Hello, hello, everyone! I’ve been working on a lot of things lately, including my new online shop, and an operetta! I’m in Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore with Lamplighters Music Theatre, and we are performing for 3 more weekends in the SF Bay area! I’m so proud to open my online shop as well. That little leaping goat is going to take over the world!!
This week, I have the great privilege of bringing you an interview with Nate Mell, half of Philadelphia-based Felt + Fat. With co-owner Wynn Bauer, they create custom porcelain clay dishware for restaurants. Right now, they’re keeping really busy by meeting their East Coast demand, so we may not really see them much in San Francisco, but after seeing their work, I knew I wanted to share them with you! Here you go, without further ado, Felt + Fat!
How you both meet, and how would you describe the moment you decided to go into business together?
Felt+Fat started out as a single project. I (Nate) was working at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia while at the same time serving at Fork Restaurant, under chef Eli Kulp in 2013. Eli knew I worked at The Clay Studio and approached me about some custom tableware for a new project he was starting called ‘High Street on Market’.
My background at that point was more as a jack-of-all-trades than specifically as a ceramicist. I had majored in glass at the Tyler School of Art, and since, had been getting my hands dirty in a variety of materials; foundry work, ceramics, glass, rubber molds, etc. So when Eli asked for a ceramicist I knew I was going to need to partner with someone who was more of a purist in the material.
That’s where Wynn comes in. Wynn had been working in the gallery of The Clay Studio at the time that I was there, but before that he had been studying ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design where he was experimenting with mixing custom glazes and clay bodies while working on design-heavy sculptural objects and functional ware.
Wynn and I teamed up with nothing more than a 300 square foot studio, a mixing drill as far as equipment and space were concerned. We rented time in the kilns at The Clay Studio and paid for everything piecemeal but we got that first job done, and the results were great!
From where do you draw inspiration from for your tableware? (They look like they could have been grown from the earth, at times!)
Our work draws on a variety of inspirations. Wynn and I have discussed extensively our love of materials in general and exploring the boundaries of what something (in this case, clay and glazes) can really do. We both spend a lot of time looking at work that is out in the world, and getting inspiration from current and historical design as well. We also inspire each other a lot; we are constantly having conversations about ideas and expanding, and riffing off of each other’s work. It’s a lot of fun. And of course we get a lot of inspiration from our collaborators, chefs, and people in the food industry.
For you, what is the place of tableware in a dining setting? What does it mean to you when you see a certain style of tableware in a certain setting, with the food? How do they all fit together?
Tableware in a restaurant or a home setting can elevate a dining experience or flatten it. Dining is about so much more than food, when we enjoy a meal all of our senses are engaged, and we are such very visual and tactile animals. If I go and eat a delicious meal off of a chunky, chipped plate that looks like it should belong in a run-down diner, I still enjoy the food but it draws away form the overall experience. Our work allows one to create and define a unique context for their food. We like to think about every aspect of our work, be it visual, tactile, even the sound something makes (different clay rings differently when you tap it). It all plays a role.
What emotions or thoughts do you hope to evoke from people who dine with your products?
I think we really just want to evoke a sense of wonder and appreciation for detail. We both love tiny moments and seeing the hand of a craftsman in something. If we can bring people out of a routine and get them to think about where things come from and how they are made, I think we did something special.
You recently had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to invest in equipment that would help you increase output. What was that experience like? What lessons did you draw from it?
The Kickstarter was a great success and a lot of work. We are vastly grateful to see how many people cameo out to support us and to support the ideal we represent of thoughtful, local design and craft. The experience was overall very positive and at times overwhelming. To be honest it is still ongoing as we move into the fulfillment process of getting everyone the gifts that they pledged money for. We want to make sure that the people who receive work from us are getting something really special that they will cherish as much as we cherish their support.
I think one good lesson we learned is just the power of partnership, we had a lot of friends and supporters who really helped us get the word out. It wouldn’t have happened without these strong relationships.
When can we expect to see your products available to the public? And where, if at all, on the West Coast?
Currently select wares can be purchased online at The-Commons and by special order through contacting us via email. We have had some interest from restaurants and shops on the West Coast, but we are being pretty selective at this point. We really like to have close relationships with our vendors and fostering such relationships across a continent can be difficult (though not impossible!). We also are planning to have a wider variety of wares available through our own website by early autumn this year, in time for the holidays.
What are 3 adjectives you’d each use to describe yourselves?
Adventurous || Ambitious || Playful
Have you got any words of wisdom for anyone thinking of starting a new business, or changing careers?
Be intentional, take it slow, never burn a bridge and always remember those who helped you coming up.
Thanks, Nate, for sharing a bit about Felt + Fat with us! I hope to see you in person sometime soon!
Feature image taken by John Carlano.