Wynne Noble's plates are taunting me.
They're sprawled out across a slab roller in her Dumbo, Brooklyn, studio, in various states of undress: Some are flat, matte clay; others gleam with glaze, ready for their close-up. I want to touch them all, most especially the ones with flat bases and smooth curved lips, blurring the line between plate and bowl.
But the wiry, sprightly Noble is busy describing her process, explaining how a slab roller works ("It's like a giant pasta machine!") showing us her two kilns and glaze buckets, shooing the half-feral studio cat, Marissa, out of the way. In a city rapidly pricing artists out, Noble is the real deal: a sculptor who creates 3-D art out of clay. She also happens to be responsible for the striking plate ware in some of the city's most innovative restaurants, like Contra, Momofuku Ko and Maiden Lane.
Wynne Noble in her Brooklyn studio
"I know it's trendy for restaurants to have handmade plates, but one reason we like Wynne is because she does things a little differently," Fabian von Hauske, co-owner and pastry chef at Contra on the Lower East Side, which has exclusively used Noble's plate ware since it opened in 2013, says. "She has her own style. Every piece we get from her is distinctive."
Noble never set out to work with the restaurant world. She's been in the same studio building for close to 30 years, making everything from decorative pottery that sold at Barneys and Bendel's to dramatic hanging sculptures more appropriate for gallery walls. But when a nearby pizza restaurant, Ignazio's, requested some custom plates about six years ago, Noble obliged, kicking off a new career avenue.
Today, Noble creates a wide range of sculptures and teaches classes in her studio. But she's picked up an increasing number of restaurant clients, mostly through word of mouth. Her relationship with chefs like von Hauske and Momofuku Ko's executive chef, Sean Gray, is highly collaborative—she creates custom dishes for every restaurant, working closely with the chefs to design pieces based on the shape, color, size and texture of their food.
Handmade bowls and taco holders
"It's very much a conversation," von Hauske says. "I might go to her with an idea of the shape and color I want the dish, and she'll build off of it from there. She's great at thinking about function and shape." Chefs visit Noble in her studio to discuss their needs and vice versa: "She'll regularly stop by [Ko] with new pieces for us to review, and I'll reach out to her for custom work designed specifically for the new dishes we're developing," Gray says.
Noble rarely works on a potter's wheel, preferring instead to crank clay slabs out on the roller, then press them into molds to form her distinctly organic shapes. "Each set is like a series of fraternal twins," Noble says. "They may look similar, but they're never exactly the same." Glazed and spackled in cool earthy hues, Noble's work feels subtle and natural, not to mention compulsively touchable.
"The best thing about using Wynne's plates is that they provide a very tactile experience. People naturally want to interact with them," Gray, who's been commissioning work from Noble for over two years, says. "When we place one of her dishes in front of guests, 98 percent of the time, they want to pick it up and hold it in their hands. You can immediately tell that a lot of thought went into each piece."
The common thread throughout Noble's work is an obsession with the materials and shapes from the natural world. She draws inspiration from all over—landforms, plants, animals or even cellular structures. When it comes to dinnerware, she sees a particular connection: "Food itself comes from the earth," she says. "And the act of eating itself is the most fundamental natural act of all."
Noble takes her unexpected turn as ceramicist to the chefs in stride. "If an object holds it own in space, it's a sculpture," Noble says. "These just happen to be sculptures you can eat spaghetti off of."