Honoring the Steel City, the Schoolhouse Fall Collection features art and homewares from several local Pittsburgh makers. For this series, we reached out to some of these makers to ask what drives them to create these beautiful artifacts and learn more about their process. Today, we hear from Francis DeFabo, a Pittsburgh-based potter and physician. Francis is responsible for the Hand-Thrown Cocktail Plate in our Fall Collection, a simple but enduringly elegant piece that’s perfect for entertaining. Here Francis explains how a history spent around the dinner table instilled an interest in ceramics, and how that interest has blossomed into a full-time career he uses to give back to the community.
Tell us about yourself! Who are you and what do you specialize in?
"Family meals are my most cherished memories. When I sit at the potter’s wheel I think about those family celebrations, and the bowls that were chosen because they kept the soup especially hot. Or the platter that had to be used because it made the ravioli easy to serve. I remember my mother’s pride in setting the birthday cake she created in the middle of the table. I remember the bucket brigade of heaving platters being passed from one cousin to the next down the infinitely long holiday table at my grandmother’s house. Every time I make a bowl or platter or cake stand or wine cup I picture it becoming part of someone’s lifetime of communing with family and friends. Sure, a pot has to look good. But it is even more important that it functions well, feels good when passed, and enhances the food that it carries."
Why do you like working with ceramics? How did you first start?
"I love working with clay because it is so malleable and expressive. And the process is interactive. Sometimes I sit at the wheel with a lump clay and have an idea about what I want to create. Sometimes the lump of clay has a stronger idea of what it wants to become. I feel that some of my best pots develop when I let the clay become what it wants to be, rather than imposing my preconceived plan on it."
As part of our Pittsburgh Collection, we’re featuring your Hand-Thrown Cocktail Plate. What makes this piece special in your eyes?
"The Hand-Thrown cocktail plates are among the pots I’m most proud of. I enjoyed working with the team at Schoolhouse to develop the design. I believe these plates embody the goal of all makers to optimize form and function. These little plates may initially appear quite simple, but a lot of time and effort went into refining the size and shape. A cocktail plate it typically used at a stand-up gathering, so it must feel comfortable to hold and not allow sauce and crumbs to spill out onto the host’s new carpet or the guest’s vintage cocktail dress. The rolled edges of these plates serve both of those functions. I also think they make a bold statement when stacked on a bar or cocktail table. If these plates were factory-made they could be a bit staid, but since they are hand thrown each is slightly different—with its own attitude and personality. A stack of these cocktail plates is like a family—all made of the same stuff, but each one unique."
Some of your work is quite simple and unadorned, while other pieces have more elaborate designs. What’s your creative process like, and how do you know when something is ready to be released to the public?
"I constantly remind myself 'The enemy of good is better.' Some pots call for elaborate decoration, but most are best left unadorned. I really enjoy carving and altering pots, and sometimes the results can be quite spectacular. But more often than not, the pots that get lots of extra attention end up in my pug mill—squished back into raw clay to make a more simple, honest pot."
How important is tradition in pottery? Do you find yourself working in traditional modes or do you try to work mostly from imagination?
"Pennsylvania, where I live, has a strong tradition of functional, hardworking pottery. I try to create modern pots that spring from those traditional, functional values while embracing today’s casual, streamlined aesthetic."
A portion of sales from your pottery go to the charitable organization Potters for Peace. Talk a little bit your relationship with this group and why you felt the need to give to them.
"Initially I made pots purely for the joy of potting. I gave the pots we could not use to family and friends. One day my wife said, 'We have more pots than friends, you need to find another way to move out some of these pots.' I set up tables of pots to sell at a few local events and could was blown away by the response. I was a bit afraid that selling pots would turn something I loved into a job. So I looked for a way to donate my earnings to something valuable. I discovered Potters for Peace. It is an incredible nonprofit that teaches people in some of the world’s poorest places how to make inexpensive ceramic water filters so their families can have safe, clean drinking water. I donate 25% of all sales to The Clean Water Project at Potters for Peace. There are two ironies in this story: the first is that at the time I was a full-time obstetrician, and I think there may have been greater health benefit to women and children from the pots I sold than from the medical care I provided here in the states. The second irony is that the 'hobby' I loved has turned into a job (that I love). I’m now a full-time potter and a part-time doctor."
What’s the maker community in the Pittsburgh area like?
"Pittsburgh has a phenomenal maker community. This surprises some folks who still think of us as a gritty steel town. I’ve taken classes locally at The Society for Contemporary Craft, Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Indiana University of PA, Touchstone Center for Craft and The Union Project (which is a group some of the kindest, most creative, community-minded folks you’d ever hope to meet). Pittsburgh makers are hard-working, no-nonsense supporters of the city and one another. I’m especially fortunate to be one of the makers affiliated with MonMade— an incredible Pittsburgh organization that helps makers like myself thrive and promote the economy of Western PA."