An Interview with Gray Works Design: Sustainable Boards for Special Occasions

Gatherings from The Kitchn

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When I started planning the polenta supper I shared with you earlier this week, I immediately knew I wanted a huge board for serving. My husband and I considered making one ourselves from a sanded piece of lumber, but we didn't have the time or space to work on it. So I turned to Elizabeth Bryant and Andrew Gray of Gray Works Design, whose boards I've long admired. The board they loaned me for this party was the most beautifully crafted, custom-milled slab of silver maple. It was a far cry from the rougher sort of board we would have made; this one had so much more beauty and character.

It made me think of the role that one beautiful, handcrafted piece can play in a party or in the home; real craftsmanship is always a joy to encounter. To get more of Gray Works' perspective on this, I chatted with Elizabeth a little bit about their approach to sustainability, inspiration, and the tension between the wild and the domestic.

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1. How long have you and Andrew been working on pieces for the table?

We've been producing Footed Plattes since 2005. Andrew made the first ones as gifts for family, and they were such a big hit, it made sense to keep making them and developing the product. We spent about a year refining the idea of what it was, giving it a unique name to reflect its versatility as both a cutting and serving surface.

"Platte" is derived from the geological term frequently found in the Catskill Mountain area. In a very stripped down sense, it refers to a flat area, and we liked finding a way to bring that kind of local landscape reference back into the product, since our raw material is sourced from the Catskills for the most part.

Also, it was important to us to keep the product as natural and organic as possible, which is why we settled on using only olive oil to treat them. Olive oil is 100% organic, food-safe, and has the added benefit of being easily reapplied.

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2. What inspires your work?

We have a hands-on role in acquiring raw material, and that's a driving passion, for sure. We are often fully involved in retrieving trees (either downed in storms or by other natural causes, or felled by homeowners) ourselves, literally hauling them back to our shop to be micro-milled, dried on-site, stored, etc. Other unprocessed material is brought to us by local sawyers who also work small-scale, and in an eco-driven way. All of that work is put into the material before we can even begin creating anything. It's definitely labor-intensive, but it's a labor of love. Sustainability is a key issue for us, and our customers definitely appreciate and support that.

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3. Your craft brings something wild (natural wood) indoors to the domesticated center of the home: the table. Is there a tension in crafting something for the home from these wild and natural origins?

We're both really at home in nature, and that's revealed in the work that we do. The goal is always about striking a balance with the raw material. That is: preserving its natural state vs working the material to conform to our needs and desires...what we want it to do, what its final purpose will be. That's the tension, really. When we succeed, we create pieces that hold on to their natural, organic characteristics, are intrinsically beautiful, but also become fully functional. We think of the Footed Platte as offering something akin to the experience of adding a terrace to the garden landscape.

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4. How are people using the bigger boards, like this one, that you make? What kinds of places and occasions do you imagine them being used at?

The larger Footed Plattes we've styled as "moveable banquet tables." They're suitable for any setting you can think of. Weddings, weekend entertaining, holidays, the family dining table, etc. They're beautiful for presentation, and completely practical too, because they're made to be functional as well. Sometimes buyers are fearful of actually cutting on the surface because they think they'll wreck the wood, but we always encourage people to use them as cutting boards as well as serving trays because we feel there's a kind of warm, wonderful patina that develops over time with use. Our buyers sometimes use them as centerpieces for celebrations, but also as wooden table runners for their dining tables. Caterers love them for big events.

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5. What are your own personal favorite foods to serve on your boards?

We love using them as individual serving trays and plates. Our Ploughman's Lunch Tray can hold, for example, a sandwich, a beer, some pickled vegetables on the side, and there's a divot carved into the surface of the board where you can add a helping of mustard, relish or other dipping sauce right onto the board. A set of those lends a very cozy, comforting kind of presentation to the table.

For more serious dining, we make a French Elegance Footed Platte that's long, narrow and has a low-profile. These are perfect for foods that are more painstakingly arranged for formal presentation. The boards are simple and beautiful, so they enhance the appearance of the food. Cakes and desserts look fantastic on our boards, and we've made quite a few custom wedding cake plates. Really, they're so versatile, it's up to the chef!

Thanks so much, Andrew and Elizabeth!

→ Visit Their Website: Gray Works Design

→ Visit Their Etsy Shop: Gray Works Design at Etsy

(Images: Elizabeth Bryant for Gray Works Design; David & Deborah Hopler of D Squared Photography and Video)

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