Birch, an award-winning restaurant in Providence, commissioned Ceramics students to create tableware to complement its menu and décor.
Chef extraordinaire Ben Sukle (standing in white coat) thanked Ceramics students with a sumptuous private lunch at Birch.
This spring students in a Tableware studio taught by Ceramics Critic Molly Hatch resurrected a long-standing tradition (started by Associate Professor Larry Bush) of creating site-specific pieces for local restaurants. For the semester-long project, they worked with celebrated restaurateurs Ben and Heidi Sukle, whose warm and elegant restaurant Birch was recently included in Architectural Digest’s online story: Why Providence Is the Country’s Best Small City.
Having carefully selected every interior design element in order to give Birch its upscale yet natural vibe, the Sukles were delighted to add handcrafted tableware by RISD students to the mix. “Working with the students was a great learning experience for us,” notes chef Ben, “and their work is really impressive.”
Each student was required to complete six first-quality pieces – a task that turned out to be harder than they originally imagined. “I made at least 20 dessert plates in order to end up with six,” exclaims exchange student Kathryn Dennisson, who will be returning to her home country of Sweden at the end of the academic year.
Junior Yves-Olivier Mandereau 15 CR/GD relished the experience of working with a real-world client. “The restrictions of the restaurant’s small size and neutral color palette made the assignment interesting,” he notes. “The forms had to be small enough to fit on the bar but big enough for the food.”
Once the final tableware was ready for a trial run in early May, the Sukles invited students to a private luncheon at Birch to celebrate. For the first course, they served meticulously prepared asparagus, caramelized crab, tofu, nasturtium and leek dressing (all grown or harvested in nearby Bristol, RI) – and presented it with perfection on rustic iron-flecked grey plates by Mandereau, Clara Bertness 15 ID and Jin Du 15 ID. Next came baked rutabaga, mushrooms, caramelized vegetables and seaweeds on plates by Kevin Yu 14 ID, followed by an elegant rhubarb and almond opera cake on pieces by Dennisson and Maria Polky 14 CR. Other students in the class handcrafted creamers and sauce dishes, bread bowls and decorative vases.
The students chatted over lunch about their plans for the summer. If they’re looking for internships, Hatch says she’s more than happy to hook them up with ceramists and other artist friends she knows across the country and around the world. An exhibiting artist herself, she’ll be focusing on illustration this summer, working on projects for Chronicle Books and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. “I created a hand-drawn catalogue for the [Williamstown, MA] Clark Art Institute’s porcelain cups collection,” Hatch explains, “and I’m starting to develop a reputation as an illustrator.”
Hatch looks forward to teaching Tableware at RISD again next spring and hopes to expand the class by partnering with culinary arts students at nearby Johnson & Wales University next time around. “The idea is that the culinary students would develop a specific menu and the RISD students would individually respond to each part of the menu,” she explains. “It would be fun to involve other RISD departments as well. Perhaps the Glass department could design the stemwear and Jewelry + Metalsmithing could create the cutlery.”