Monika Dalkin started making ceramics as a hobby. As a physical therapist based in Seattle, Dalkin says, “working in clay and using my hands was an extension of my profession.” It wasn’t until over a decade later, when her daughter Gaby Dalkin was ramping up her cooking blog, What’s Gaby Cooking, that her hobby turned pro. Gaby had hired professional to do the photography and food styling for her site, who relied on lots of props. So she turned to her mom.
“I asked my mom if she could make us some props that were totally unique,” says Dalkin. “She was doing all sorts of other ceramic work at the time — so she said, sure, why not, and started making us bowls and plates and boards.”
The tableware was quickly noticed on Instagram, where it found an industry audience; with so many food blogs and cookbooks out there, there’s a market for distinctive custom props. So Dalkin formalized her ceramics hobby into a company, choosing the name Fifty One and a Half (“at that time, I was 51 and a half years old, hence the name”) and opening an Etsy store. Growth has been slow but steady, helped by appearances in cookbooks by Gwyneth Paltrow and Rachel Yang and mentions by What’s Gaby Cooking. With each mention, says Gaby, “there is a flurry of orders that then seem to keep growing.”
Fifty One and a Half pieces are also now in restaurants, notably Next in Chicago and Edouardo Jordan’s Lucinda Grain Bar in Seattle, which Dalkin says was a major business milestone due to the order size.
“Edouardo found me on Instagram,” says Dalkin. “He is local, so he came to my studio and selected styles of bowls he was interested in and selected glazes as well. Because the restaurant is a grain bar, he wanted something innovative and unique, so I created imprints for the bowls that show off the grains they serve.”
Some restaurants, like Alstadt in Seattle, use her pieces specifically for photo styling and brand promotion rather than daily service, since they’re beautiful but pricey. Dalkin doesn’t consider herself “a real production potter”; each piece is unique, and she’s always changing her offerings so customers “get something they won’t find somewhere else.”
She draws inspiration from nature, as well as a sheer desire to experiment with the possibilities of clay itself. “One week I might want to just play with different edges, the next week it might be using different textures to imprint the clay,” she says. “Another time it might be exploring a certain color palette.” Recent pieces include scalloped plates perfect for a dinner party and polka dot bowls that beg for cereal. Gaby also offers feedback — “on the sizes we’d use most in our shoots, the types of glaze (matte shoots better than glossy), and the colors that perform best on social.”
Everything is limited edition by nature, but you don’t need to be a chef or a food stylist to get a few pieces for yourself. Monika sells the bulk of her ceramics on Etsy, where she finds “blue, teals and turquoise colors, as well as various shades of white, seem to be popular.”