Courier- One Mug at a Time

Oct 18, 2019 • Lindsey Zinno

"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’."
Disruption – one mug at a time. Article by Courier. 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.

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