A Studio Visit With Felt+Fat

Wed Feb 22, 2017

We've been longtime fans of the ceramics made by Felt+Fat in Philadelphia, which have evolved over the years from made-to-order one-offs developed for high-end restaurants into an accessible line of playful, colorful dishware we love entertaining with at home. When we realized the duo's Sectional Trays would be perfect not just for serving party snacks, but for rolling and sharing smokes and organizing our gear, we knew we had to offer them on Tetra — they've just launched in our shop for $48 each, and to mark the occasion, we asked co-founders Nate Mell and Wynn Bauer to tell us a little bit more about their creations (and their personal smoking rituals).

What are both of your creative backgrounds?

Nate: As Wynn tells it, he's always been working with his hands, attacking ceramics and building forms from an early age. After high school he went to RISD for architecture but quickly found himself being pulled to ceramics as his need to be more hands-on quickly became apparent. Following his studies, he went on to work at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia where he pursued his personal work and took on odd jobs as a sort of freelance ceramicist — clay for pay I guess?

For myself, I've similarly always felt a pull towards art / design. While Wynn was at RISD, I was studying glass at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. My choice of glass as a major was somewhat arbitrary, as my real passion was material exploration and mold making — glass just happened to be my material of choice at the time. The impetus to start Felt+Fat came after school while I was also at the Clay Studio but paying rent serving tables at a restaurant. The chef I was under at the time asked if I wanted to design and produce some tableware for his new restaurant. I took on the job, asked Wynn if he wanted to be a part of it, and the studio was birthed from there!
  What were you setting out to do with Felt+Fat once you launched it?
Nate: Felt+Fat started as a custom ceramic design studio working mostly with chefs to produce high-end tableware for restaurants, but our collective dream has always been to produce designs beyond the dining room and to sell through our own shop and through other great spots (like Tetra). Aesthetically, we like to keep it minimal. Wynn spent a lot of time in Asia as a kid so he has an affinity for Japanese design, which I share along with a leaning toward Scandinavian and modernist feels.

One of the things that's important to us is focus on material specificity and exploration. That's why we make all of our own clay and glazes as opposed to just purchasing commercial product for use. We want to really intimately know the product and we believe the best design is informed by materials and process. The name Felt+Fat itself is a reference to the work of Joseph Beuys, whose work imbued said materials with an almost sacred quality through repetition, context and personal mythos.
How did you end up starting the studio in Philly in particular?
Nate: Wynn and I are both from the Philadelphia area and have been living in the city for a combined total of about 16 years. Philly, to me, was always this really gritty town with a lot of creativity. I've been coming into the city for work since I was in high school in the early 2000s. The problem was always that anyone who really wanted to make it or was doing something interesting usually moved to New York or LA or something. We're at this unique moment where the creative brain-drain of Philly has started to reverse itself, and now people are actually moving here to do something cool. This place has an amazing history — it's a working class city with these great bones of industry just waiting for revitalization. It's an exciting time to be here; we love tying ourselves to this time and place.

Can you tell us about some of your more recent inspirations?
Nate: I just went on a trip through Texas to meet up with some chefs we work with down there. I ended my trip by driving out to Marfa to see work at the Chinati foundation and to soak up some weird West Texas vibes. Seeing all that great work from Donald Judd, etc, was incredible, and I also very randomly ran into Brooklyn friends Adam & Terry from Chiaozza, which was fun.

There's this new art-book shop in Philly called Ulises which has also been really inspiring. They opened their doors late last year and are just this great, young and nimble art space that I think is really fresh for the city.

Rikumo (pictured above) is another space we love. It's this Japanese design store based in Philly that is just perfect on so many levels. They've recently started collaborating with select non-Japanese artists for the shop, and we were fortunate this last year to do one with them that turned out great.

Because we do so much with restaurants, we get to eat amazing food — last year we had some incredible meals but one of the standouts was this spot in Austin called Emmer&Rye. The chef there, Kevin Fink, is this inspiring guy who's chosen to work in this crazy, meticulous manner, so his restaurant mills all their own grains and is ultra-seasonal and local to the point where their ingredients can change drastically from week to week. Because nothing is static, they have to respond to what the ingredients are doing and somehow still make a great product. That spoke directly to our own ethos for making.

Little moments of interesting texture, form, and material can also be a big inspiration for us. Just the other day we were touring this defunct lighting factory in our neighborhood and Wynn found these strange wooden scraps in a heap, we think they were maybe scraps of some ancient decorative molding. He grabbed a handful and took them back to our studio so we could take some molds from their shape. Another time I was in Iceland on this massive, desolate beach covered in chunks of ice and black sand, and I scooped up a ziplock full of the sand — after some experiments we were able to produce some beautiful iridescent speckles from that stuff.

What are your smoking rituals?

Nate: I'm an occasional smoker, and I often smoke with my dad, so I have this really nice, warm bonding feeling associated with it. With him it's on the back porch or on a long drive. He has a little pouch with his pipe and a little baggie in it. He'll pack it, smoke, and pass it back to me. I used to feel like I had to go hit for hit with him because he's older and I'm supposed to be young and hip, but I've since learned to pace myself.

Wynn: Smoking has always fascinated me. Even during childhood I thought there was something magical or ceremonial about it. I learned at an early age I was a pyro, building fires for my family and then secretly smoking herbs from the spice drawer. Later in life I used to hike into the woods, find a special spot, and smoke cigars. Then once in college I started rolling special cigarettes with dried florals mixed in, and brought friends along to smoke by rivers and abandoned buildings in Providence, Rhode Island. They were times for bonding and expanding our minds.

Click here to purchase the Felt+Fat Sectional Tray ($48). Studio photos by Dominic Episcopo.