It’s no secret that a lot of us took up new hobbies during the pandemic that led to some spontaneous Amazon purchases, but for Garbo Zhu, adding a bag of air-dry clay into her cart altered the trajectory of her entire career and well, life.
When she made her first clay piece, an earring dish for her mom for Mother’s Day, Garbo was a complete beginner. But now, just a couple years later, she has hundreds of pieces to her name, has garnered millions of views online and has watched her Grumpy Kid Studio creations sell out countless times. Here’s what Garbo learned about pottery making along the way.
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As a new grad just starting her career in Building Information Modeling (BIM) during the height of the pandemic, Garbo was searching for a creative outlet to offset her many hours behind a screen. Prior to creating with air-dry clay, the Montreal-based designer had no formal experience with the medium. She had a taste of clay in high school, but for the most part, she was figuring it out as she went.
“It’s a really forgiving material,” says Garbo. “It’s pretty much like playdough for kids. So it’s quite simple to use.” After completing and gifting her Mother’s Day creation, Garbo was left with a lot of excess clay. With the leftovers, she began to experiment and create other functional pieces for her parent’s home, starting with a “clean” magnet to settle household dishwasher debates.
Enjoying the process so much, Garbo started to share her pieces on a dedicated Instagram account, just for fun. But when requests to buy her creations began to flood in, so did her ideas. It was time for Garbo to level-up her hobby.
“Hand-building is the most accessible way to build. You just get your hands, minimum tools, a ball of clay and that’s it,” says Garbo about the ceramics technique her local pottery studio suggested. Her transition to hand-building was natural, being so similar to the air-dry method that introduced her to the medium. After a quick lesson, Garbo went back home to create her first food-safe, sellable pieces.
Following her initial chaotic Instagram product launch, Garbo realized she and her hands couldn’t keep up with the demand — especially given the cramping she was developing from her fingers to her forearms. Between her nine-to-five life on the computer all day and spending her evenings hand-pinching using the same muscles, it was time to consider more sustainable ceramic techniques. After a period learning slip casting, Garbo invested in a pottery wheel and began to teach herself in her parent’s backyard.
With one quick delve into Grumpy Kid Studio’s TikTok, you’ll come to the conclusion that Garbo’s day-to-day still usually involves a rethrow on the wheel. Though she may share 20 perfectly centered pots with her nearly 650 thousand followers, she always includes the footage of her failed attempts. After a quick sigh, she resets and starts again—this, a learned practice.
“The first month was so frustrating because it seems so easy when someone else is doing it on the internet,” says Garbo about initially learning wheel throwing via YouTube. “They’re so calm and they never get frustrated. But when you’re first trying it, your body doesn’t like to listen to your control.”
Looking back now, Garbo admits taking a formal wheel throwing class would have saved her a lot of time and frustration. But with consistent practice, she and her body eventually fell into a flow. “In ceramics you almost have to tell the clay, ‘Okay, this is what I want you to do and you’re going to listen to me.’ And that’s a conversation I have with clay in my head,” she says. “You slowly build up that relationship through practice.”
“Make as many pieces as possible,” Garbo recommends. “If I make a gigantic pot and it breaks, I’m not sad about it. I’m just like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ so I don’t make the same mistake again. I’ve made like hundreds and thousands of pots now, that one breaking is not a huge deal.”
Embrace the Process
“Just start with a mug,” Garbo suggests to pottery newbies. “It is one of the harder things to do. It is by approaching something hard that once you figure that out, you can do anything.”
Mirroring her own experience, Garbo recommends focusing on one pottery technique at a time to determine which method best suits you and what you’re hoping to create. After that, it’s all about practice. “Let’s say I’ve been away for two weeks and I’m back on the wheel again,” Garbo says. “I’m a little bit rusty. I’m not sure about where to apply my pressure or I apply the wrong type of pressure. It’s just like going to the gym. If you’re supposed to lift this amount of weight and you take a break, you’re not as strong as before. Clay is the same.”
As a self-described stubborn person, Garbo prefers to work through these harder days at the wheel, but believes the process should be based on the creator’s personality — if you need to walk away and return later, follow that intuition.
“I always learn something new about clay or learn something about myself. You have to keep on practicing. And if you’re having a really bad day, it shows on the clay too,” she says. “You just have to be patient with yourself and with clay. It gets better.”
Share as You Go
When she began sharing her mugs online, Garbo didn’t have her bright studio space, her four assistants or any professional training in the medium — the latter remains true today, despite her undeniable mastery. Instead, she’s brought her followers along for the entire journey — from modifying her parent’s Toronto living room into a makeshift studio, to securing her first true studio in Montreal.
“Anyone that’s trying to start or scale up their handmade business, don’t be afraid to show you as a person outside of your work,” says Garbo, who accredits social media for where her business is today. “I’ve shown more now in the past couple of months of what it’s like to work with me in the studio so people know that it’s a real studio, people work here and we are real people.”
Through daily glimpses of her life and personality via TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, Garbo’s followers recognize the sharp contrast from her bubbly personality and the grumpy little faces that are signature to her ceramics. “I have liked to put faces on things since I was a kid,” says Garbo. “I love drawing faces on inanimate objects to bring them more characteristics and make them more fun. The pot itself is cute, but by having a grumpy face on it, you almost create this complex feeling.”
Garbo weaves herself and her heritage throughout her brand, most notably through her famously sold out BAO Mug (pictured above in the Waffle variation), a creation that took nearly two years to come to fruition. Garbo tapped into her architecture background and used a 3D printer to create a model of the initial complex shape. When visiting her grandparents in China last year, she took advantage of her proximity to the Porcelain Capital to commission a custom slip casting mold. Since then, her Bao Mug has been released in several variations: Barbie Cowboy, Waffle, Croissant, Aurora and due to high demand, likely many more to come.
“People are reacting so well, that’s our best selling model.” says Garbo. “Every time we launch it, it still gets sold out every single time, which is crazy.” So what’s next for Grumpy Kid Studio? From humanifying the bao bun to slip casting a baguette, if Garbo’s previous creations are any indication, the limit does not exist.