designed by Dierdre Shea and Martin Sombathy
porcelain, cloth, steel, rope

How do we design an experience to inspire empathy for social justice reform?

DIFFICULT TABLEWARE addresses the experiences and desires ideated by participants in the Narrative Workshop, specifically those of formerly incarcerated people as they re-enter society in the United States. The limitations imposed by law create an experience that makes re-entry difficult, often leading to re-incarceration. We learned that all futures relied on empathy from existing and new communities. With this in mind, we set out to design an experience to spark empathy, using a familiar set of objects we can all relate to.

Rotating Breakfast Set: An unstable dining set. A cup with a rotating handle, bowls that wobble, spoons that swivel when scooping. This set represents the need for safety and stability when the ability to find safe and comfortable housing is lost.

Fat Breakfast Set: Rims that are too thick to sip, forks that are too fat to pierce. This set represents the inability to access a basic need through a designed system, as when food stamps and employment become unavailable through barriers of law.

Attached Breakfast Set: A dining set where each piece is attached to the rest, causing limited use of tools and an inability to change what has been preset. This set represents the experience of being unable to advocate for one’s self interests. Being stripped of the right to vote, formerly incarcerated people are unable to change the system that works against them.

Soft Breakfast Set: A set where the utensil handles are made of cloth. The bowl, and cup are also cloth and without structure. This set represents the difficulty accessing higher education. It is possible to eat with improvisation, however challenging. FIP are ineligible for financial assistance from the federal government, and therefore have great difficulty accessing higher education. This experience results in increased difficulty improving employment prospects and achieving higher learning.

The set is is designed to communicate the difficulties of re-entry to the public, in an attempt to curb the stigma of incarceration, discuss the flaws within the institution of the criminal justice system, and facilitate a conversation about community oriented solutions.

In line with the challenges FIP encounter when attempting to re-enter society, some of these objects are intentionally difficult to use, pushing people to “give up” before they’ve started their meal. Other challenges are hidden and surprising.

We are curious -  if an object is taken for granted, how do we feel when it no longer performs its function? How will subjects address limitations that affect their ability to eat and drink? If they can experience the frustration, isolation, and limitations that FIP go through as they try to adjust to life after incarceration, would the result be additional empathy?


included sketching, prototyping, ideation, and then fabrication. The challenge was fabricating tableware that counters it’s own function. Using a combination of classic and contemporary techniques, we designed the tableware to dysfunction mechanically, disguising swiveling bowls and spoons within the interior of the ceramic piece.

We lasercut the profiles of our pieces, and designed a hand revolved plaster forming mechanism to create traditional plaster prototypes for moldmaking. This technique created incredibly crisp, clean prototypes with which to make our molds from. 

We then made molds for slipcasting, and used them to cast four different sets in porcelain. Some pieces required additional material after firing; the cloth set was sewn into the porcelain using hand fabricated holes, and the hinge for the rotating cup was made with a flexible aluminum that was inserted into a cavity molded into the cup during casting. The result was an invisible integration of the mechanisms into the porcelain.


Difficult Tableware is part 2/2 of WANT OF FREEDOM, which investigates the political and social effects of incarceration on the public and the individual, using community based research workshops to facilitate thoughtful and critical discussions about appropriate solutions.
A storytelling activity was developed to collect narrative and emotional experiences of people re-entering society after incarceration, and discuss our desired future narratives. Ceramic tableware was then designed and produced to reflect these narratives, interpreting this data into a tangible experience for the public in an open forum.

[Project developed at the Pratt Institute MID program, under the guidance of Doremy Diatta (Adjunct Professor of Industrial Design) in collaboration with Daliah Heller (Professor of Public Health, CUNY)]