I’m inside a light-filled, 14,000-square-foot warehouse that overlooks the Manhattan skyline in Union City, New Jersey. The smell of freshly baked bread from the panadería across the street fades as I take in the earthy scent of wet clay being fashioned into dinnerware. Designed in collaboration with some of the world’s top chefs, these dishes will eventually make their way to high-end restaurants and hotels across the country.
Sixteen Jono Pandolfi Designs artisans are hard at work forming more than 50 different ceramic shapes, including mugs and dinner plates. A few of them lean over pottery wheels, making pieces from the company’s best-known collection: the Coupe. The line’s shallow, 10.5-inch entrée plate has a gentle curve that’s instantly recognizable by its classic white glaze—not too shiny but not too matte either—with a slim line of dark clay peeking over the edge.
“It serves the food well because it’s not a sterile white china. It’s got some life to the surface, but it just has that simple dark edge,” says Jono Pandolfi, the company’s founder. Originally created with chef Daniel Humm in 2012 for the restaurant at New York City’s NoMad Hotel, this hefty plate weighs a pound and a half and is built to withstand the rigors of a commercial kitchen.
Pandolfi says he “fell in love” with pottery at Millbrook, a boarding school in upstate New York, and later studied studio art at Skidmore College. There, he worked primarily with clay, as well as jewelry, metals, and sculpture. “But ceramics were always in my mind,” he says. His first collaboration happened in 2004 during what Pandolfi calls his “starving artist phase.” Soon after he moved to New York City, Pandolfi connected with a friend who was working for restaurateur Danny Meyer; the link led to an opportunity to design bud vases and chopstick holders for Meyer’s café at the Museum of Modern Art.
Pandolfi completed that commission, then struggled for a while to find another major client. But in 2011, retailers Crate & Barrel and Anthropologie came to him to create elaborate serving pieces and teapots.
He found his niche when his high-school buddy, restaurateur Will Guidara—the former business partner of Humm at the NoMad and New York City’s Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park—reached out with a NoMad order for 6,000 pieces. That deal helped spark introductions to other chefs and restaurateurs who were also drawn to Pandolfi’s distinctive and practical designs.
Working with culinary professionals, Pandolfi says, is “much more of a collaborative peer-to-peer relationship.” Chefs and restaurant owners can mix and match from 12 to 15 colors of glaze (ranging from tame shades of beige to vivid sunset yellows and cerulean blues), two colors of clay, and more than 50 minimalist, yet striking forms.
Today, Jono Pandolfi Designs has roughly 500 hospitality clients, including the Four Horsemen, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Brooklyn; nearly a dozen Rosewood and Four Seasons hotels; the Auberge Resorts Collection; and the uber-hip Elysian Bar at Hotel Peter and Paul in New Orleans. In fact, the ceramic dishes have become so popular in restaurants across the United States that they were featured on an episode of The Bear, a Hulu show about a Chicago sandwich shop, in a scene where the two lead chefs argue over which dinnerware to buy for their restaurant.
Despite the company’s growth, Jono Pandolfi Designs artisans still form most pieces at their Union City factory and follow the same method he’s used for more than 10 years. As Pandolfi guides me from room to room, I observe how the factory staff produces these functional works of art. Making ceramics at Jono Pandolfi Designs can involve up to seven people and five machines. The process begins by running raw clay through a pug mill, which shapes it into a log. Then it is put through a slab roller, which flattens it into disks. Later, the clay is hand cut into the specific size of the plate, bowl, or cup it will become.
For speed and efficiency’s sake, ceramics aren’t “thrown” (which refers to shaping clay directly on a potter’s wheel). Instead, artisans “jigger” plates, a process that involves pressing the material into a plaster mold on a wheel and cutting away excess. Once the clay air-dries overnight, each plate is fired inside a kiln for a day and a half. The ceramic then makes its way to the glazing station, where it is sprayed instead of dipped, to allow for a more uniform and consistent color. Finally, the plate is fired again for 15 hours to lock in the color and ensure the piece is durable enough to ship. Pandolfi’s team repeats this process 800 times a day.
As I look at the finished cups, bowls, plates, and vases on racks in the packaging room, I spot one of Pandolfi’s latest collaborations: a pink ombré cookie tray he made with chef Christina Tosi of Milk Bar. Though Pandolfi is best known for the white plates that kicked off his business at the NoMad, he loves to produce work with culinary professionals who want to experiment with color, such as the bright red plates he made for chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s vegan restaurant abcV (formerly known as Seeds & Weeds) in Lower Manhattan, or the lavender ones he designed with his friends Rowen McDermott and Rebecca Johnson for their West Village wine bar Moonflower.
“It’s an enchanting hue. Serene yet bold, with a hint of romance,” Johnson says of the lavender glaze she picked to complement the psychedelic color palette, botanical murals, and Hawaiian Flower quartzite bar top at her wine bar. “We spent hours with Jono . . . to ensure aesthetics and function were in harmony. All aspects of the project emphasize a caring human touch.”
As for the future, Jono Pandolfi Designs recently installed a larger gas kiln, which will allow the studio to increase production and take on even more clients. Yet this continued growth doesn’t mean Pandolfi will stop producing pieces by hand—making everything from scratch is core to his values as an artist. “Anybody can pull together the money to outsource stuff. By making it all [in-house], that’s how we differentiate ourselves,” he says.
During the pandemic, Jono Pandolfi Designs’ publicly available e-commerce shop quickly grew in popularity as many customers, unable to travel, began looking for and finding ways to spruce up their living spaces—including by investing in dishware. He says home chefs looking for stylish yet durable sets often seek out the company after falling in love with the dishes at a favorite restaurant. “We’re kind of straddling luxurious and cool,” he says.
But for Pandolfi, it’s still all about the chefs. He has no aspirations of opening a retail brick-and-mortar outlet beyond the occasional pop-up. “Making dinnerware for restaurants is incredibly fulfilling, because chefs come to me with cool little challenges,” he says. “It has to be durable, it has to fit in their dishwashers. We get some pretty specific requests when it comes to how the sauce pools in the middle of a plate. Some chefs prefer for it to pool in the middle, some chefs prefer a perfectly flat bottom. I love the constraints that restaurants put me to.”
And to Pandolfi, there’s no greater compliment than when former line chefs who were introduced to his plates at their first jobs ask him to customize their dishware when they open their own restaurants: James Kent, for example, who used to work at the NoMad, came to him before opening Crown Shy and Saga in New York City. It’s something that Pandolfi says happens quite often.
“The repeat customers are the most fulfilling,” he says. “How did I get this lucky as an artist?”