A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Great Expectations.” Subscribe today
Just before noon on an ordinary Tuesday, a few hundred coffee mugs sit on a steel rack in East Fork’s Asheville, North Carolina, factory-studio. The mugs were made the week prior, are priced at $36 each and in a few minutes’ time will be entirely sold out.
Alex Matisse takes a call while standing on the delivery ramp at the back of the facility, AirPods jutting from his ears. Facing the flurry of activity inside, his back to the Blue Ridge Mountains, he moseys up and down the ramp, negotiating the purchase of new machinery from China to replace the early twentieth-century equipment he bought less than a year ago. He’s trying, and utterly failing, to keep pace with the internet’s desire for his coffee mugs, which haven’t been available for more than a few hours per week in more than a year. Today, at least, it doesn’t seem to bother him.
Matisse slips out of the July sun and through a glass door leading to the front office, an open, high-ceilinged space with a dozen desks and reproduction Eames office chairs tucked in on the right; a leather couch and chair in the center; and a 30-foot wooden table against the back wall. Imagine the ideal office of a direct-to-consumer brand advertising on Instagram and you more or less have it.
“Pretty much what you expect, right?” Matisse says with a laugh.
“Follow me,” he says, pushing through a beige door to his left and revealing, with a sudden blast of mechanical noise, a two-story-high, 10,000-square-foot room filled with goggle-clad Ashevillains, clay-crusted machinery and unfinished earthenware.
From her office in the front of the building, Connie Matisse, Alex’s wife and the company’s chief creative officer, watches the organized chaos unfold.
“The entire production floor is like a choreographed ballet,” she says.
Matisse’s habit of selling out of everything almost immediately does not stem from some sort of limited-edition, drop-based product-release business model. He just can’t make as many as East Fork’s voracious fans demand — at least not yet. He would very much like to. But, as he’s said in the past, East Fork is not the Warby Parker of pottery, nor does he want it to be. Because unlike the companies it’s often grouped with — Everlane, Casper, Away and Warby Parker among them — East Fork actually makes the stuff it sells. And if Matisse has it his way, that will never change.
Alex, Connie and company CFO John Vigeland admit that labeling East Fork as akin to those flashy, crisply designed brands is an easy leap to make. Connie drew inspiration from those very brands for the company’s marketing, and its website features similarly gorgeous photography and whimsical self-awareness. The white-hot ceramics manufacturer has a keen eye for the Instagrammable, and its email subject lines are always clever.
After three straight years of tripling sales, the company’s growth also mirrors the prototypical modern internet success story. “Ceramics have these peaks and valleys every fifteen years or so,” Matisse says. Vigeland and the Matisses simply caught the most recent spike at the right stage. But it wasn’t without a whole lot of hard work beforehand.
In the late Aughts, Matisse dropped out of college to pursue apprenticeships in hand-thrown, salt-fired stoneware. He settled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and built his own kiln, making limited quantities of decorative ceramics and selling them to a small but “ravenous” (Matisse’s word) group of collectors. He met Connie in 2009 at a farmer’s market where she was selling cheese, and the two then ran the enterprise together until they invited John, a fellow potter, over for a weekend of drinking wine, when the foundations of what later became East Fork were first laid.
For Matisse, it was a change. The life of a potter is a lonely one, he says, punctuated by small bursts of social activity. And while those days were filled with artistic seclusion, he never considered himself part of the “art world.” Even now, whenever conversations dip into artistic abstraction, Matisse instinctively returns to pottery’s egalitarian purpose.
“It’s functional, humble, and people from all walks of life can appreciate and use it,” he says. “Making functional objects, instead of something to be observed.
“I love being part of something that extends beyond the individual. I wasn’t in [the art world], I wasn’t being asked to do something avant-garde or new,” he says. “There is also a very high likelihood that I would not be a very good artist, and I would make silly, bad crap. Which doesn’t sound very fun.”
If Matisse sounds wary of calling himself an artist, there’s good reason.
“There is a high bar [for art] in the family,” Matisse says, “and I wouldn’t want to come in under it,” he says.
Alex Matisse grew up in Groton, Massachusetts, in a household drenched in art. His mother was into textiles and castings; his father, a self-described artist-inventor. His sister is a painter and his brother is a photographer. His grandfather, Pierre, imported and displayed Miró, Dubuffet, Le Corbusier, Chagall, Calder, Giacometti and other iconic 20th century European artists’ work in his New York gallery. Alex is also the step-grandson of readymade art pioneer Marcel Duchamp.
And then there’s his great-grandfather, Henri Matisse — you might have heard of him — whose paradigm-shifting use of color created an artistic legacy to rival that of Picasso. Alex jokes he took to pottery because “no one else in the family had pursued it yet.”
But Alex, for his part, was always a potter; he claims he was throwing “fairly seriously” by the seventh grade. His childhood home, a forlorn Baptist church that his parents rejuvenated, acted as the family studio.
East Fork formally launched in 2013. Alex, John, or one of a handful of apprentices throw each piece by hand using clay sourced from the surrounding region. The original collection was created using a single wood-fired kiln, with house-made glazes and colors. Starting around two years ago, its masterfully drawn brand and distinctive, brown-flecked pottery started to find real traction as the company began developing a modest following. In 2017, they made 2,269 mugs on a potter’s wheel, each and every handle hand-pulled. The small company added some apprentices in 2018 and pushed that number up to 3,078 — still well below demand. Early adopters took photos of their prize and dubbed it #TheMug.
In an effort to keep pace, Matisse halted production to hunt down the vestiges of America’s long-gone ceramics-manufacturing industry: presses, pugmills, kilns and jiggers from the early 1900s. They tried different forming techniques — slip casting, jiggering, RAM pressing — only to face delays; a process expected to take less than three months took nearly a year. They hired non-potter locals, trained them and re-released the Mug as a partially handmade product with a lower price. It sold out again.
By February 2019, the coffee mug had a wait list just shy of 3,000 people, East Fork had a new factory with dozens of new employees, and Matisse & Co. were the owners of the largest collection of early 1900s pottery-making equipment in America. In April, a day before the Mug was re-released yet again (this time made using more machines), Food Network published a 381-word article titled “The Internet’s Favorite Mug is Finally Back In Stock Tomorrow.” The Mug sold out again. Then The New York Times featured it in print. Television networks called about including it in Mother’s Day coverage. Emails begging for more mugs stacked up.
“We’d done a very good job marketing the Mug,” Connie says, “and maybe turned up the gas on the marketing of it long before our production team was able to keep up with existing demand. But once that fly wheel starts spinning, it’s really hard to slow it down.”
A couple weeks into April, with the sword of viral fame hanging over him, Alex wrote a blog post. In the piece, titled “Big Feelings from the CEO,” he publically answered the question of why, in his words, they couldn’t “just fucking make more of them?!”
“We have not chosen the easiest route. We are not the Warby Parker of pottery — as much as journalists like to lean on that line. We can’t flip a switch and make more overnight. All we can do is show up every day and try to make more than we did the day before,” he wrote.
Today, The Mug starts as an iron-rich clay mixture sourced from Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. It’s loaded into a pugmill that creates a homogenous, well-mixed tube of milk-chocolate-colored clay. The clay is cut into long pieces using a wire cutter, then placed in a mold, pressed, and left to dry for a day. To create the handle, RAM presses slam 30 to 130 tons of pressure on a plaster mold filled with clay; it’s faster than making each handle free-form, though the stamp creates seams on the handle that require hand cleaning before a clay-water mixture called “slip” is used to glue it to the Mug by hand. It dries for another day before its first firing, after which it’s glazed, dipped in wax and left to dry again. This is followed by another firing, quality control, sanding and touch-ups. Then, finally, it’s ready for sale.
“Keeping up with demand would be a twenty-four-seven job. We’re trying to do it during regular working hours,” Matisse says. “It can be fast paced.”
Yet Matisse moves around the factory slowly. He takes time to talk shop with the potters tasked with melding handle to mug that day; while he hasn’t thrown anything himself for more than a year, he still goes digging through the tool bin at the station for his preferred brush. He seems more friend than boss. (Matisse comes by that geniality honestly: our two conversations, in Asheville and New York, were both interrupted multiple times by former employees gleefully flagging him down.)
“Our company serves our employees and community as much as our customers,” Connie said in a February 2019 interview with Architectural Digest. When preparing the space for their current production site, for example, East Fork brass carved a commercial-grade kitchen between the office and factory space. Staff lunches are shared twice a week at a community table in the front room.
Alex admits his views on employment may sound näive, but it’s something he has to think about.
“Ceramics are inherently labor-intensive. Even when we scale to a point of bringing in more automated lines of production, it will still be very much a team sport to get the pottery across the finish line,” he says.
“The challenge is how we continue to ensure that this is a great place to come into work every day — whether you’re in the shipping department, cleaning the bathrooms or a VP. One of my own metrics of success is how happy and satisfied our whole team is with the work that they are [each] doing as an individual.”
East Fork today churns out about 450 mugs a week — roughly six times the volume of years past. With the help of new machinery, they hope to get that number to 600 by year’s end. Inventory is replenished online each Tuesday at noon, but the Mug hasn’t remained in stock for more than a few hours in over a year.
Learning to feed such insatiable demand is starting to pay off. This year, for the first time, East Fork should break even financially. The company expects to become profitable in 2020. And while Matisse is pleased with the progress, it’s not progress for progress’s sake that matters most to him. While he’s taken calls from venture capital firms with track records for pushing brands to enormous valuations, Matisse sees VC money as a poison pill — a Faustian bargain that would demand they meet impossible-to-reach sales figures. He’s turned it all down.
“I think of success as making a significant impact on the community we’re in,” Matisse says. “Growth isn’t just something you aim for just to grow. You grow toward more and better things—more employment opportunities, more meaningful work, more stability.
”Success,” he says, “is being here in twenty-five years.”