I arrive at Stepney City Farm in East London and someone points me in the direction of a row of sheds at the back of the farm. But I'm not here to see the goats, the sheep, or the pigs. In the last shed of the row, I instead find South African-born Skye Corewijn, potter at Lazy Eye Ceramics, and the woman supplying London's top restaurants with their tableware.
"It still gives me a kick to see beautiful food on my plates. It's really cool," says Corewijn, as she hands me a lightly flecked and slightly rough-textured mug (her creation, naturally) of steaming coffee.
As I peer around Corewijn's shared studio space, the walls lined with pots and plates in various stages of completion, she explains how her hobby became a business.
"My boyfriend's a chef and he worked at a restaurant called Upstairs at the Ten Bells [now closed] around two years ago," Corewijn explains. "It was set up by The Young Turks—Isaac McHale and James Lowe—and the head chef was Giorgio Ravelli. I was waitressing there part-time at the time, and we all become friends. One day, Giorgio said, 'Make me some plates! C'mon just try!' and after some resisting, I agreed."
Corewijn beckons me over to a table which holds some of her latest pieces: high-lipped plates, speckled bowls, and a small jug with a finger imprint in lieu of a handle. Each one is individual with tiny differences in its finish—a nod to the handmade nature of Corewijn's work.
"When I made stuff for the Ten Bells, the plates were all completely different sizes and some were a bit wobbly (I'd mainly just done pots before) but it was fun and odd plates kind of worked with the place," says Corewijn.
I ask what it was like waitressing and placing her plates in front of paying customers.
"It was really weird serving food on my plates," laughs Corewijn. "Giorgio is an amazing chef. His food is really good and his presentation was always beautiful. Sometimes people would say, 'Oh, nice plate' and I'd be like, 'Oh yeah, this girl makes them … I'll pass it on.'"
Between leaving her job in events logistics and starting to sell her ceramics at Druid Street Market in South London, word of mouth spread about Corewijn's clay creations.
"I did some plates for a dinner at Lyle's through picklemaker Freddie Janssen of F.A.T, who also has a stall at Druid Street and works for Lyle's. I just did some small plates and jugs, vases, for this dinner they did for London Design Week last year," says Corewijn. "It's just kind of ticked over from there and become my business."
I hand Corewijn a ball of cold, damp clay as she sits down and turns on the pottery wheel in front of her. Watching her raise a pot from the grey mush as if by magic is mesmerising.
"The business is still so small that restaurants generally approach me," says Corewijn of how she receives new commissions. "I've been really lucky that everywhere I've got a plate, I'm really proud that anything they put on it will be really good."
Corewijn currently counts London restaurants like The Clove Club, Typing Room, BAO, and Sager + Wilde among her customers. How does she go about designing and making tableware for such different places?
"I'll take over some samples to chefs and discuss things like glazes and shapes," explains Corewijn. "Some chefs are very specific, especially with glazes or the form that they want. I think sometimes they have a specific dish in mind, for example if they don't want a huge plate overwhelming a small dish. But generally they just want something quite versatile, especially if the food served changes regularly and has an emphasis on seasonality."
And of course, when it comes to tableware, size matters.
She explains: "If the place does small or sharing dishes, chefs need to keep in mind the space on table. If people are going to be ordering five dishes to share as well as having their own plate, they all need to fit."
As Corewijn knocks out a plate on the wheel, she mentions something I had never really considered before: how plates can add to a restaurant's character.
"The atmosphere of the restaurant determines what kind of colours people want," says Corewijn. "So for example, at somewhere like Sager + Wilde, they wanted lighter, more uplifting colours because it's quite a dark room."
She continues: "Texture is also a big consideration. Some people don't like matte glazes on cups or find certain finishes on plates jarring when using a knife and fork."
Corewijn's projects aren't always smooth-sailing.
"It's very much a conversation when you're working with chefs but some are less vocal than others," she laughs. "They have this internal conversation going on. Also if there's a shape I've not worked with before, it can be tricky to get what I want. But a challenge is good."
Is seeing things come to fruition the best part of her job?
Corewijn is quick to answer: "Seeing a happy chef makes me happy. It's something special to see amazing food on my plates. I still can't believe these places are using my plates."
It's time to leave the serenity of the studio and as a I finish the dregs of my coffee, Corewijn says with a smile: "Now, you won't be able to not notice how a knife and fork feels on a plate, or the sensation when you bring a mug to your lips again."
She's right. Later that evening, my IKEA plates and glass just don't seem to cut it anymore.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.