How Grumpy Faces Became a Key Part of Garbo Zhu's Ceramics

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For Garbo Zhu, it all started with the work of Hayao Miyazaki. In watching the popular Japanese filmmaker's work, Zhu noticed how his animated characters — often little kids — wore their emotions fully on their sleeves. She remembers one distinct character: a baby who was upset, and had a deeply grumpy face. That turned into the spark for her small business, Grumpy Kid Studio.

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The Canada-based maker and owner speaks excitedly and quickly over the phone, her voice buzzing with energy as she retells the story about how her ceramics business first took off. Zhu was born and raised in Guangzhou, China and moved to Canada as a teenager, initially living in Victoria before moving to Toronto. She studied architecture and worked at the firm Diamond Schmitt before finding a new interest in building information modeling (also known as BIM, which uses data to visualize building projects in a digital form). She followed that career focus and soon found a job at a construction company.

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In 2020, Zhu began working from home because of the pandemic, which gave her time to focus on other interests. That's why, for Mother's Day, the artist decided to gift her mom a handmade piece, buying air-dry clay and acrylic paint so she could create something from scratch.

As her creative processes unfolded, Miyazaki's animated baby character reminded Zhu that cuteness comes in many forms, and she admits she's always enjoyed putting faces on inanimate objects. She says that "the grumpy face on a super colorful whimsical mug can bring out joy in the customer who's using it, even though it's not really meant to be happy or joyful because of the grumpy face." Her pieces use lighthearted patterns — like cow print, strawberries, flowers, and pumpkins — set against pastel or iridescent colors. Each one, of course, features a grumpy face.

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As she made more objects, Zhu created an Instagram account for her work and used her lunch breaks to post content. Most evenings, she got home and had dinner before working on Grumpy Kid Studio items until around midnight. Soon, Instagram followers started asking if they could buy items from her. At the end of 2020, she took the step to make the studio an official business, and while she initially saw it as a side hustle, things quickly took off.

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"It felt really unreal for a pretty long period of time until it was an official business," Zhu tells Hunker.

Grumpy Kid Studio hit its stride in 2021, when Zhu realized that her holiday collection was bringing in a higher income than her day job. Instead of taking her pieces to a pottery studio to get fired, she got her own kiln — a major investment toward bringing the business to the next level.

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Now, Grumpy Kid Studio boasts 128,000 Instagram followers and fans. Zhu quit her full-time job earlier this year. On social media, customers photograph their mugs next to pets or their current reads; one person even photographed their mug in Paris.

Zhu recently found a space in Montréal that she can dedicate entirely to Grumpy Kid Studio. In the past, she created her items from her parents' living room, back when she first took lessons in handbuilding and considered running the business just as a side hustle. Eventually, she realized that she preferred wheel throwing, which she taught herself how to do using YouTube videos.

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On her recently created YouTube channel, Zhu shares the process behind curating her studio, which sits in an industrial building. The artist explains that this type of space is ideal for her process. Filling her workshop has involved laying out a photo shoot area, creating a 3D-printing/molding station, and utilizing lots of organizational tools. A few runs to IKEA and Home Depot helped her find the ideal shelving system for her walls, where she can show off the colorful pieces she makes. A nearby IKEA Bästis hook holds her blazer or jacket when she walks in the door.

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"It's not like brand new flooring … everything is still kind of rough," says Zhu. "So it's perfect for what I need to do with pottery — keeping things clean, yet messy at the same time. That's how I like to create as well."

Zhu soon hopes to welcome visitors into the studio; her Instagram messages are open for anyone who wants to book a paid consultation about starting or running a small business. She says she noticed that many potters were willing to talk about tools and techniques, but not so much about the business aspect of making things. Connecting with others about this aspect of running a creative brand fuels her work.

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"A lot of people told me that they saw my account, saw me doing this at home, and it encouraged them to go to a pottery studio and take their first pottery lesson," says Zhu.

At home, Zhu actually sticks to more neutral tones. She remembers attending architecture school and noticing that almost everyone in her classes wore all black. Grumpy Kid Studio allows her to play with color, and she finds inspiration in her mother's garden and nature in general. In one YouTube video, you can see her mom deep in thought while staring out at her many flowers. Lately, Shu has also found inspiration in nail art, incorporating an airbrush tool into her ceramics process.

For her studio space, Zhu commissioned a custom hand-tufted rug from a friend, Sebastian Sochan. She often scours Facebook Marketplace for secondhand pieces and also shops vintage at spaces like Eco Depo Montréal. And all along the walls of her studio are dozens of grumpy-cute faces, waiting to find their new homes.

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