Ceramics Monthly: When and why did you and Wynn Bauer form Felt+Fat studio and decided to start working with restaurants?
Nathaniel Mell: Our work with restaurants, and even the start of the business itself, was because of our connection to Chef Eli Kulp. After graduating from the Tyler school of art studying glass, I had taken a job as a server under Chef Kulp at High Street on Market while concurrently participating in the work exchange program at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When Kulp was in the early stages of developing High Street on Market, he decided he wanted some custom-made plates and was having trouble finding something that fit his needs. He knew that I worked at The Clay Studio and asked if I would be willing to design some work for the project. I accepted the offer, and reached out to Wynn Bauer, who studied ceramics and architecture at Rhode Island School of Design, to help me with the project. Three years later, here we are with our studio, Felt+Fat.
CM: How do you approach restaurants and chefs?
NM: Nearly all of our customers still come to us through word of mouth and social media. The restaurant world is really tight; if you’ve worked in one good restaurant in a city, it’s likely you are one degree of separation at most from the staff at every other good restaurant nearby. Fortunately, we’ve been able to work with a lot of really great younger chefs who are gaining a lot of attention. Social media has helped a great deal because it allows artists and chefs to network much further a field than they used to. It’s a great time to be an artist in that sense, our ability to promote our work the way we do would have been impossible even 10 years ago.
CM: How does the collaboration with chefs work?
NM: Collaborations can be as simple as taking one of our designs with an existing color and then making one special tweak, like a mark or distortion, or as elaborate as creating a design entirely from the ground up. It differs quite a bit from one project to the next but I think all chefs have that ultimate balance of beauty and practicality in mind. They want something unique and beautiful, but they also need to account for the fact that each dish will be handled by potentially dozens of different hands each night, from kitchen staff, to the server, to the customer, to the busser, to the dishwasher, and so on. They always ask about durability and luckily, we’ve been able to develop a strong product for them.
CM: Has working with chefs led to new designs or insights?
NM: As artists/designers/crafts people, we have an idea of what a successful piece of work looks and feels like, although we have a lot of experiments that end up on the seconds pile for one reason or another. What’s always surprising is how often chefs hone in on those pieces we had given up on. They find beauty in the imperfection of a chance warping, or a glaze crawl, etc. So, that’s one interesting aspect. The other thing that’s always inspiring is seeing our work taken out of the studio context and put in the restaurant. It always looks and feels re-contextualized as part of a larger whole. It’s very satisfying.
CM: What practical considerations do you take into account when designing and making work for restaurant use?
NM: Durability is huge. All of our designs get tested at the studio, but without a bunch of fancy equipment there’s only so much you can do.
Most of our in studio testing is fairly rudimentary. Of course we never use any ingredients with toxic metals, etc., to avoid any problems there. To measure the amount of water absorption, we will soak finished items overnight and weigh them before and after on a digital gram scale. To test for thermal shock resistance, we’ll microwave a plate for five minutes then immediately dunk it in ice water and repeat.
What generally happens with a new design/finish is that we roll it out in a small way with a restaurant and chef that we trust. We’ll make a dozen of something and just give them away to someone we know will use and abuse them. We actually ask the chef to be really hard on them. Recently we did this with our friend chef John Patterson, who took over at Fork for Kulp. We gave Patterson a dozen plates in this new finish that we wanted to test out. He ended up using one for a photo shoot and placed a glowing hot piece of wood on a plate. At one point, he said it must have been 600–700°F, but it held up. We really rely on restaurants to be a testing ground for our work. If the wares can’t hold up in a commercial dishwasher and stand the abuse of a busy restaurant, I don’t want to sell it to someone for their home use.
Everything we have now has proven to be really tough. I check in with all our restaurants and have gotten great feedback across the board. If something goes wrong, we fix the design.
CM: How does ordering and breakage replacement work?
NM: Every restaurant works differently depending on budget, etc. Some places will purchase as much as they might need on a daily basis plus another 20% for anticipated breakage. Some will get the bare minimum they need to get by and make a reorder as soon as two break. We know what all of our restaurants keep in stock and we know how to make it again—even if its a discontinued item we’ll do our best to make it happen. Our restaurants are very important to us and part of our appeal to them is consistency, that when they call us up in two years and ask for 50 more of that same plate we made, we will be able to make it again.
CM: What have you learned over the years about making work for use in restaurant settings?
NM: Don’t give them too many options, or decisions will never get made. When we first started we would give restaurants carte blanche; saying we’ll design anything in any color! What ended up happening was either they’d ask the world and not want to pay for prototyping, or they would get overwhelmed with possibilities and nothing ever happened.
These days we have much tighter parameters. We present the chefs with a list of all our stock designs, all our stock glaze colors and finishes and clay colors, then let them work with that to start. If a chef wants to get really into the design and the nitty gritty details, we will work with them on it, but most, unfortunately, don’t have the time.
I think for tableware design, the biggest questions usually revolve around what type of dining it is (shared courses, tapas, large personal items, etc.), and then what does the chef want to cook and what is the overall aesthetic of the restaurant? A great chef is overall a great coordinator of people and ideas. We are happy to be available as a really great tool in their tool belt.
We often have chefs who look at a design that we have on hand and say “I don’t have any dishes right now that would work on this piece, but I really love it and will just have to make something that works with it.” So, the food definitely gets influenced by the plates at times. We also think about the food and plating with chefs. We’ve learned a lot about what chefs like and don’t like with certain plates. I think the biggest one is control with their sauces, so if a plate has a low point or bows out or in or something like that it can really impact what their plating looks like. We try to think about that quite a bit.
CM: Do restaurant patrons contact you after experiencing a meal that uses your tableware?
NM: That happens pretty frequently. If we have one great plate in one busy restaurant, it might get seen by 100–300 customers a night. If only 1% of all those customers take note of the plate, that’s a few people every night! Currently we are in about 40 restaurants around the country, so it just grows exponentially.
CM: How do you make your tableware pieces?
NM: We slip cast everything. We make our pieces from our own porcelain recipe, and we make all of our glazes from stock recipes we’ve developed and tweaked. We prototype all of our designs from thrown and handbuilt pieces and make all of our plaster molds. It’s a very involved process at every step.
One unique part of our process is that we play with foraged materials. These will be used in short-run items; it’s not something we can usually do for large projects or make consistently available. For instance, a year and a half ago I went to Iceland for a couple weeks. While there, I found this great black volcanic sand on a beach. It turned out to make this beautiful iridescent speckle when used in conjunction with one of our glazes. We ended up using it to make a small run of bowls for a restaurant in Manhattan called The Musket Room; that was a lot of fun.
Sidebar: Felt + Fat by Chef Eli Kulp
Ceramics Monthly: What do you look for in dinnerware for the High Street Hospitality Group’s restaurants (Fork, High Street on Market, a.kitchen + a.bar, and High Street on Hudson)?
Eli Kulp: We like to work with individuals and businesses that share a like-minded vision. We are not a flashy restaurant group and we pride ourselves on our hospitality and authenticity in everything that we do. We want to express this feeling of authenticity in every aspect of our business. This is why Felt+Fat is such a great partner to have. Mell and Bauer are two individuals we have seen grow from a simple idea into a real powerhouse in contemporary ceramics.
In the restaurant world, we need tableware that is both durable and aesthetically pleasing and Felt+Fat meets those criteria. We want to make sure that every diner has a unique experience in our restaurants and we couldn’t do this without partners like Felt+Fat.
CM: How does the plating of dishes affect the tableware designs you are looking for?
EK: This is what is so great about having a partnership like we do. We can actually go to them with an idea that will fit a specific dish we have in mind and they can design a plate that works for that specific item. This goes for size, shape, glaze, and finish of the item. I think they’ve developed a really solid portfolio of stock items. We are in the fortunate position of being a testing grounds for their early-concept tableware. This is great because it gives us a wide variety of shapes and sizes to work from and our collection has grown over the last few years. When we do a custom menu for our guests, it allows us to show them both a wonderful variety of food as well as ceramics.
All of our servers are informed about Felt+Fat and are very enthusiastic to pass on the information about the dinnerware. When guests hear that this is a company that is just a short distance away and that we have such a unique relationship with them, they become very excited about it and gives them one more reason for their experience to be a memorable one.
CM: How do you source the ware/ find artists to work with?
EK: All of our relationships with local artists as well as local producers grow very organically. There is such a great sense of community in Philadelphia that we are constantly meeting new and inspiring people.
We don’t necessarily set rigid time lines when working with the smaller producers. Typically it’s a back-and-forth conversation that eventually gets you to where you want to be. I think anytime you are building a relationship with a small producer, you have to understand their needs and limits in order for it to be fruitful.
When Felt+Fat first started, we were sure to give plenty of time for them to work out the plate ware because we new it would take a couple times before we got to where we wanted to be. Nothing was fast about the process, there were many trials and failures. But we understood they were developing their business right along with our new restaurant, High Street on Market. As we grew, they grew. That is why working with them has been so satisfying for us. I think they started to realize they had a potential business here when other chefs in the city would come in for a meal and then ask about where we got the plates from. One example of this is when Nick Elmi, from Laurel restaurant, came into High Street on Market and then a short time later started to use Felt+Fat’s plates as well. The whole thing grew very organically for them. It makes us very proud to see them become more successful and know that we were a part of that.
As a chef, I take great pride in focusing on lesser-known producers and artists and showcasing their products. Whether it’s a vegetable farmer, a cheese maker, a venison farmer, or a potter, it’s amazing to see the impact we can have on their success and livelihood. We don’t take that lightly. With our successes, grow their successes and it creates a very interesting circle of small businesses working together to survive.
CM: Do you instruct the staff to handle the handmade ware in specific ways?
EK: Yes, of course, and for many reasons. We want the staff to really understand that these are handcrafted objects made with care and passion. Part of the service staff’s training is to learn about Felt+Fat. Just as we train our kitchen to handle all products with great care and love because it comes from our friends and farmers, we teach them to have that same care when handling these plates. Obviously, these plates cost more than your average restaurant ware, so we also have to train everybody how to handle them, including our porter staff when they are washing and restocking them. For some of the larger and more delicate plates, we use a soft material made to line the bottoms of cupboards to go in between the plates, which protects them from breaking when they are stored.
CM: Has working with handmade dishes influenced the menu?
EK: Without sounding too cliché, we think of the plates as a beautiful frame around a work of art. We try to match up what we want the dish to express with the right tableware. So it’s more of a symbiotic relationship rather than one influence of the other. A codependency if you will.
the author Chef Eli Kulp is co owner and director, along with Ellen Yin, of High Street Hospitality Group, which includes the Philadelphia restaurants a.kitchen + a.bar, Fork, and High Street on Market, as well as the New York City’s High Street on Hudson. To learn more visit www.highsthospitality.com.
the author Nathaniel Mell and Wynn Bauer operate their collaborative design and manufacturing studio, Felt+Fat in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mell has a BFA in glass from Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Bauer studied architecture and ceramics at Rhode Island School of Design. To learn more, about their work, visit www.feltandfat.com.
Subscriber Extra Images and Archive Article
Click Here to read the archive article, In Service of Food by Ryan Fletcher. This was originally published in the Ceramics Monthly September 2011 issue.