SF’s finest restaurants are plating up on couture tableware by Oakland ceramicist Erin Hupp

In her early 20s, Erin Hupp studied and perfected her art at a pottery studio in Madison, Wisconsin while pursuing a mainstream legal career. But something was missing.

"As I practiced law, I often wondered about that other life, the other path in which I pursued an MFA and focused solely on my art," she says. Five years ago, situated in the creative hub of Oakland, she decided to find out, ditching the law for a full-time career in art.

"Returning to my art practice in a more meaningful way was a rebirth, a coming back to my true self," she recalls. "Ceramics is a beautiful teacher."

Hupp's many hours spent over her potter's wheel became the constant in her life, a form of meditation, and though she found solace in it, she also found community. "I met a lovely group of local ceramicists and learned a lot about letting go and having patience with myself. It was the beginning of a lifetime passion."

Five years into the pottery business, she's found her niche making art to order, on commission, brainstorming every last detail with her clients. "My art is intentional and handmade—my hands touch each piece hundreds of times through the 12-step ceramic process, from design inception to final firing."

She designs refined objects—her new ring and bracelet vases are available at Hayes Valley's chic jewelry shop Metier—and custom tableware collections for fine dining restaurants such as San Francisco's Nightbird, Californios, and Sorrel.

Erin Hupp's black glazed plates for San Francisco Michelin-starred restaurant Californios.(Adahlia Cole)

"I've lived in the Bay Area for 15 years, so it comes as no surprise that I love food," says Hupp who, while dining out over the years, has given a lot of thought to how her ceramics could be "the artistic architecture for a chef's food. Handmade ceramics complement a chef's tasting menu with a unique form, color, and design," she says.

Her first restaurant collaboration was with chef George Meza at Onsen. The place has unfortunately closed due to the pandemic, but the experience laid the groundwork for her to pursue projects with more of her favorite restaurants in SF. Now, working with chefs offers Hupp a fresh perspective on her art, and they help each other grow in their respective fields.

"When I first started working with chef Val Cantu (Californios), I showed him two black glaze choices for his taco plates. He wished there was a middle black glaze color and asked me to combine them. This hadn't occurred to me; it is not the first thing a ceramicist would do. But I thought, why not? I combined the glazes and the result was stunning. That glaze is now my trademark semi-matte ink glaze. Val and I often build off each other's ideas when brainstorming at the restaurant."

In fact, Californios serves up an an extensive array of Hupp's ceramics including chargers, taco plates, bowls, bon-bon dishes, and bud vases.

In 2019, Nightbird chef/owner Kim Alter proposed another challenge: to create a stunning pillow plate that would both highlight the restaurant's culinary artistry but also be lightweight enough that her servers could gracefully lift it off the table.

"I returned to my studio and had a moment of inspiration when watching Warren MacKenzie, an iconic Midwestern craft potter, make his drop-rim bowl. By applying his method to a completely different form, I stretched the clay to its absolute maximum, the very brink of a piece collapsing, and created my cushion plate. Nightbird now features two versions of my cushion plate in its five-course tasting menu."

More recently, Hupp's work has captured the attention of Sorrel's Michelin-starred chef/owner Alex Hong, for whom she designed two new plates, and the Auberge Stanly Ranch, a new 700-acre working ranch and resort in Napa that will serve all its restaurant's dishes on a unique collection of Hupp's work.

As a proud and happy mother, she is also due to launch a limited edition collection of vases that celebrate motherhood; look for them on her website in time for Mother's Day.

// Follow Erin Hupp on Instagram at @erin_hupp_ceramics; erinhuppceramics.com.

Oakland ceramicist Erin Hupp at work.(Adahlia Cole)