Restaurants team up with Charleston artists to offer Lowcountry dining experience
Imagine you are finishing a delicious meal in one of the restaurants in Charleston, and savoring the flavors, you notice something on the plate in front of you: the edge of the plate is not smooth all around; there is a small hollow on one side, a little raised on the other. The plate in front of you is the same, but slightly different; there are more troughs and rises than yours.
The plates are not technically exact, but perfect in their own way.
These “imperfect creations” could be made in the small workshop of a ceramist or in a large studio in North Charleston shared by a collective of local creatives.
Charleston restaurants are known for prioritizing sourcing local ingredients, but some restaurants take their local approach even further, incorporating the work of ceramicists and artists into diner experiences.
It’s what local artist Fiorenzo Berardozzi calls “from the ground to the table”. Berardozzi is a ceramic artist and owner of CBFB Tablescapes, a local ceramic company dedicated to working with restaurants and chefs to enhance the dining experience.
Berardozzi became interested in creating pieces for restaurants after a 2008 residency in Japan.
“I was just impressed to go to a restaurant and see handmade ceramics, cutlery, everything related to the food being used,” he said. “And once I saw that, I was like, ‘That’s pretty neat. It’s something I’ve never really thought about. The food has always been outstanding. Apart from language, food is culture.
This venture led to him being a longtime collaborator with Husk, helping to make unique tableware for the establishment’s chefs.
“I’d rather do something that reflects the chef’s attitude towards the food than the food itself,” he said. “When each chef arrives, we kind of try to adapt. It was really hard with [Travis] Grimes because he was part of the whole movement with [Sean] Jug. And so now with [Raymond England] there, we revisit the collection.
England became the chief executive of Husk in March this year. Since his new role isn’t tied to the Southern Ingredient Standard, he can play around and not be as restrictive, Berardozzi said. “Same thing with the plates.
“I’m not really too interested in the functionality of [the plates]he says, “because it’s a plate.” A plate is a plate is a plate. The only way a plate becomes interesting is when you use it and when you share it.
For example, Berardozzi said he once made bowls for FIG chef Jason Stanhope with an extra dip in the bottom to catch all the juices and sauces from the meal. On the surface, the bowl just had an interesting shape, but it was something Stanhope wanted, he said, so guests could continue to experience the meal in a different way. The liquids concentrate at the bottom and can then be used for dipping or even sipping.
Currently Berardozzi said he is working on a new plate collection for England which is a much more modern design than the previous rustic approach. In his plate shaping process, he cuts each piece freehand to add a touch of personality, so each dish is unique.
In addition to working regularly with Husk, Berardozzi has worked with other establishments in the city, including Butcher & Bee, The Daily, FIG and Tavern & Table, etc.
Other artists in town
Charleston artists Susan Gregory and Sonny Sisan have also worked with chefs to help design tableware to suit a space or a meal.
Gregory has worked with restaurateurs John Zucker, of the downtown Cru Cafe and the now-closed Purlieu, and Charles Matthew, of the now-closed Scarecrow. Gregory focused on the French concept that Zucker wanted to bring with Purlieu, so she used traditional French linen designs as graphic designs.
She created specific oval plates for Purlieu, which you can’t spin on a wheel, she said. The dish was oblong in shape, painted a glossy white to match the traditional French style that Gregory wanted to achieve.
She sees working with chefs and restaurateurs as a more collaborative endeavor than creating pieces for sale or display.
“I like to find that balance between what they need with the kitchen and with the table when it’s time to serve, and then how to try to make that very functional but also beautiful,” she said. “I love playing with ideas and I love conversations that balance form and function and how it can serve their space.”
Sisan, whose first collaboration was with Pink Bellies, named best restaurant by City Paper readers in 2022, shares this sentiment with Gregory.
“It was my first project that was going to be used in a space in a more cohesive way versus being sold in the store,” he said. “And it was definitely a very thoughtful process…but also really cool and fun to do.”
Sisan’s handiwork can be held in your hands at Pink Bellies. It’s a small, slinky pink cup with a conical shape. The circumference of the lip is smaller than the base to trap heat, according to Sisan. The cups were intended for tea, but are also used for water.
The Longboard on Sullivan’s Island uses semi-local artist MaryMar Keenan’s plates. Keenan is currently based in San Francisco, but still considers herself a Charleston resident. She is originally from the area, visits frequently and has a home in Mount Pleasant, she said.
Keenan’s work was first used at The Longboard’s sister restaurant in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, according to owner Clint Gaskins. And when plans for The Longboard were in motion, Keenan’s connection to Charleston was part of the reason they continued to use his work.
“It was a pretty easy adjustment,” Gaskins said. “We just used a different line that she had that was a bit more in tune with our colors and everything here.”
Art with a purpose
It’s not just the plates and mugs that restaurateurs source from local artists. Things like lighting and decorative artwork also have ties to Charleston’s artistic community.
Kate Towill, co-owner of Basic Projects, has worked with several local artists to add personality to her spaces. At Sullivan’s Fish Camp, the old English pub sign outside the restaurant is the work of island resident Mickey Williams, while the custom lampshades above the bar were commissioned from Charlestowne Stained GlassStudios.
The lamps above the Fish Camp bar were designed to display the restaurant’s name in red on shiny white glass.
Maria White’s work can be found all around Post House, from the bar and restaurant to the Rose Room and formal lounge. Its spherical fixtures are a glossy white porcelain, with deep grooves to cast warm light around the restaurant and bar.
And while the design isn’t unique to Post House, White said, “it just looks completely different in every space.” She described a Los Angeles restaurant using her work with a mid-century motif, while Post House takes on a more rustic, classic vibe. “It’s interesting for me to see how different designers use my work.”
Work with artists and artisans
Like farmers who spend seasons cultivating and harvesting or chefs who spend days creating that perfect dish, artists and artisans spend months creating works of art.
“We have the ability to get a one-of-a-kind piece that no one else can really get,” Gaskins said. “[With Keenan]it is a production line, but each piece will always be unique and designed.
“You can go to the market and buy something very bland and boring that you can see in every restaurant, or you can go for something a little more unique.”
And like relationships between chefs and farmers, relationships between chefs and artists can be just as valuable. According to Berardozzi, he has built and nurtured relationships with many chefs across the country who want to use his work for a special dish or restaurant.
“I think it really helps esteemed local manufacturers,” White added. “It’s symbiotic. When people see our work, hopefully they will be curious about the creator or interested in our work. There is a story behind the object that will hopefully only enhance someone’s experience when they go to a restaurant and are surrounded by local crafts. This makes it even more special or unique.
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