David T. Kim Makes Ceramic Objects With Meaning
Written by Vocalo Radio on December 22, 2022
“Handmade objects… they come alive through being used.”– David T. Kim
As the owner of DTK Ceramics, Chicagoland ceramic artist David T. Kim creates ceramic wares for local restaurants and hopes his art will allow people to interact with ceramics in a more intimate way.
David T. Kim is a Chicago ceramic artist who hopes his functional art will be used again and again, and become meaningful as a part of users’ lives. While most of his work consists of dinnerware and occasionally other ceramic art, his love of ceramics comes from the endless possibilities the clay holds.
“Clay is basically in the entire world,” Kim explained. “It’s what the world is made out of.”
“[Ceramics has] been around for thousands of years, but… in the end, it’s still a bowl,” he said. “But how you make that bowl can always evolve, and it’s still evolving now.”
Kim’s knack for pottery started at a very young age; he enjoyed the critical thinking aspects of creating and figuring out how things worked, and would make sculptures out of paper and cardboard — later attending the School of the Art Institute to study visual communications.
Eventually, he began making pots in his parents’ garage and selling them at art fairs. With a father as a chef, creating dinnerware was a natural inclination. He compares making pottery now to helping out his parents in their restaurants as a kid — the same kind of repetitive process which gets easier over time. Kim also notes his Korean heritage and cites the importance pottery has in Korean Culture as an influence in his work.
“In the East, ceramics and pottery has a very, very long cultural history to it.” Kim said. “And it’s appreciated like paintings, and it’s just a craft that has so much cultural history with food and the way food is made.”
Around six years ago, Kim met a chef from Chicago restaurant Shwa. After making a line of dishes for the restaurant, he discovered the business behind pottery-making. Now, Kim’s dinnerware can be found at various restaurants throughout Chicagoland, many of which have Michelin stars or are Michelin-rated, including Kasama, Moody Tongue and Brass Heart. All of Kim’s dinnerware is crafted intentionally to interact with the chef’s specific dishes, and he is often tasked with combining two creative worlds: the chef’s and his own.
Kim’s workspace is filled to the brim with pottery-making supplies — from unused slabs of clay to glaze-speckled brushes and tools.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.
“I get to collaborate and create dishes at all these different restaurants that are really different from each other restaurant, and it helps to keep my mind running and creative and create more dishes,” explained Kim.
Whether it’s a custom bowl for a fine dining establishment or a one-of-a-kind mug for individuals to buy, Kim wants his art to be used again and again. Through frequent use, he feels people are able to create meaningful relationships with the ceramics.
“I like pots that get used every day, beat up,” Kim described. “They just become a part of people’s lives… Especially with handmade objects… they come alive through being used.”
For this installment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” David T. Kim proves dinnerware is more than just something to eat off of; his art has character, sparks conversation and should be experienced.
Are you from Chicago?
I grew up in the suburbs, but I’ve been in Chicago most of my life, in the Chicago area. I like being in this area, where my studio is most of the day. It’s kind of by Oak Park and Garfield Park, I guess. West Side Chicago. It has a lot of artists in the building, so it’s nice to meet and talk to people in a similar creative mindset.
What kind of pottery do you make, and why pottery?
I focus a lot on dinnerware, which is mostly pottery and functional ceramics. But I do like to make tiles, and depending on the conditions, I also make sculptural objects, as well.
I was always interested in the malleability of the clay, the material. It’s like a material where you can actually shape without removing that much material, and you fire in a kiln, and there’s a permanence to it. And also a functionality, when you’re making functional dinnerware, like bowls and cups and plates. And I like the whole process and the change the material goes through.
Clay is basically in the entire world. It’s what the world is made out of. It’s just the material that is timeless. And it’s something that humankind will always be with, because it’s such a versatile material. It’s in your life almost every day, whether you know it or not. And I think that’s one of the things that’s so interesting about the material, is how it’s so connected to everyone.
I was always into the arts. I liked making things, or figuring out how to make things. And when I was younger, it didn’t really matter about the material. I’d make stuff out of cardboard or paper or I’d draw. I was interested in materiality and how to manipulate materials. And then I went to art school, at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, focused on design and visual communications. I guess I also enjoyed making dinnerware because my father is a chef. And it’s nice to make functional wares that way, and creating wares that are showing how to get the food to interact with the plate, which was always interesting to me. It helps me think outside the box about how a plate isn’t just a plate, in this situation.
I started off making pots in my parents’ garage, and I’d do art fairs. And eventually I met a chef at a really famous restaurant called Schwa, six or seven years ago. And that’s when I noticed, or found out, that there’s a business in this… that I really enjoyed.
One thing led to another, and I made one plate, or a series of plates for one restaurant. And then I started to branch off to other restaurants. Now I make a lot of plates for a lot of restaurants in Chicago, which is pretty sweet.
Walking into Kim’s studio is striking — every way you look, there’s something new to take in, whether it’s cardboard sculptures or kilns with finished pieces.
Photos by Morgan Ciocca, Vocalo Radio / Chicago Public Media.
What’s the process of collaborating with chefs?
It’s about 24 restaurants in Chicago I’ve made plates for. A lot of their clients have Michelin stars, or they’re Michelin-rated. The cool and interesting thing about this is all the chefs are artists, as well. So I get to collaborate and create dishes at all these different restaurants that are really different from each other restaurant, and it helps to keep my mind running and creative and create more dishes. And it’s awesome.
We’ll talk a little about the dish that they’re thinking, and I’ll think about the plates, or if it’s a bowl, or if there’s a sauce in it… We talk about the food, and then we talk about how it will be presented and then we’ll talk about the colors. Glaze is basically glass melted onto the ceramics, and you can do shiny glazes, matte glazes or sand matte glazes and you can choose colors that complement the dish or contrast it or blend in… I think of it as like a painting… when you first see it. Do you want the food to be loud or more humble and quiet? And sometimes you’ll choose the plate that blends in, or has earthtones, it gives you that nature feeling and sense.
Whenever they want a form or dish that has to be machine-made and I have to figure out how to make it handmade, that’s always interesting because… it becomes more of… I build the plate like a sculpture, I guess, in different parts. That kind of thinking or making leads to new ideas. And that’s what I love about ceramics, is it’s been around for thousands of years, but it’s still, in the end, it’s still a bowl but how you make that bowl can always evolve and it’s still evolving now.
Other than food being just the best, is there a reason you love working with local restaurants?
My parents both work in the restaurant industry, they had like a fast food sushi shop. And then they had a nice restaurant as well. They’re getting old, so they closed it down [in the] pandemic. Me and my brother, when we were young, summer break, winter break, spring break, we’d always work with the parents… in the restaurants, because the industry is long hours. They wanted help, and be with us…
I always enjoyed that kind of labor, it’s very repetitive but you can refine the movements. And that kind of working style… translates really well to pottery making style. You have ingredients, you have to make the ingredients, to mix the ingredients. Glazes, you have to mix. It’s a way of working that I’ve been really comfortable with and always trying to refine it to make it more efficient. I’m Korean, or my parents are from Korea, so I’m Korean American because I was born in America. But I think, in the East, ceramics and pottery has a very, very long cultural history to it. And it’s appreciated like paintings, and it’s just a craft that has so much cultural history with food and the way food is made. And I have a lot of pride in Korean pottery, and it’s just a very honest and humble way of making work that I respect. And I tried to incorporate that into my making, as well.
I ate at most of the restaurants I’ve made plates for, and it’s, I mean, the food is delicious. It’s just awesome to see or just think about how many people go through that experience, as well… it’s kind of surreal. And I’m really proud of the relationships that I’ve made through making pots. A lot of the chefs became great friends… they work really hard and they’re winning all these awards, and I’m just very proud to have been able to work with them, too.
What do you hope people feel when they interact with your work?
I want to make pots that are used, because they are functional pots and grow with the people using it over time… I don’t like making pots that are made for one time only. I like pots that get used every day, beat up. They just become a part of people’s lives. That’s what the beauty of functional work is, that you create an attachment to it. Like, bowl is a bowl, plate’s a plate, and cup’s a cup, but I like that idea of how people can use it over time for a really long time, look back and still use it. Attach new meaning and, I guess, the rituals of daily life. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, it’s my favorite cereal bowl, or oatmeal bowl.” I don’t know, I think it’s nice to have like objects that are meaningful. Especially with handmade objects… they come alive through being used.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia
Introduction written by Joshua X. Miller
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
Photography by Morgan Ciocca
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