I bought my first set of dishes at the Salvation Army shortly after I started college. The earth-toned, 1970s-style plates cost me $7, and they served me well until I got married six years later. I took them, chipped and well-enjoyed, back to a thrift store so someone else who was just starting out could use them. Clearly, I do not have as much imagination as Sarah Cihat.

Cihat, a 28-year-old artist in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, gives new life to old saucers through her business, Rehabilitated Dishware (www.sarahcihat.com). Cihat refires and reglazes secondhand dishes in her studio, infusing them with bold colors and silhouettes, a process she bills as “an exercise in sustainability that reincarnates existing products.”

Repurposing dishware since 2003, Cihat first got the idea when she was a student at Parsons School of Design. “I went to thrift stores so often, and there were so many piles of odd dishes,” she says. “I thought maybe I could re-glaze them and make them into groups again.” Response to her work was so positive that in 2004 she began making the brightly-colored dishes full-time. Her funky, artsy designs resonated with buyers, and now her pieces are available in boutiques on both coasts and as far away as Japan.

Despite saving plates from a doomed fate in a landfill, Cihat doesn’t see herself as an environmental crusader. Though she disapproves of wasteful practices—“everyone producing as much crap as possible,” as she puts it—she says her passion is more about art than conservation. “I’d rather just [make cool stuff] and happen to be responsible at the same time,” she says.

So if Cihat isn’t around, what happens to our old tableware? It’s impossible to know if my old plates were put to good use. The same can be said for all discarded dishware—most municipalities and recycling centers have no provisions for recycling ceramics, says Anne Reichman, spokeswoman for Earth 911, an environmental resource group. As for unused products, the makers of the popular Corelle and Pfaltzgraff dishware lines say theirs remain in outlet stores indefinitely until they’re sold.

Glass bottles have been a staple recyclable for decades, but ceramics are an entirely different story. Much more heat is required to melt down ceramic plates than pieces of glass, so consequently, they stay off most communities’ lists of recyclable materials. The best recycling option, Reichman says, is reuse, either by donating whole pieces to thrift stores or turning broken items into creative garden borders or mosaic tiles.

Cihat has managed to marry the thrift store and creative-reuse concepts. Haunting Goodwill and Salvation Army stores on Long Island and in her native Tennessee for supplies, she produces anywhere from 50 to 200 new pieces a month. Her products range in price from $40 for a mug to $60 for a dinner plate for retail clients and custom buyers. Since many factors, such as depth, shape, and sturdiness, play into whether a piece is acceptable for reworking, Cihat says she tries to procure most of her pieces personally. “I’m the only one who knows whether a dish will work,” she says, noting that delicate materials like fine china are too fragile to stand up to the refiring process.

As with any successful company, Cihat is diversifying her business. Last year, she introduced DIRT, a line of hand-cast porcelain vases, cups, and sculptures. But Rehabilitated Dishware is still her most popular line. Many of her clients are repeat customers, eager to own a full line of table settings from her studio. “They want to buy odd pieces, like creamers and espresso cups,” she says. “And I’m open to anything interesting I think I can refire.”

Story by Jennifer Acosta Scott. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Let's dish
A Brooklyn artist breathes new life into old tableware.