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Jamaica Plain potter an unlikely businessman

Jeremy Ogusky went from public health studies to the Peace Corps to a job at Harvard before a layoff landed him in the business of pottery

Jeremy Ogusky produces all of his products in the basement of his home.
Jeremy Ogusky produces all of his products in the basement of his home. LANE TURNER/GLOBE STAFF/Globe Staff

Working out of the basement of his Jamaica Plain house, Jeremy Ogusky is a one-man factory.

Each year, Ogusky, 38, cranks out thousands of plates, mugs, bowls, and pickling crocks for the kitchen retail giant Williams-Sonoma and about a dozen Boston-area restaurants. He does it all with clay molds and his lone electric potter’s wheel, not far from the washer and dryer.

“It’s not art,” said Ogusky, who wears glasses and wraps his long hair in a bun. “I’m not interested in making pieces that are very highly decorated or for a gallery.”

Ogusky, who trained at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, has worked as a full-time, professional potter since 2009, accelerating production in more recent years after Williams-Sonoma discovered his fermentation crocks — clay vessels used to turn cabbage into sauerkraut, cure olives, or make pickles.

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Today, his customers also include the Boston restaurants Townsman, Grill 23, and Yvonne. Chefs descend to Ogusky’s basement for design consultations, and Ogusky personally delivers his handiwork, sometimes by bicycle and sometimes in his 2008 Subaru Forrester. Sometimes his work arrives still warm from the kiln.

Williams-Sonoma is one of Jeremy Ogusky’s main customers, along with several restaurants.
Williams-Sonoma is one of Jeremy Ogusky’s main customers, along with several restaurants.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Juan Pedrosa, Yvonne’s executive chef, said he met Ogusky several times to discuss and tweak the designs and style of plates for the restaurant, which opened in October. They settled on rustic rimmed plates, large and small, in sea-glass hues of blue and green, each slightly different because of the way it comes off Ogusky’s wheel.

“We could put food on any plate,” Pedrosa said. “But sometimes, when the project is very personal, you want the best, you want the most talented people around you. Jeremy is extremely talented.”

Ogusky admits he’s an unlikely businessman. He hasn’t analyzed sales of his creations, other than knowing he creates about 50 fermenting pots a month for Williams-Sonoma and sold about $100,000 in goods last year.

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Pottery was an unexpected career path for Ogusky. He grew up in Michigan, the son of a psychologist and a social worker, and received a master’s degree in public health from Boston University in 2001. For two years, he served in the Peace Corps, working in Lesotho in southern Africa on AIDS prevention and awareness.

Last year, Ogusky sold about $100,000 worth of goods, he said.
Last year, Ogusky sold about $100,000 worth of goods, he said. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

He later moved to Ecuador, where he taught public health to visiting US college students and apprenticed under a potter in his free time.

He returned to Boston in 2009 when his wife, Siiri Morley, landed a scholarship at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. (She now runs the Boston nonprofit Strong Women, Strong Girls, a mentoring program.)

A few months later, he was laid off from a job as a program manager at Harvard’s Global Health Institute, a university network that aims to improve health care globally.

He decided to change course.

“I had never lost a job before, and for me, it was a shock,” he said. “My wife said, ‘Maybe this is an opportunity.’ ”

After taking a few weeks off, he enrolled in a course for professional potters at Haystack Mountain School, with the idea of turning his hobby into a livelihood.

He began working out of an 8-foot by 8-foot booth at a community pottery studio in Brookline, mostly alongside retirees who undertook casual pottery projects. When the author of the “Art of Fermentation” (a guide to home fermentation that won a James Beard Foundation award in 2013) featured one of Ogusky’s crocks, someone at Williams-Sonoma took notice.

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Friends who are restaurateurs also began calling him, asking for custom tableware.

For Woods Hill Table in West Concord, he made custom salt and lard bowls, chunky and glazed on the inside. For Townsman, he crafted flat plates reminiscent of an artists’ palette.

Ogusky said he likes working with restaurants when they are opening because their budgets are flush. And he likes working with chefs, because they are both creative and pragmatic, qualities he uses to describe himself — and his work.

Owning his own business, he said, is far more work than a full-time job.

He’s not looking to start a catalog or to mass- produce items, but said he’d like to hire an intern to reduce his workload. He made 600 fermentation crocks last year for Williams-Sonoma, each taking a hour to make. The retailer sells them for $100 each; Ogusky gets less than half.

Williams-Sonoma and restaurants each account for about one-third of his sales. The remaining third comes through online sales and craft fairs. Recently, a soon-to-open Manhattan restaurant called Rouge Tomate ordered 150 pieces.

The hard work, however, is not without fun. Ogusky occasionally invites friends, including chefs, to come over to throw and smash defective dishes against his basement’s wall.

Owning his own business, Ogusky said, is far more work than a full-time job.
Owning his own business, Ogusky said, is far more work than a full-time job. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.