Q + A

the voice of Kazu Oba

Foreign cuisine has the ability to cross borders and connect people through new flavors and textures, yet the vessels upon which these dishes are served are often the typical white, commercially available place setting. Although the status quo of shiny, white ceramics can draw more attention to the vivid presentation of food, Kazu Oba, owner of O’baware, dives deeper into the relationship between food and ceramics — and ultimately, the people that use them.

How did you find your calling in art, specifically ceramics?

I was studying International Relations at university when I began to join drawing sessions with friends. Within a few months, I switched my direction of study to art, traveled to Italy, studied the language and survived by making chalk drawings in Florence. I then returned to Colorado and began apprenticing with Boulder-based master sculptor, Jerry Wingren.

I studied for four years with Wingren, working in stone and wood before I began studying ceramics with master potter, Takashi Nakazato, at his studio in Karatsu, Japan. From there, I worked and studied with both masters for many years before opening my own studio. I continue to work both as a potter and as a sculptor, exploring both mediums fluidly. 

How do you ensure the utmost quality when crafting your pieces?

Recently, I’ve been developing our wholesale business by working with both interior designers and restaurants. I may offer a complete tableware set for a client by taking influence from the environment of their home or develop commissioned work directly with chefs.

Having worked many years in restaurants, food is important to me. The relationship between food and how it is presented is something I consider continually. When I am filling a restaurant wholesale order, I will have ideally initiated my design process with the chef by listening to and understanding the purpose of the piece. A bowl for risotto is very different from a bowl for ramen.

Once I know the menu, I begin to draw the general idea of the design. Afterward, I run trials, consider glaze and type of firing. I stay open to emergent discoveries during this prototype phase.

Once I have dimensions, glazes and firing type all decided, I begin to create three times the number of pieces ordered. This margin gives me plenty to choose from in the final stage preparing the work for shipment. I ensure quality by working beyond the number ordered and hold a high standard on what arrives to the hand of the collector or chef — and ultimately, to the guests served.

Describe the importance of a well-crafted ceramic piece as it relates to the home and architecture.

I recently started creating a coffee cup commissioned by Grace Farms in Connecticut. Following the idea architect Louis Sullivan explored — form ever follows function — I imagine the cup in the hand of the person at Grace Farms. I need to consider how this cup will integrate into their ethos and aesthetic.

I began by listening to the Grace Farm people to learn what they care about. I studied the land and the architecture designed by Japanese architects, SANAA. This is all before I sat down to explore potential designs, firing methods or glazes. For me, the purpose of the cup is realized in the hand of another person. I acknowledge this interdependence in my process.

Whether I am designing a coffee cup, a flower vase or a table, I am seeking to establish a relationship between the design, its purpose, its environment and the person who will use it. With pottery specifically, I am also interested in a focused and honest expression with each piece. If I can pull a bowl from clay in just one motion, I consider it an honest form.

Your studio is right in your home. How does having 24/7 access to your studio affect your relationship with your art?

There are advantages and disadvantages to having a home and studio attached as we do. The advantage is that I am able to manage my schedule with my family. In this current chapter of raising young children, this often means I work when they sleep. We are forever striving toward balance between work and life. For me, there has been very little separation over the years. This work is life-giving; life-sustaining.

If you could recommend any pivotal books, podcasts, leaders, etc., what would you recommend?

I’m not sure if it is available in English, but Taro Okamoto wrote a book that has been influential for me. The Japanese title is 自分の中に毒を持て―あなたは“常識人間”を捨てられるか,.

Discover more handcrafted wares from the Oba studio by visiting Kazu’s website.