Throwing Plates: Hawley Native’s Ceramics A Hit On Restaurant Tables, Design Magazine Pages
Louis Gruber shaped a career from clay.
The Hawley native, who now lives in Tarrytown, New York, churns out custom-made pieces that not only ended up in restaurants across the country but also landed him national notoriety.
The work began as a hobby, one Gruber took up with his now-wife when he lived in Brooklyn.
“It’s weird; I’ve had a lot of lives,” recalled Gruber, who graduated from Wallenpaupack Area High School in 2002 and has a drama degree from New York University. “I was an actor for six or seven years, and then I kind of got bored and frustrated ... I started making YouTube videos and digital filmmaking, and I did that for a long time, almost another six or seven years.”
He handled social media marketing and branded video content, freelancing with various companies. But it gets hard to just look at a screen all day, Gruber said, and so he took some time off. For a couples’ activity, he attended a pottery class, “and I just kind of fell hard into it (and) just kind of developed it since then,” he said.
Gruber crafted vases, lamp bodies, sculptures and other items from clay just for fun, but his work took a serious turn when he teamed up with a former acquaintance — Matt Lambert, a sous chef he’d worked with during his nine years waiting tables on the side in New York. Lambert was preparing to open his first restaurant, the Musket Room in New York City, and Gruber supplied plates for the new spot.
“At that point, I was like, ‘I understand chefs. I like working with them. I like kitchens. I understand how restaurants work … so why don’t I try to focus on that?’” Gruber recalled. “And it’s been great. It’s a new collaboration every day.
“The needs that everybody has are so different. I never get pigeonholed into doing kind of a lot of one thing; it’s always something different. These guys are artists in their own right. I’m essentially building frames for these very intricate platings. … It’s just a very gratifying thing.”
Lambert said a lot of restaurant professionals at the time wanted to use handmade plates, “but it seems like the same three people (were) making everybody’s handmade plates,” so nothing seemed original.
“I did have a couple of ideas for like different shapes and stuff, but you can’t really have these ideas and conversations with someone who’s producing a ... ton of pottery,” Lambert said.
He had a good relationship and friendship with Gruber, though, whom Lambert called “super easy and flexible.”
“The fact that it’s handmade by a friend and it’s made by somebody who cares as much about the plates as we do about the food, I think that’s a good connection,” Lambert said. “And you want to support people who support you.”
Gruber worked out of a shared space in Brooklyn for a time, which he said he enjoyed “because it’s an environment where everybody’s learning.” As his orders started growing, however, his workspace needed to as well. He made the move to Tarrytown two years ago and runs his business, Louis Gruber Ceramics, out of a home studio.
“Now with my own space, I’m able to do a lot more and make it sustainable,” Gruber said.
Gruber has now provided ceramics for five restaurants, including David Barzelay’s exclusive Lazy Bear in San Francisco, and he is in the process of finishing an 1,800-piece order for Lambert’s new restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut.
“This is like waves of plates,” Gruber said. “It’s like a much larger thing than I’ve been doing before, and it’s been extremely fun.”
Social media, conferences and even just dining out help spread the word about ceramicists’ work among restaurant professionals, Gruber said. Handmade plates are becoming common in fine dining, too, he added, and “there’s like an arms race right now for people to provide a unique experience.”
“The more personal and unique a chef or a restaurateur can make that, the more satisfying the experience becomes,” Gruber said.
His work varies based on what experience the restaurant hopes to convey, he said, but mid-century Scandinavian-style work — “kind of like dreamy white,” he explained — most attracts him.
“I like stuff very clean. I like stuff that’s very simple,” Gruber said. “Some of that stuff is like deceivingly difficult to really nail, like the proportions of something or the design of something where you look at it and you’re satisfied.”
Barzelay, meanwhile, had a specific vision for a green glaze, which Gruber worked on for more than a year to get just right, using what he called “natural colors that kind of give it a little more action.”
Gruber described himself as fairly consistent in how he makes his plates, which he said people may not realize are handmade at first glace. But he makes each with care, he noted.
“I do view it as a personal thing,” Gruber said. “People are putting food on these, and then they’re putting that food in their mouth.”
And that care has earned him not only the admiration of chefs and restaurateurs but also the attention of national magazines. A longtime friend works for Martha Stewart Living and incorporated his work in a feature, while Architectural Digest included a photo of Gruber’s pieces in writing about Barzelay.
While his restaurant collaborations keep him busy, Gruber still makes time for smaller pieces, such as mugs he makes for holiday markets and wholesale items he provides to Hudson Valley shops.
“It’s important to keep it interesting so you don’t get bored,” Gruber said. “I try to approach shop owners like I would approach a chef. … (We) work on something together just for them.”
He has an assistant to help him but also envisions a time when he could have a few more pairs of extra hands that could enable him to work with even more people. But, he noted, “making stuff special for people is something I don’t want to give up even if I grow.”
“It’s a medium that requires a lot of space, so (I see myself) expanding my space eventually or moving to a larger space,” Gruber said. “I just love working with chefs and honestly collaborating with shop owners. … I feel like I’m exactly where I want to be.”
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Meet Louis Gruber
Residence: A Hawley native, he lives in Tarrytown, New York.
Family:Wife, Jillian; daughter, Lucie; parents, Louis and Frances; brother, Joseph; sister, Jean Marie
Education: He is a 2002 graduate of Wallenpaupack Area High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in drama from New York University.
Claim to fame: Owner of Louis Gruber Ceramics, which provides pieces for restaurants across the country and has been featured in Martha Stewart Living and Architectural Digest
Details: Visit louisgruber.com.