The Brooklyn Ceramicist Behind the Insanely Popular “Boob Pots”
PHOTOS BY EMILY JOHNSTON
Even with its door wide open, Isaac Nichols’s Greenpoint studio is easy to miss. Walk past, look around, turn back, and there it is, tucked inside a cavernous, garage-like space that’s served as a creative home base for Nichols (who works under the name Group Partner) and a wide circle of artist friends for the past two years. The studio, unassuming from the outside, hums within: music plays; the stretch and tear of packing tape is constant. All around, laid out on makeshift surfaces and shelves, are Nichols’s signature pieces in varying stages of completion: ceramic pots molded to mimic breasts, each adorned in a hand-painted outfit, and his famous face pots, each with one of three appointed names: Adam, Rory, or Pat.
Since their debut in 2013, the pots have become ubiquitous in hip storefronts, both in New York and beyond. Their popularity took the artist, a self-taught potter in a field heavily populated by women, somewhat by surprise. The project had humble beginnings, with Nichols initially making pots as a rebuttal to his formal fine arts training. Now, with the help of a dedicated team — Levi Woods, Jack Planter, and Steph Smith — he’s at the helm of a bonafide business. Some would say he’s made it, but Nichols has other ideas. In fact, he says, “I have a lot.”
I went to art school for seven years, off and on, and I had a studio practice in Bushwick with a friend. I also had a job working for a restaurant and bar design company at the time, and I’d get off work, exhausted, and go back to my studio and stress out about trying to be an artist. It wasn’t fun for me. But I had a bunch of ideas, and one of them was to start making pots. I didn’t want them to have anything to do with theory or any of that — I just wanted to make them fun. So I started, and I really enjoyed it. I used a rolling pin — standing them up, pinching them together, trying to make them round.
One-hundred percent. I had literally only started touching clay a month before this started. One day I posted a picture of the pots on Instagram, and people started liking it. So I had a stoop sale and I had 30 of them that I sold for $5-15. I made $300 and I thought, “This is crazy. Maybe I could do this as my job.”
How long have been working here in this studio? And how did you find it?
It’s been about two years. I’d been doing carpentry work off and on with a friend who’d just gotten a lease on this space. I’d saved some money that year and I had a credit card, and he needed help with rent. He asked if I could do anything with the basement. So I quit my job, and I did all of this for $8,000, which was everything I had. I bought all the equipment at auction or on Craigslist. And then a bunch of ceramicists I knew started working here. A lot of people have been through: Cody Hoyt, Josephine Heilpern, Helen Levi, Natalie Weinberger.
Sharing the space was a good way to cover rent, but also, I have insane ADD. I thought if I could surround myself with actual ceramicists, it would help me show up to work. I never make money on people who rent, though — it’s always at cost. Everything goes back into the equipment and the space.
Everyone knows everyone. I don’t know if I got into it at the right time—or if everyone got into it at the same time—but I feel like ceramics just got really popular at a certain point.
Adam seemed like the right name — it was the first pot, and a boy. Then I chose Rory because it’s phonetically similar to Adam — it’s the inverse of vowel, consonant, vowel, consonant. Anyway, Rory’s a real guy. I was at brunch with him once and he knocked his mimosa over four times in a row, so that’s why the face on the pot is upside-down. And Pat — Pat’s just Pat.
As for the faces, I don’t know where any of this stuff comes from. I used to make them all by hand, and they all had personalities. Then I figured out I could make a form to produce more of them faster.
Was there any backlash when you made the decision to do that?
When I got into casting, there was a conversation about whether the work loses value when it isn’t done by hand. In my eyes, this is really an industrial design thing. When you look at it that way, it makes more sense.
It’s funny. I’ve had so many ideas in my life — I want to do this, I want to do that. And then I made a breast pot for my girlfriend at the time and it’s taken on a whole life of its own.
At first, I was really nervous they’d be taken the wrong way. When I posted the first picture to Instagram, I figured it would be a matter of minutes before someone said, ‘Dude, what are you doing? Stop.’ This was coming from my art school background. If I had walked into class at the last college I went to and sat down — as a white male — with a utilitarian object that had breasts on it, I would have been kicked out. But the fact that they’ve been embraced to the extent that they have is really awesome. I’m definitely a feminist, so it’s cool to be a part of that conversation.
As for the breasts being small, I was seeing a girl at the time who was small-chested. That was sort of where it came from. I still try to make them small. The alternative already exists. And I never wanted to make a pot that could be construed in any way as a sexy pot.
Instagram has played a big role in your career thus far. Is it still a useful tool?
It’s a weird thing. Instagram can give you a misleading sense of success. But it’s the thing that started it all for me. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I was just a recluse in Maine, making pots — would this have ever been anything? But it just so happened that I was in New York, in the right time at the right place. After I’d made 300 pots total, I was contacted by American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Steven Alan — that was all through Instagram. And I was still making everything by hand. That’s when the gears started turning: I needed to industrialize. Instagram is the reason this became what it is.
Since we arrived this morning, there’s been music playing. What do you like to listen to while you work?
Recently, it’s been Dr. Dre. And I listen to a lot of Henry David Thoreau. I’ve probably listened to Civil Disobedience 30 times.
It’s been a while. I did just move into a new apartment, though, and the building’s going to get torn down in year — so it’s a little bit of a free-for-all. A friend of mine frames houses and he and I built a cabin on the roof. I’m excited for that.
Besides ceramics and woodwork, what other mediums are you interested in experimenting with?
I want to do an art piece with actuators, which are devices that have a motion, like a windshield wiper or a blinker in a car. I want to take fake plants and wire actuators into them, so I can DJ and they’ll dance to the music.
Growing up, you have an idea of who you think you are, and who you want to be. And as an artist, in art school, you have an idea of what kind of artist you want to be. When I started making these things, I was letting go of that. it’s taken me a long time to feel like this is totally me, though. Boob pots are a thing I’m doing, but I still have a hard time thinking, ‘Here I am, the boob potter.’ But I’ve been trying not to worry about whether this is the direction I’m supposed to be on. Because before I found success in this, I put a lot of emphasis on, ‘Oh, I don’t do this. I don’t do that.’ And I missed out on a lot of life.