Last May, Brooklyn-based carpenter Isaac Nichols made a few ceramic pots shaped like female torsos, and Instagrammed them. The pots each had two relatively natural-looking breasts and outsize nipples. Soon Isaac was bombarded with orders from his followers: friends, friends of friends, and eventually high-profile admirers like The Sill and the Wythe Hotel. In the past year, he’s sold hundreds of pots through flash stoop sales, Instagram (#freethenipple notwithstanding), and even Urban Outfitters.
The Cut met Isaac, 29, at his Greenpoint studio, where he works under the pseudonym Group Partner, to share a carton of strawberries, and talk about his surprise success, his thoughts on areolas, eroticism, and carved, wooden vaginas. (Check back later in the week for New York’s “Everything Guide to Ceramics”).
How did you get into ceramics?
Around the time I graduated from Cooper Union, I got really into collecting weird succulents and cacti. But I hated the classic terra-cotta pots that they came in. I figured that if I could just make one ceramic pot, poorly, someone out there would want to buy it.
What’s the logic?
The worse you are as a craftsman, the more the response is like, Great! I can clearly see the mark of your hand on this! I realized my work would be poorly done, and thus marketable.
So you went into this pretty blind.
I was a total outsider. My first batch was 60 clay pots with faces on them. They were pretty wonky, because I rolled everything with a rolling pin, and then just tried to make the slabs of clay stick together. I figured out most of the steps online — rolling clay, and staining it, and firing it.
Then you switched over to breasts.
If you look through my Instagram, you’ll see the first breast pot I ever made. I started using Instagram the same month that I started making breast pots.
Is that where you found your customers?
Definitely. I mean, you know about my work, and I’ve probably only sold 300 pots through retailers, ever. People in Tokyo and Australia know about me, and it’s all because of Instagram — not galleries, not stores. I bet this is all going to tank eventually, but for now we’re living in the golden age of self-promotion, and it’s awesome.
Has #freethenipple had any impact on your sales?
Well, Antonia Marsh is one of my followers. And Petra Collins is a big fan. She actually comes by the studio to hang out. So, politically, there’s definitely some overlap between my pots and the areola debate. Honestly, I think breasts are breasts. Arousal is maybe one in five reactions to a nude breast, and it’s a real shame that censorship has to perpetrate the idea that breasts are always erotic. You wouldn’t look at the Venus de Milo’s hard-stone nipples and assume arousal.
Your clay nipples are pretty consistent.
It took lots of practice. Starting out, I wanted every aspect of this project to be carefully considered. So, I did dozens of these nipple test tiles. You can see which ones worked well, and which ones are pretty awful.
I keep staring at that pot that’s touching itself.
My friend Emily painted this one with me, and now all I want to do is make more of them. But I don’t have any vendors who would want this. It’s not a good business model. If I want to grow this company and sell to like, Steven Alan or something, I need to pair down and find an identity.
Well, aren’t breast pots an identity?
I mean, I definitely didn’t invent the terra-cotta pot, and breasts are probably one of the oldest subjects around. I truly believe that if you leave a guy alone with clay for long enough, he’s going to make some breasts.
Still, you’ve definitely got a type of breast that seems pretty signature.
In the beginning, I made really small breasts, based off of my own research online. I really didn’t want to do anything confrontational. I wasn’t trying to sell breasts. I was trying to sell this ode to femininity.
Like the Venus.
Yeah, well, I don’t know. Sometimes I have this weird reality check when I’m like, I’m 29, I make breast pots, and I just might get rich off of them. That’s weird! But then other times I’m like, Wait: Most of my clients are women. And a lot of lesbians, and a lot of gay men. I assumed that my first pot was going to be one of those things you only do once. But then I got really positive feedback. Everyone was like, That’s awesome. I want one. And that was really encouraging. Still, I kept thinking that the bubble would burst, and someone would be like, Dude, that’s fucked up. You shouldn’t do that. But it still hasn’t happened.
Instagram keeps you in check.
Definitely. The worst reaction has been from my uncle, who’s this old-timer craftsman from New Hampshire. It was pretty innocent. He compared my pots to this erotic art that he used to see at craft fairs. He told me that my work reminded him of this guy who used to carve vaginas out of wood. I was like, Oh God. I’m failing if I’m making you think of carved wooden vaginas.
Do you have non-torso ceramics projects in the works?
Petra [Collins] and I are going to make a cast of her nose. I think it’s my new direction: a cast pot, really clean, with Petra’s nose on it. I’ll do different colors.
Just Petra Collins?
Well, I want to start with her, since she’s a big name. Plus she’s got this feminist stance. And it’s just funny. I’ll tell people, Look! Now I’m objectifying a woman.
But what about the male form?
I’ve done a few male pots, but they’re so much harder. I have to sculpt the groin and the butt, and also make hipbones that look natural. It’s formed all the way around.
So it’s a full sculpture.
Yeah. And it’s a gamble. If I want to retail the breast pot for $45, that means I have to sell it wholesale for $22. Minus my materials, my overhead, the electric bill, I’m paying myself less than $10 an hour to do this. For the male form, I’d have to sell it for close to $160 retail. I don’t want anyone to spend that much money on this thing.
You must be upping your production, now that you get so many orders.
American Apparel told me that they would order 1,000 from me once I’ve got the infrastructure. That’s like a $20,000 order.
With American Apparel calling, you kind of look you’re playing into trends.
I’ve definitely thought about that. But if you try to fight it, they’ll just knock you off. I want to really own this. And that means owning the breast shapes. I have six different breast shapes that I do. They’re all within the range of what I consider natural. Plus, I’ve got six different “skin” tones, from light to dark. So the idea is I can let retailers pick the bathing-suit pattern, but not the breast size or skin tone. If they’re willing to carry my pots, they’re going to have to accept this sort of egalitarian view of femininity.
I’m picturing those T-shirts with bikinis printed on them, and huge breasts. On Canal Street.
Oh, I’m definitely aware of dancing that line. I have to be really careful, because if someone knocked off my breast pot in a tasteless way, that would be it. Game over.
Pots by Isaac Nichols; tattoos by Tuesday Bassen.