By Published: Nov. 21, 2023

Hands-on project lets CU Boulder intermediate ceramics students create functional and unique pieces for Boulder’s Café Aion restaurant

A bowl is not just a bowl.

It may seem like the simplest thing in the world, but it exists at the nexus of form and function—able to live as art, but not useful in a restaurant if it can’t contain the gazpacho.

So, Kim Dickey’s intermediate ceramics students learned a particular kind of balance, meeting the needs of clients as well as their own artistic vision—and doing it in multiples of 12.

“I enjoyed creating pieces that would actually be used for their intended purpose instead of sitting on my shelf or being dumped into a trash can,” says Dylan Xu, a senior majoring in strategic communications-advertising. “What I learned is that you will break more than half of the plates you make.”

Dickey, a professor in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Art and Art History and associate chair for arts practices, and her intermediate ceramics students recently completed an unusual project in which they partnered with Café Aion in Boulder to create one-of-a-kind ceramic dishes for some of the restaurant’s menu items.

For the week beginning Nov. 6, Café Aion patrons enjoyed French onion soup and chocolate torte, crispy cauliflower and kale salad and shakshuka from ceramics the students custom made for the dishes and the restaurant. At the end of their meals, patrons were invited to complete comment cards, sharing their experiences of eating from handmade dishes.

Kim Dickey

CU Boulder Professor Kim Dickey and her intermediate ceramics students created hand-made ceramics in partnership with Café Aion chef and owner Dakota Soifer.

“I thoroughly enjoyed all of the unique styles of dishes!” wrote one, while another patron noted, “It was nice, and I loved looking at them.”

“It was so exciting to have the opportunity to work with a wonderful restaurant, to learn how to work with a client and meet their needs, to work to a deadline, and then experience what it means to have your art received in the real world,” Dickey says.

An artistic and practical challenge

At the beginning of the fall semester, Dickey contacted Dakota Soifer, owner and chef of Café Aion, about a possible collaboration. She was involved in a similar project at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she received her bachelor of fine arts degree, and knew how much students could learn from “developing pieces for a client and having that kind of public reception,” she explains.

Soifer, a CU Boulder graduate in architecture, was immediately on board: “I went to CU and have a sweet spot for being in school and being creative and that whole scene,” he says. “Café Aion’s a small, independent restaurant. It’s funky; it’s not super big, so we have the opportunity that a larger, more corporate restaurant can’t do if we decide we’re going to change all of our plates. Plus, I really wanted to support students and give them a chance to have this real-world experience.”

Early in the semester, Dickey and her students visited the restaurant to talk with Soifer, discuss his menu and get a feel for the restaurant’s atmosphere. Then, they each designed a prototype dish for a specific menu item based on the cuisine and Soifer’s needs. Dickey asked the students to not only create their dishes based on the menu item, but to bring in two outside influences to inform their designs.

Soifer visited the ceramics studio to offer rigorous but generous feedback, so the students adapted their designs as needed.

“We talked about how, first and foremost, it needs to be functional,” Soifer says. “If it’s going to have some sauce in it or a broth, it needs a rim on it, and we don’t want the edges to be too sharp or too angular. We want guests to be able to get that spoon in the corner and get that last bit of taste. We also have to think about how are we going to set this down without getting our fingers in customers’ food? Is it going to sit level on the table?”

The initial goal was to produce 20 plates each, “but we realized that was too many and decided to reduce it to 12 finished pieces per student,” Dickey says, adding that during each class period students were making between five and 10 dishes so that they could experiment with weight, size and finishes.

“I learned a lot about making multiples and trying to get each bowl to be the same and to be stackable,” says Micaela Del Cid, a senior double majoring in art practices and sociology. “I also learned that I don’t enjoy making things exactly the same, because I am not skilled enough and I love uniqueness. I learned that I could make it enjoyable by doing different designs on each bowl.” 

Katie Sieker packing plates

Intermediate ceramics student Katie Sieker at Café Aion packing dishes she made.

Ivy Edberg, a senior studying art practices, added that she “learned a lot about the standards of restaurants when it comes to the quality of tableware.”

Bringing people together

After completing their 12 dishes, Dickey and her students took them to Café Aion, where they were used in place of some of the restaurant’s regular dishes for the week of Nov. 6.

Alicia Bolstad, a senior majoring in art, created a dish for the restaurant’s baked brie dessert, drawing inspiration from Moroccan architecture and tile motifs, and creating a plate shape that was based on a beautiful doorway. Bailey Diamond, a senior majoring in art practices and journalism, created a dish intended for the kale salad, “but they ended up being used to serve a number of dishes, which was really exciting.

“I love wheel throwing and knew from the start that I wanted to create a wide, wheel-thrown bowl,” Diamond says. “I took inspiration from the dish itself—the visual fullness of a big salad, and the comforting nature of it being shared among people.”

Dickey and her students returned to Café Aion Nov. 13 to gather their dishes and, if they wanted, leave one there as a memento of the week. Soifer says that restaurant patrons loved the project—during the week the students’ dishes were in use, each table had a small sign explaining who had made them—and that the students successfully aligned their artistic ideas with the restaurant’s needs and funky, eclectic vibe.

“I was so heart-warmed by this project,” Diamond says. “Seeing my dishes used in a restaurant was something I had dreamed about and wanted before this experience, and having that desire fulfilled was incredible. It was a beautiful experience to see how much this project brought people together.”

Top image: plates made by intermediate ceramics student Amanda Jack

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