Meet the Ceramicist Turning Plates Into Art for Copenhagen's Best Chefs

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Meet the Ceramicist Turning Plates Into Art for Copenhagen's Best Chefs

In Copenhagen, 23-year-old ceramicist Magdalena Kałużna set up shop less than a year ago, and her client list already includes 108, Relæ and The Coffee Collective.
June 25, 2016, 8:00pm
Sarah Buthmann

All photos by Sarah Buthmann

When was the last time you were served food on a plain white plate?

Handmade bowls, cups and plates are more the rule than the exception in Copenhagen restaurants. Ceramicists are the talk of the townin the Danish capital, and their work is as hot as the kiln that converts weak clay into a strong, durable form. Chefs are bending over backwards trying to find intuitive artists who are able to conceptualize and produce the perfect plate for their many creative culinary compositions.

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In Copenhagen, a 23-year-old Polish ceramicist, Magdalena Kałużna, is one such artist. She set up shop less than a year ago and her client list already includes Copenhagen hotspots such as 108, Relæ and The Coffee Collective.

I'm greeted with breakfast at Magdalea's studio early on a Saturday morning. Her boyfriend and business partner Michał Włodarek, chef at Mielke & Hurtigkarl, is making coffee and cutting up some bread. "Magda" is shy and soft-spoken. She has a tender smile when you catch a glimpse of it under the blond hair waving down her face. She's focused on work, keeping her head down, but is incredibly present. Her hands are delicate, yet rough, covered in traces of hard work.

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"Seeing my plates in restaurants make me nervous," Magda tells me with a smile, "I know each and every one of them. I remember making them all in detail. I keep thinking, 'Oh yes, that's the one with the little different glaze. That's the one that's not totally perfect'".

Her first ever collaboration was with Finnish barista champion Mikaela Wallgren from The Coffee Collective. Mikaela was looking for a cup with the right mouthfeel, the right volume and the the right look to use at the Finnish Brewers' Cup in 2015. Madga had just finished her apprenticeship at Uh la la under Julie Bonde Bülck, a renowned ceramicist who before opening her own studio worked as in-house designer at the Royal Copenhagen design department.

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Magda was craving her own project and Wallgren just couldn't find the right cup in stores—a win-win situation. "Of course I have my own vision, and the optimal situation is when my vision and that of my client merge into one and we see eye to eye," Magda says. "There are so many things I'd like to do in my work. I absolutely love creating a project together with another professional in their own field".

Sarah Buthmann

Custom-made plates are hardly new to the restaurant scene, but the level of quality has evolved. In old-school French restaurants, where chefs were feisty and the heat was hell-like, plates broke easily, either flung to the wall in rage or in clumsy hands of waiters. Plates were disposable items, generic and mass produced, simply a vessel to transport food from the kitchen to the guests' tables service à la russe style. A decadent meal at Paul Bocuse's flagship Auberge du Pont de Collonges outside of Lyon brings you down memory lane. The rather ghastly white plates have "PB" branded yellow and blue rims with illustrations of fish, lobsters and rabbits (the stuff you'll eventually eat) jumping around. Then again, right about everything in that restaurant seems like the circus from a modern perspective.

A quick glance at Instagram with the help of relevant hashtags and I soon find myself indulging in some pretty arousing ceramics porn. There's an artist in the area known for his looks and strong arms, there's a few doing very pretty girlie items, others make specific signature shapes. Ceramics and pottery have gone from being regarded as the go-to relief of the I'm-having-an-existential-crisis period in life to a sexy and highly sought after craftsmanship. People come to ceramicists as they would to hairdressers, showing photos of plates they've seen at a restaurant and fallen for, and request an exact replication.

Sarah Buthmann

On home turf in Denmark, it was the usual suspect, Noma, that paved the way for clay. Out with the white tablecloths, and along with them went the cheap, white plates. Noma's rougher, earthy stoneware that countless restaurants have since sought to copy, were done in collaboration with Aage and Kasper Würtz, father and son ceramicist team from Horsens. "I'm not really sure when the trend started," says Jonathan Tam, newly crowned head chef at Relæ. "When I started at Noma in 2007 we were still only using white plates from larger manufacturers."

Relæ, on the other hand, has never used a white plate in all its history. Tam has recently been working closely with Magda. "We'll get to start using her plates for our new menu. She is very open-minded and is really paying attention to what I'm looking for in the functionality and design of the plate."

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After graduating with a degree in fine arts in 2014, Magda left her hometown and her family's huge turkey farm in Gałązki Wielkie, Poland to pursue her craft in Copenhagen. Her work is rigorous and reaching the end product takes a series of meticulous steps. As I flick through her sketch book, she shows me the course of her creative process. First a doodle, then a proper sketch. Then a dummy out of plaster. Finally, a clay sample.

First fire at 1000 °c for 8 hours. Cool down for one day and one night. Then fire at 1250-1260°c for 9 hours. Cool down for one day and one night. To make one plate takes about seven days if she works non-stop. She tells me she has to always measure an extra 3 cm on anything she creates ("The heat of the kiln makes clay shrink") and shows me a "before fire" and an "after fire" product.

Sarah Buthmann

Magda found her current studio on Baldersgade in November last year and she's been busy ever since. She schedules weekly meetings with chefs. "There are often many changes along the way. Neither I nor the chef can say in the beginning whether or not a type of plate, a shape, a color or a surface will actually work in practice.

"Small things matter and the chef must be happy. Sometimes it can be a feeling the cup, plate or bowl generates that just isn't right. This you can only know once you try them at the restaurant a couple of times."

As we're having breakfast Magda is preparing for a meeting with Jonathan at Relæ. "Magda stops by as soon as a sample is ready to hear what I think of it," says Jonathan. "There have been times that the plate is still warm from coming out of the kiln. It's like feeling a loaf of bread straight out of the oven!"

And chefs are looking for imperfections. "Even though we order a certain number of the same plates, each one is a little different," says Jonathan. "Each plate has its own character and is the result of the individual craftsmen. You can see the ceramicist's skill and design in each of the plates."

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Two hours later, breakfast is done and the day is about to begin. I find myself wanting to linger at Magda's studio. It feels inviting, even when the kiln is pumping out heat with the force of five saunas. "I can't wait to have a bigger studio with big windows," says Magda. "I want people to come in and be able to enjoy the space, maybe we'll do some pop-ups with Michał."

Little does she know that I've just relaxed for the first time in weeks just by being there, surrounded by white dust, finished and unfinished plates, bowls, and cups. I guess I bashed the therapeutic aspect of pottery prematurely