5 August 2019 Courier Aug/Sept 2019

Disruption – one mug at a time

How North Carolina-based company East Fork borrows tricks from direct-to-consumer startups to bring its traditional pottery to a mass audience.

What makes a ‘good’ pot? Should it be durable or delicate? Ornately patterned or simply glazed? Does it need to be sustainable? These sound like questions that might concern a small, independent potter – the sort of person who might dream of one day turning their small business into a vast, global manufacturer of tableware – and it was.

In 1759, Josiah Wedgwood, the ‘father of English potters’, opened his eponymous ceramics factory in Burslem, Staffordshire, England. He chose the northwest of the country because of its abundant clay deposits and access to a sprawling canal network. Seven small connected towns quickly grew into a global epicentre for ceramics and became known as The Potteries. During its heyday in the 19th century, The Potteries were the home to more than 2,000 kilns firing millions of products each year.

But arguably his greatest contribution came on the factory floor, where he took throwing ceramics off the ancient spinning wheel and moved it onto the manufacturing lines of the Industrial Revolution. Wedgwood’s tableware started the plate buying masses on a journey towards standardised mass production and ever greater affordability.

Today the global ceramics industry is estimated to be worth over $287bn. The epicentres are now located in China but also in places like Portugal, where the government has invested heavily in the industry. Most consumer ceramics are mass manufactured and then sold on to retailers like Ikea, who brand them as their own. And the master craftsman’s ability to shape and mould the industry through their unique relationship with the objects they make started to die out.

But in rural North Carolina, three young ceramists are finding a new way to bring back some soul into the world of pottery, and at scale. Alex Matisse and John Vigeland both studied as pottery apprentices, learning how to throw a range of ceramics from master craftspeople. After their apprenticeships were over they decided they wanted to work together and set up shop in the small hamlet of East Fork, estimated population: less than 1,600. Together with Connie, Alex’s partner, the trio worked in harmony throwing simple everyday objects for the community. Their direct-to-consumer pottery studio, East Fork, was named after the place and local tradition that inspired their pottery.

In pockets of this quintessentially rural American state, the potter’s wheels never stopped turning. As the North Carolina Pottery Centre proudly declares: ‘If North America has a “pottery state” it must be North Carolina.’ For this community, still tied to the process of making pottery by hand, the search for a ‘good pot’ became a case-by-case quandary.

Alex explains: ‘Because we have this background as potters we’ve been really allowed to explore how we think about details, like the curve or the internal volume of a shape. Our designs don’t originate on a computer screen, they start in a serious practise at the potter’s wheel. We started with an open, exploring and earnest love of the actual craft. And we’ve continued in that vein ever since, in the belief that quality is enough to attract an audience.’

It is a philosophy that appears to have served them well. East Fork has come a long way since 2015. As Connie explains: ‘People still think of us a workshop with a few wheels in a barn in Maddison County. That’s what we were, but we’ve grown a lot since.’

As Vigeland says, ‘Currently we’re making 10,000 units a month, which when Alex set up shop back in 2009, was more like 1,000 a year.’ A good example of the scale they have reached using their direct-to-consumer business model can be seen in the sales of their best-selling $36 coffee mugs. In April, East Fork told their customers that they’d be selling 1,704 limited edition mugs in their physical retail store in Asheville. A queue formed and by 4pm they’d sold out. But more importantly, traffic on their online store spiked by 500%.

Alex, who takes on the role of the traditional CEO but also oversees these complex production demands, notes that John, the CFO, ‘likes to joke that we’ve compressed the Industrial Revolution into five years’. In October East Fork moved away from its first home and into a new industrial factory in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

There are still mountain views out of most windows but, as Alex says, ‘Some pretty drastic changes have coincided with the geographical move. Out there we were 10-12 people and now it’s up to 53.’

East Fork claims that by 2020 the new factory will allow them to increase their production capacity by 800%. In the next two years as a whole, the firm plans to grow its revenue by 300% in the same period. This rapid growth isn’t just a consequence of having more space, but rather a result of their investment in the manufacturing process. Just as John jokes, East Fork really have been experimenting with industrial processes. Despite raising $2.6m in funding from angel investors, East Fork couldn’t afford to buy its way into
mass manufacturing.

‘We aren’t automated, everything you see involves people and laborious processes,’ he says. ‘Out of necessity as much as anything else we are using refurbished industrial machines that were decommissioned back in the 1950s. That’s what makes a lot of what we are doing so fun. We’re not going to go out and buy a massive brand-new production line from Germany.’

Their use of reclaimed machinery and a labour-intensive human production
line may, to some, look like nostalgia for a by-gone age of Western manufacturing. But what East Fork actually doing is attempting to blend the advances in repeatability and manufacturing process with the age-old potter’s concern about how to make a ‘good pot’. They are deliberately stripping back the process, bringing their rural, hands-on approach up to scale.

‘I was thrown into a bit of tizzy the other week,’ says Alex. ‘A large consumer VC company company called us. It sparked a lot of conversations between us about what that type of growth would do for us – and to us.’

He continues, ‘That’s just not the way that we are going to grow; taking that kind of money. When I see coupon codes arriving in the mail from what were once digitally native brands, I feel like they’ve lost something with the scale – that they’ve become ubiquitous somehow.’

Connie adds: ‘We think East Fork is a really special thing and a lot of that is because we started so small, working with our hands and no money. If we can continue to grow we want to preserve that feeling about our company.’

What makes them special is, of course, their pottery. The hand-thrown feel and rural simplicity make their collection attractive while maintaining an unfussy usability. Even the firing processes are raw and focused on getting a better product. As Alex explains, “We re in reduction which is something that only potters do. Big companies don’t. But it gives you a real quality to the ceramics that I think is inimitable. Big tableware manufacturers like Steelite in Stoke-on-Trent, England, try, and they’d tell you that their Artisan’s line is similar – but if you care about quality I think you can tell it’s not done by the same original process.’

The trio have so far done a fine job of protecting the original ambitions of their pottery by ensuring that it is made in an authentic way. It is something that most ceramics companies are forced to abandon in their ambitions to scale.

Of course, it isn’t just the product that East Fork risked jeopardising with its rapid growth model. Some of their earliest employees struggled with the company’s move from its ancestral home into a new factory. ‘We had to grow,’ explains Connie. ‘We’d been doing this “thing” for a long time with a team of young people. Some of the people who have been here for a long time have strong feelings about the way we are growing and we want to be able to make executive decisions, but at the same time we have to keep that community.’

There are simple but effective ways in which East Fork try to stay true to their roots, like taking the entire workforce to local ball games or the bi-weekly meal that the founders help to cook for their entire staff. ‘We even rented pontoon boats a few years for a big party but now there are too many people and everyone gets drunk so it’s too dangerous to do,’ says Alex. ‘But we want to keep it a friendly environment. As a result, half of the staff would get East Fork tattooed on their forehead if you asked them to.’

Recently, the East Fork trio have been questioning exactly how to maintain this authenticity while growing as a company. These conversations have led them and their team into a curious place, not in the design studio, but rather in the quality control department (a new thing for the company as a whole). ‘It’s very timely for us,’ explains Connie. ‘We have been talking a lot about how we want to define quality control. It is so tough because we need to inject the feeling-tone that a master potter feels when they find that one “good pot” in a batch of thousands. It’s tough.

To use a machine that can mass-produce millions of plates in the same way isn’t enough – it isn’t authentic to our experience as part of a much bigger tradition of pottery.’

One example of the way East Fork has avoided the temptation to grow at the expense of authenticity came years ago when Alex, who is the great-grandson of the modernist artist Henri Matisse, was told by some customers that he should consider stamping his family name on the bottom of their ceramics. ‘It just didn’t feel right. It isn’t just about me, it is the three of us and it was right from the beginning when we were still in a barn in East Fork,’ Alex says. ‘Having three founders is fantastic. I feel like there is usually a founder or co-founders. But I couldn’t see us doing it without any other one of us.’

In his 2017 book, Craeft: How Traditional Crafts are About More Than Just Making, Alexander Langlands explains how for some, craft means skill, while for others it’s about the practice of making. If the ancient potter at the spinning wheel is the former of these, and Wedgwood is the latter, then East Fork wants to be squarely in the middle; at their current fork in the road, on their journey to make more than just one ‘good pot’.