It was the perfect outlet—working with my hands to make functional wares, and the pots became the canvas to decorate and add color to.
HA: I love reading about your “less is more” aesthetic. How do you stay true to that ethos in a city like New York, where there is so much going on around you?
JH: It is definitely my mantra—in all parts of my life. I’ve found that I’m happier with less. Too much clutter makes me unsettled. I want my pieces to complement the food and drinks that fill them, and still be beautiful on their own. It is a challenge. It’s something that I’ve learned only by doing—by going too far and then scaling back the decoration or design over time, after making many pieces. It’s always hard to decide when something is enough, when it’s complete. I find it exciting to think it through even with pieces that I am making multiples of. Each is one of a kind. I can’t even put it into words, but it’s something that comes up with every piece I make.
HA: Describe your artistic process and inspiration: How do you conceptualize an idea, and how long does it take to see it to fruition in a product?
JH: For inspiration, I look to forms found in nature, design, fine art, like the curve of an iron gate in front of a brownstone that I pass by every day. I sketch out my ideas on paper, often many versions of the same thing. For example: bowls. They come in infinite shapes and sizes with different contours, etc. After lots of sketching, I’ll try out some of the ideas with clay. I have to make the pieces to see them three-dimensionally. Then, I may scrap it, or make a few variations. It takes me a long time to come to a final design that then seems so simple no one would imagine that it took me so long to come up with it! Once a prototype is ready, I’ll take it home to use it and see how it feels.
JH: I am very excited about the cake stands and some new water pitchers that I recently made for Blue Hill. It was fun to play around with these two projects, and I’m really happy with how they turned out and how they are being received.
HA: How did you come to provide dinnerware for Blue Hill? What a fun collaboration!
JH: I have known Dan Barber from way back when he was in cooking school and trying things out in his kitchen at home. I used to illustrate menus and place cards for some of his smaller catering company events. This was before I was doing ceramics. We eventually reconnected just passing on the street, and it seems like it was just meant to be, especially now that I am doing ceramics. I relate to Dan’s aesthetics and am a huge fan of what he is doing.
Making pots and working with clay is a slow process—from the forming, trial and error, to the clay drying and bisque firing, and then the glazing and firing again. It takes patience and time—something that is becoming scarcer and scarcer these days! I feel like my process in making the tableware for Blue Hill in the city relates so closely to one’s experience when dining there, and to the chef’s experience in creating the dishes.
Julie's work is minimal, organic, imperfect, handmade and gorgeous―everything I want my food to be.
Dan Barber, Executive Chef and Co-Owner, Blue Hill
HA: What course of action would you recommend someone (newbie or otherwise) interested in receiving more formal ceramics training: a structured course or a one-off weekend workshop to start?
JH: Either works: a one time workshop or an eight-week course. Obviously, with a course, you will get a more in-depth experience of the process from beginning to end and more time with the teacher. If you have at least a few extra hours to come to the studio and practice what you have learned in a class, you will get the most out of the course you sign up for. Practice—going through the process over and over—is so valuable. It is so much fun. And it’s healthy to take time out of your day, from the computer/phone/work/family life, to do something totally different.
I want my pieces to complement the food and drinks that fill them, and still be beautiful on their own.
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