The Whimsical Plates Even Museum Curators Can’t Get Enough of

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When Food52 co-founder Amanda Hesser first saw Virginia Sin’s porcelain paper plates, she was immediately fascinated. “I read about them somewhere,” she says. “It may have been in an actual paper magazine and I might have ripped out the page.”

Sin’s plates were eye-catching because they are distinctly different. The plates, which mimic the ubiquitous, flimsy, ridged-edged, disposable paper plates of potlucks and backyard barbecues, overtly nod to nostalgia without being kitschy and articulate a high level of technical skill without feeling precious. “I loved how she was riffing on the iconic picnic paper plate and elevating it to something more elegant,” says Hesser. “And yet it was appealingly misshapen, just like a real paper plate gets when you put too much food on it (not that I’ve ever done this).”

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It was, in fact, this plate-overloading that inspired Sin. “Coming from a large Chinese (Cantonese) family, eating and watching the adults play mah jong brought us all together at every special event or holiday,” Sin says. “Everyone in my family had pretty big appetites, [and] by the end of the meal, the paper plates would be weighted down, warped, and asymmetrical. The lived-in state of the paper plate was the final form I chose to translate in the porcelain rendition.” And it’s in this translation that Sin’s innovative skill as a ceramicist shines.

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Sin didn’t merely use paper plates as an inspiration; she integrated the paper into the final porcelain object. “I shredded actual paper plates, which previously were used to mold the plates, and then combined the paper pulp with porcelain slip to create my own unique batch of environmentally sound paperclay,” she explains. This process distributes the tiny pieces of paper throughout the clay, which burns away when the paperclay is fired in the kiln, leaving a porcelain that is both strong and lightweight—almost as light as the original paper plates themselves.

Just as the plates captured Amanda Hesser’s attention, they also caught the eye of the design world. In April 2007, the plates won Design Within Reach’s “Most Sustainable” award in the Modern + Design + Function Competition, and in 2008 they were nominated for the Cooper Hewitt’s National Design Awards People’s Design Award.

Debra Bach, curator of decorative arts at the New-York Historical Society, also took notice. “I think we became aware of them through Food52!” she says. “Around the time that we came upon them we were in the process of looking for contemporary ceramics and particularly contemporary, New York-made ceramics. So when we found them on the website we were intrigued because they hit a lot of interesting historical markers in terms of the way that they’re designed and produced.”

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What are the markers that make an object attractive to a museum curator? “We look for pieces that will help us to tell a story, and to put [an object] in historical context,” says Bach. “Every object has a story to tell. [Sin’s plates] tells a very, very rich story.” The story, as Bach sees it, is one of contemporary artwork and artisan craft. “But also,” she says, “as a way to look back at decorative, material culture from the city from earlier periods because they are part of a continuum,” from Asian pottery traditions to different chapters in American history to the current booming craft movement in Brooklyn.

“We loved the idea of taking the design of a paper plate, which is, if you will, an item that is not a revered, high, beautiful piece, and then reproducing its form in porcelain,” says Bach. “We loved that mixture of high and low in terms of her aesthetic.” Bach was also struck by Sin’s method: “The fact that she had an idea about sustainability in the background, in terms of how she put them together, was really interesting and important to us,” she says. So was Sin’s Asian-American heritage, as the NYHS strives to include more diverse artists in their collection. It was with these qualities in mind that Bach acquired Sin’s porcelain paper plates for the New York Historical Society’s 20th and 21st Century Objects collection.

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Housed in the New York Historical Society’s Luce Center, Sin’s plates have now claimed a formal place in art history. “They’ve become timeless,” Hesser says. “Since Virginia created them, there’s been a whole new wave of pottery, especially pottery designed for the table. And while there’s lots of new and interesting things (some of it also by Virginia!), the paper plates have stood the test of time, and my fondness for them has grown because now they fit into a genre of pottery that they spawned.”

Amanda Hesser likes to use these plates for dessert: “They hold a slice of cake or pie so well,” she says. “The little rises in the plate rim nestle the cake and have a way of winking at you.” What’s your favorite ways to use them? Let us know in the comments!

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