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The Garden of Eatin’

For many Korean and Korean-American families, Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden line simply looks like home

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Stacks of bowls and plates with a floral design in the center.

So much can be revealed about a family through their plates and bowls. Some tuck away their dishware in kitchen cabinets, while others allow them to sit in display cabinets that furnish homey dining rooms. But for many Korean families, no matter where the dishes reside, most of them are instantly recognizable: wide rimmed, milky white plates detailed with realistic images of flowers like hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and lilies. Forest green laurel motifs line the circumferences of every bowl, plate, and cup. The collection looks like a garden study painted onto thick bone china.

To many, the plates are visceral yet delicate reminders of growing up in immigrant homes. Mia Sung was born in Flushing, New York, and moved to New Jersey when she was four years old. It wasn’t until she was in middle school that she saw some of her family’s Portmeirion Group dinnerware — specifically, that familiar Botanic Garden line — in the homes of other Korean families. “I thought we were the only ones who had them, so when I started going to other people’s houses I thought, ‘Whoa… they have the same ones, too!’” Sung says. “But when I went to other non-Korean houses, I don’t recall seeing them there.”

On the other side of the country, Josh Kim grew up in Buena Park, a neighborhood in Orange County, California, that boasts one of the largest Korean populations in the United States. He can immediately conjure memories of his family eating from Botanic Garden plates and bowls. “We used the majority of them daily, but our family would know it’s a special occasion when my mom brought out the bigger, serving-sized ones,” he says.

A display at ABC Plaza shows sets of dinnerware.
Portmeirion Pottery’s “Botanic Garden” line on display at ABC Plaza in Los Angeles.

Portmeirion Pottery’s Botanic Garden line, inspired by 19th-century nature prints, was launched by the England-based company in 1972. At the time, Portmeirion was headed by ceramicist and designer Susan Williams-Ellis, who took over in 1960 for her father Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, an architect and creator of Portmeirion Village in North Wales; Susan Williams-Ellis created the botanical line after several years of designing collections with varying abstract patterns. Her early collections, Malachite and Moss Agate, layered glazes of deep forest hues with bands of light green to resemble the prized gemstones. These made way for her most recognizable work of the decade, the Totem collection, which boasted embossed geometric shapes and spirals on cylindrical coffee pots, cups, and jugs. But by the 1970s, Williams-Ellis would focus on botanical subjects — the 1970s would also see a design called Magic Garden, a whimsical take on organic plant shapes — and never look back. Since its 1972 debut, Botanic Garden has never left the factory floor and remains one of the company’s most popular lines of crockery.

However, it was just within the last several decades that the British pottery line became the emblem of well-fed Korean families. John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley with an interest in East Asian culture, says the Portmeirion Group’s higher-end price point — the line costs up to $58 for one pasta bowl — was initially part of its draw. “[Modern-day] South Koreans were becoming more aspirational about tableware in recent decades, though even affluent South Koreans were surprisingly utilitarian in their choice of tableware,” he says. “The U.S. had been the source of status aspiration in South Korea, but its place at the apex began slipping when South Koreans found ‘class’ elsewhere, such as in English crockery.” Portmeirion’s line of pottery was a competitive choice for its veneer of prestige, as well as its durability. As quickly as a fad spreads, Korean families began to create demand for the United Kingdom crockery through word-of-mouth.

By 2009, Portmeirion reported that its sales increased by 31 percent in the Korean market over the first half of the year, helping the company grow profits by almost a third. Five years later, Portmeirion was on track to post record revenues for the fifth year in a row based on Korean demand.

“It’s quite a compliment that South Koreans buy our pottery because they were making fine porcelain when we were still painting ourselves blue,” said Portmeirion chairman Dick Steele in a 2018 interview with The Telegraph, referring to early English porcelain wares with hand-painted blue and white patterns that were inspired by Chinese decorative styles. In the same interview, Steele — who has overseen the growth of Portmeirion’s exports to South Korea for 12 years — confirmed that the country remained Portmeirion’s second-biggest export market.

Eight pairs of white saucers and cups with floral decorations on the side.

After becoming a popular export to South Korea, Portmeirion’s dishware traversed the Pacific Ocean. Upon the passing of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which did away with longstanding racist immigration quotas, many Korean families were emboldened to start anew in the U.S.; generations afterwards came into the country to be closer to relatives and start new chapters themselves. With them came mementos and physical objects that reminded them of their roots. There was pride in being an American immigrant; a polished Botanic Garden plate put that prestige on display.

In Koreatown, Los Angeles, ABC Plaza is a household name among local Korean families. Since 1989, the appliance store has been a trusted retailer for kitchen appliances, cooking utensils, and culinary gadgets. It also carries the widest selection of Portmeirion Group’s Botanic Garden line in town, with an entire corner of the store reserved for counters stacked deliberately with bowls, plates, serving platters, and tea sets.

Ellen Lee has been a sales associate at ABC Plaza, and its resident expert on Portmeirion’s pottery, for the last 20 years. The dining sets on her shelves are sold to families for 30 percent off retail price — regularly they can go for $129.99 for a set of six dinner plates. As a selling point, Lee references Korean pop culture; she tells her customers that the Botanic Garden line is most recognizable in Korean dramas, specifically arranged in fictional home settings to allude to the household wealth. Series like 2009’s Boys Over Flowers or recent national hits Home for Summer and SKY Castle come to mind.

In Korean, Lee recounts a time when a family friend came in to purchase hundreds of dollars’ worth of the Botanic Garden collection. “She loves them so much because looking at the flowers on them makes her happy,” she says. “Washing dishes isn’t laborious for her because the pretty flowers on the bottom give her joy.”

The plates feel “everyday” enough that many families use the Botanic Garden collection for regular meals, though the bigger serving platters and tea sets are commonly tucked away in display cabinets until a special occasion arises. (In recent weeks, Bong Joon-ho’s widely acclaimed film Parasite gave viewers a window into how a Korean family’s wealth is put on display: There are scenes where the camera pulls away to reveal the fictional Park family’s intricate dinnerware glinting in immaculate glass cabinets.)

The dishware display at ABC Plaza.

Other brands besides Portmeirion are just as recognizable in Korean households. American-made Corelle plates were more common among the budget-conscious. Corelle dining sets also boasted delicate blue, gold, and green floral motifs along the rims of dishware; launched in 1971, they’re more stylized in design compared to Portmeirion’s realistic illustrations of garden life.

Until middle school, Michelle Paek lived back and forth between Korea and Arizona until her dad retired from the U.S. Army and moved the family to Las Vegas. She remembers seeing Corelle serving dishes on Korean dining tables more often than Portmeirion plates. “Both are so symbolic of a Korean home, but [Corelle] was your everyday bowls for cereal, soup, and kimchi jjigae,” she says.

Lee’s core customers at ABC Plaza are mothers and grandmothers who have been patrons since its opening. She notes a recent slowdown in her sales of Portmeirion’s Botanic Garden line; younger generations are not as interested. Those changing tastes indicate a shift in how immigrant families brought their dinnerware versus their children and grandchildren, who are exploring their own dining aesthetic.

For example, Sung finds her parents’ Portmeirion plates and bowls not representative of her tastes. “When I first graduated from college, I didn’t have any money, so my parents let me take their extra Portmeirion dishware that we had lying around,” Sung says. “Years later, I had to decide what kind of dishware I was going to have as a married woman.”

In her home, Sung still wanted to strike a balance between what was familiar and her modernized taste. “I purchased a bunch of plates and bowls [from Portmeirion] for everyday use, but I also purchased [...] fancier plates that I want to use for more special occasions or when I have guests over,” she says. Sung’s “special occasion” plates are from West Elm, Anthropologie, and Muji, all of which carry contemporary designs that supplement the brand name she knew so well.

Plates and bowls with fruit decorations.

From our cradles to the homes we make as adults, Korean-Americans think deeply about dinnerware. Newer generations within Korean-American families are nurturing their own dining traditions, though they do honor the materials with which they grew up. Lee at ABC Plaza notices this herself through recent transactions; newer families peer into the shop for Portmeirion dishes, but they’re not requesting the Botanic Garden line. “They’re looking for something simple,” she explained.

Earlier this year, Portmeirion Group predicted that its annual profit would be “significantly below” market expectations. Its total group sales for the first four months of the year were down 10 percent compared to 2018. In a statement to the Financial Times, the business attributed the dip to lower sales to export markets, particularly South Korea. Several months later, Portmeirion released its 2019 interim report to address the export market sales, announcing it made “considerable progress to resolve short term issues [...] including product development for Korea.” One solution has an updated “Botanic Garden Harmony” line of bowls and plates without illustrations, but featuring embossed edging and four color choices to “bring a retro look with a modern twist to everyday moments.”

“To me the [Portmeirion] dishes are a memory of family and also a memory of my culture,” said Kim. “But I would not use them in my own home today; I think it would make it feel like I’m still living with my parents.”

Time will tell what this would mean for the longstanding Botanic Garden line, which essentially thrived off of the same design for almost 50 years. Evidently, the way nostalgia presents itself is evolving at the millennial Korean-American’s dining table.

Lisa Kwon is a Korean-American writer based in Los Angeles.
Wonho Frank Lee is a photographer in Los Angeles.

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