Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
Alex Matisse, Connie Matisse, and John Vigeland on East Fork Pottery’s remarkable evolution—and the company’s recent relocation from Marshall to Asheville.
Alex Matisse was posed the question, “How do you take a traditional craft and adapt it into a modern, scalable model?” His answer? “By changing everything.”
Such is East Fork Pottery’s approach to most things these days. The manufacturer—co-owned by Alex, his wife Connie, and Alex’s longtime friend (and fellow artist), John Vigeland—has evolved so much since our last visit less than three years ago that, if it weren’t for that definitively Blue Ridge name, it would be nigh-on unrecognizable.
In January of 2016, Capital at Play profiled a four-person craft operation with a litany of romantic, pastoral trappings like dirt roads and forgotten barns and an archetypal pup—a passion project painstakingly handcrafted in the hills of Marshall, North Carolina. Founder Alex’s ambitions were humble (a forklift, perhaps a retail space in Asheville), and their production modest, some 7,500 pots that year.
Since then, they’ve changed, well, just about everything. A team of 40 now creates, markets, and ships the brand’s quintessentially minimalist dinnerware from a sprawling warehouse on the outskirts of Asheville’s Biltmore Village. Though East Fork’s craft remains rooted in centuries-old tradition, their production facilities and offices are a beacon of modernity: Ladies in culottes and berets carry boxes of clinking pottery to-and-fro through airy white hallways; bespectacled millennials in Canadian tuxedos lean across desk dividers to point at their neighbor’s glowing Mac screens; and everyone—some lipsticked, others clay-spattered—gathers along the length of a 30-foot dining table for lunch, prepared by a rotating cadre of employees from different departments in the on-site commercial kitchen.
Here, in a setting seemingly more befitting of a New York City high-rise than an Appalachian factory, East Fork continues its trajectory of compounded growth. In 2018, they created approximately 70,000 pieces of pottery; this year, they’ll make some 200,000. At 14,500-sq.-ft. in size, the new factory itself is far larger than their old facilities, but already too small for the thriving company: They have plans to move their inventory warehouse, shipping department, and clay making to an auxiliary location by the second quarter of 2019.
According to projections and predictions, this is only the beginning. Though they currently remain an LLC, East Fork will undertake B-Corp certification this year, and Alex anticipates production will reach 360,000 in 2020. As their production grows, so will everything else, including their ranks (they plan to increase to between 50 and 55 employees this year), their retail locations (at press time, they were stocking the shelves of their new Atlanta shop), and their aspirations.
Already, the company’s intentions are growing as quickly as their headquarters, as ambitious as they are numerous: Building a digitally native startup, adapting apprenticeship to a commercial model, and inspiring a generation of politically-active manufacturers; but most of all, crafting a legacy brand and the next great American dinnerware manufacturing company.
So many of we Appalachian transplants move to these mountains in search of idealized tranquility, fingers crossed that it will foster our artistic florescence, and that the trees and creeks and crimson rhododendrons will nurture creative inclinations squelched by urbanism and entrepreneurship. Which is why many of you readers are probably thumbing forward with dumbfounded bewilderment, spurred by the simple question, “Why?” Why trade the idyllic fancy of nearly every Ashevillian artist—an isolated, arcadian studio—for the ambitious, demanding venture the pottery manufacturer represents today?
Though endearingly whimsical, firing pots amongst the trees in Marshall was not without its limitations—in fact, it was largely defined by them. “I think that was one of my dissatisfactions with making pots at the end of a dirt road,” says Vigeland. “Even though that was a very charming life, and very pleasant in its own right, one thing that it didn’t really do was ask us to engage in the wider world.” He continues, his cadenced recollection of the former expression of East Fork peppered with adjectives like “cloistered” and “monastic” that sound romantic in theory, but in reality, contributed to the group’s growing sense of discontent. It was a simple life, and a beautiful one, but inherently finite and frustratingly set apart.
All of the company’s stakeholders, particularly Alex, experienced the subconscious, persistently gnawing nudge that East Fork could be something more. “We thought that we were doing something special from the beginning,” explains Alex. “And the thing that we thought was special was the making of the stuff and the dedication to the process.” As he speaks, he’s balancing daughter Lucia on his lap. She grasps a slice of apple in her sticky toddler fingers, plucked from the East Fork dish before her. “The times I was most excited [in Marshall] was when there was change and I was either exploring something new or working out a new idea, so I think it was just a matter of time. I wasn’t going to be happy doing that for the rest of my life,” he adds, of East Fork’s more agrarian beginnings. Not only was their original, hand-crafted model personally unfulfilling, it was also stifling their potential to contribute to and help evolve the art of pottery that they loved so deeply: “I think John and I both had this kind of notion of wanting to add to the tradition that we were from, and this [expansion] was our way of doing that.”
Call it fate or fortune, or maybe just diligence and tenacity, but as the Matisses and Vigeland felt increasingly stymied by their mom-and-pop approach to pottery, the market ripened to accommodate and augment their something more. They followed closely the innovative trajectory of digitally native startups—companies like Warby Parker and Casper—and began to consider how their own model could evolve similarly. They witnessed the transformation of Instagram from an impulsive app into a fastidious branding and marketing platform. They passed around article after article profiling the contemporary resurgence of ceramics in Brooklyn and New York City. And with the addition of the gas Blaauw kiln (which they’d recently installed when we profiled them in 2016), there came a subtle shift in the appearance of East Fork’s wares, defined by a line of chunky pottery, speckled by North Carolina clay’s iron, and finished with muted, matte glazes.
As East Fork’s aesthetic evolved, or rather devolved, into simpler forms, the potters noted a marked shift in their buyers. “Back when we made pots in the old way, our demographic was so niche: It was really only white men and women who had been collecting pottery their whole lives, ages 55 to 75. That was the only people we sold pottery to. That’s who any potter in this area sold pottery to,” Connie says, and her lips, painted a neon pink, part wide with an honest smile.
“When we started paring down the work and started making it simpler, we started noticing younger people in the Asheville area, younger couples in their thirties… starting to collect [East Fork pottery] over time. So, we knew that the more we simplified things and made them more contemporary, that we suddenly had access to this huge [group] of people that we hadn’t had access to before.”
In shifting their focus from the artistic to the everyday and by vesting their talent in functional mugs and bowls rather than fragile, oft-impractical curio, they realized they could broaden their audience to include not just collectors, but the everyman (and everywoman). Whereas most of their contemporaries’ design anomalous pots to appeal to a narrow audience of regional folk pottery enthusiasts, East Fork could instead design simple forms that appealed to almost everyone, essentially turning the traditional craft funnel on its head. They could make art accessible by adapting it to the everyday and offering it at a price point that didn’t make millennials balk, all while maintaining their dedication to craft.
Spurred by all these factors, the expansion of East Fork began in 2015.
Though certainly intentional, all three owners argue, separately and doggedly, that the decision to expand and the process of doing so was largely organic. “It’s not that we sat down five years ago and surveyed the landscape and decided that there was a market to exploit,” Vigeland explains, slowly and carefully articulating his syllables. “But, rather, Alex and I were very passionately in love with this traditional folk pottery and were really going down a hole on it and pursuing that for the sake of the thing, and then that got married to Connie’s external awareness and her love of the world.” He pauses. “But then, at the same time, it’s like we see the value in what we’re doing, and we do think it’s deserving of a wider audience.” They’ve expanded to reach that wider audience with equal parts break-neck, button-popping speed and methodical celerity.
Connie Matisse smiles and theatrically huffs at the mention of the word “startup,” bemoaning her husband’s frequent implementation of the word—but in truth, it’s not an inaccurate label for the company. Though in the late aughts we tended to associate the word with tech-y endeavors funded by venture capitalists and headed by quirky, contentious founders, a startup is, by its simplest definition, a company designed to scale quickly, which East Fork, particularly in recent years, is.
Connie’s rejection of the epithet hails from the many ways in which the company diverges from the prototypical path of most direct-to-consumer startups. The other guys don’t have to deal with quality control, for example, or navigate the relationships between production and sales and marketing. But Connie does admit that, in some advantageous ways, East Fork echoes its startup cohorts: “I think that the reason that Alex likes to include us in that [startup] conversation is that… we’ve learned a lot of really valuable lessons on what not to do by watching startups grow and tank.”
As any savvy startup entrepreneur knows, there are dozens of intricate, intertwined steps in an expansion, the first and arguably most decisive of which is a simple one: money, a topic which Capital at Play examined in great detail in the August 2018 issue (see “Creditworthiness, Collateral, and Capital”). It is in this aspect that the company’s divergence from most startups is epitomized, as East Fork’s capital, unlike the more popular ranks under the appellation, excludes venture capitalist funding. It’s a decision spurred both by practicality—as a craft manufacturer, they simply can’t escalate production at the rate demanded by venture capitalists—and stubborn independence—the desire to retain a voice and aesthetic all their own.
In order to achieve their intentions of rapid expansion, East Fork turned instead to angel investors, one from Asheville, the others from Charlotte, New York City, Toronto, and similarly bustling metropolises. “To grow at the speed that we wanted to grow at, we knew we needed to move relatively quickly, and to do that required a significant amount of capital,” explains Alex who, as CEO, has taken on the responsibilities of investor relations. Because their backers were already familiar with East Fork, their relationships (and trust) evolved naturally, garnering the company some significant funding: They raised $1.8M in equity, the first tranche in about eight months, the rest in an extension over the course of three months or so. Of course, the realities of business are about balance, and the company also took on an additional $700,000 in debt in order to pursue the expansion.
Despite his lack of formal business education, it’s clear that Alex has developed the acumen inherent to his position. “The question a founder must ask before they contemplate going after an equity investment is, ‘To what scale does their vision support [it?]’ Unless that scale will offer meaningful return on investment, most investors will shy away,” he says, when asked of advice he’d offer local other entrepreneurs embarking on a path of expansion. “One should also be able to show significant early traction, and then have a clear financial model of what the next three years will look like. It is expected that those models will change, but what an investor is looking for is to know that you are asking the right questions, that your horizon is large enough, and that you have a realistic sense of what it will take to get you where you need to go.” That’s exactly what Alex could offer his investors: At the current pace, East Fork’s revenue is projected to grow by 300 percent in the next two years.
As with all startups, once their capital was secured, the obstacles facing the expanding business didn’t dwindle, but multiplied. Perhaps most obvious was the matter of physical expansion. The Marshall property was wholly unsuited for their projected production, inaccessible by 18-wheeler and likely necessitating a long commute for anyone they were to bring on board. They moved operations piecemeal, first expanding to a small workshop behind Madison Natural Foods in Marshall, then to the basement of Del Vecchios Pizza (where grease from the traps dripped onto the floor), until, by the summer of 2017, the company and its swelling ranks were spread across some three locations. So, in 2017, they leased the 14,500-sq.-ft. factory, which formerly housed an Asheville plumbing supply manufacturer, they now call home. In the fall of 2018, they moved all operations (excepting their retail storefront—more on that in a moment) under one roof, officially assuming the descriptor of a “vertically integrated business.”
In their transition to their new factory, East Fork also resolved another looming hindrance to expansion: the addition of more machinery to accommodate swelling production demands. Though the mold for each design is still worked by hand and each glaze designed and mixed in-house by Connie and their glaze chemist, increasing production to a national level necessitated a departure from wholly hand-crafted wares—and more machinery. In 2016 clay was worked by two pug mills, and each pot was molded by hand on a wheel, then fired in the single Blaauw gas-burning kiln. Now, with 11,500 square feet devoted wholly to production, the number of machines in their arsenal has increased to include a second Blaauw, this one with twice the firing capacity (they expect to add a third by 2020), additional wheels and pug mills, dryers, and, to shape the pottery, Jigger Jolley machines that hearken back to the outset of the Industrial Revolution and new-fangled RAM presses—oh, and that forklift.
Like many digitally native startups, East Fork also shouldered the ostensibly antiquated retail model of a brick-and-mortar storefront as part of their expansion. “Our product, it really makes a difference if you see it and touch it,” Connie says. Their first of such ventures, a tidy, sunlit storefront on downtown Asheville’s Lexington Avenue, stands as testament to the profitability of such a model for East Fork. Connie notes that despite the somewhat antithetical product fit (tourists often traipse in on their hunt for Asheville branded merch), the shop does well and has become a “beloved store in town,” selling East Fork’s pottery as well as a curated selection of knick-knacks and baubles.
As this issue was about to go to print, East Fork was hurriedly stocking the shelves of their second store, this one in the more cosmopolitan city of Atlanta, the first of what could be several satellite locations. Though they plan to halt expansion in 2019, Alex and Connie both anticipate opening additional brick-and-mortar locations in 2020, perhaps in Brooklyn (where East Fork’s sales already exceed those of their home base of Asheville), or a Midwestern metropolis where millennials reign, like Minneapolis or Chicago.
As important as space and money and machinery and everything tangible are for East Fork’s expansion, it would all be for naught if not for the people behind the brand. Their team has more than doubled every year since our last profile, from four in 2016, to 19 in 2017, and then 40 in 2018, excluding the founders themselves. What was then a collective of artists (though Alex has always rebuffed that ascription) is now a well-rounded assemblage of crafters and computer geeks, a veritable spectrum of employees befitting the most start-up of startups. When the dinner—ahem, lunch bell rings, the in-house photographer rubs elbows with the mold maker, the accountant passes plates (East Fork’s, of course) to the forming lead, and the brand manager talks shop with the graphic designer.
With all those new employees, the founders have realized the importance of defining their missions and values. “All the things that were very much unspoken truths when it was just us working together, now those things need to be defined in a very clear way,” Alex points out. That’s why they’re bringing on a “Head of Culture” to help implement and shepherd that mission, and to “make sure the things we’re saying to the world are happening internally.”
The dilation of the team also naturally behooved a shift in the roles of the founders. Unlike most entrepreneurs, however, the leaders of East Fork don’t bemoan the relinquishing of their original roles, but genuinely revel in their new ones. Alex has taken on the title of CEO and a bevy of behind-the-scenes, big-picture responsibilities. “Alex can really be the unsung hero of this company, because no one at East Fork even knows what he does,” Connie laughs. Alex himself stumbles through his list of tasks, which include sourcing new machines, talent acquisition, and investor relations.
As CFO and COO, Vigeland’s duties are largely operational and numerical: financial planning, budgeting reports, forecasting—the “spreadsheet-y stuff,” as he describes it. “Trying to figure out how to organize this group to try to do the thing that we’re trying to do, without getting too bureaucratic, but also keeping everyone’s sanity and keeping us being efficient,” Vigeland describes his role, then raises his eyebrows behind club master frames and laughs as if to say, “Easy, right?”
And then there’s Chief Creative Officer Connie. Alex rattles off her responsibilities, largely everything customer-facing: designs, glaze colors, branding, marketing, social media. He pauses, then adds, “She’s like the secret sauce of East Fork.”
Her laundry list of roles and palpable passion for and commitment to the company make it all the more surprising that her role at East Fork is one Connie was initially hesitant to undertake. She’d envisioned a career in editorial, but eventually realized she could apply those aspirations instead to her then-boyfriend’s company. “It really was admitting to myself that East Fork was going to be better if I joined it, and I actually could do the thing I wanted to do if I did it through the platform of East Fork,” she offers, with unabashed self-awareness.
Once Connie bound herself wholeheartedly to the company, she in many ways became the company. Through astute branding and an authentic approach to social media and customer engagement, she’s cultivated a brand that, as predicted, appeals to an increasingly broad range of customers, nay, fans.
Her overhaul of the East Fork brand was, as mentioned, largely organic. “I didn’t ever come at it from a brand perspective,” she explains. “I came at it from a ‘girlfriend of this guy who had a pottery business’. So, it’s always been off the cuff, very honest, very direct,’” Connie is describing the voice and brand she’s developed over the past few years. “We have the added benefit of actually having a real story to tell—we don’t have to try to manufacture some fake brand-y story. So many of those startups follow the same exact formula of startup language: We need our narrative, we need radical transparency and authenticity, and they are just kind of plugging it in. But ours isn’t made up—it is there, and I just have to show it.” And so East Fork’s story, told in Connie’s voice, has become their brand.
Though largely fortuitous, the shift in East Fork’s messaging and branding, spurred by Connie, was also a calculated departure from what existed. “Our fonts and our newsletter and our voice was kind of in that ‘makers movement,’ craft-y, beard oil, beard comb sort of vibe,” Connie says of the original branding; one can almost trace her visceral shudder. “It was so not my personality whatsoever, so when I [decided], ‘Alright I’m gonna do this,’ it really did change pretty dramatically.”
Today, the marketing is less craft, more chic. In their photography, the products seem simultaneously sumptuous and prosaic: The Matisses’ daughter, Vita, slurps messily from a bowl in one image; in another, hands sensually crack open a pomegranate, seeds spilling across crimson-colored plates. Though the messaging is adapted to different platforms, it’s all in the spirit of effortless minimalism, often delivered with a wry wink and Connie’s now-signature candor. It’s a voice that thrives most heartily on Instagram, where Connie connects directly with a specific audience (most of them women ages 27 to 37 with children) in tones they recognize as their own: a little irreverent, sometimes outspoken, and always legit.
It’s also on Instagram that Connie successfully accomplishes the unthinkable in hosting political commentary that doesn’t descend into blind bickering or trolling. Unlike most businesses, which skirt political opinions for fear of ostracizing customers, Connie and East Fork uphold their values with equanimity. “We speak to a customer who is socially-minded and understands that where they spend their money affects something in a much more holistic way,” she proffers, when asked of her decision to speak politically and confidently. “I think there needs to be a wave of businesses coming out and realizing that all of this is connected, and you cannot be doing business in this country without being connected to politics.” In fact, Connie even notes that some customers have declared that East Fork was instrumental in shifting their own political stance.
Between traditional advertising, their newsletter, different social media platforms, and brand partnerships, Connie has created an East Fork biome that cultivates an ever-expanding and increasingly broad audience of customers. “What Connie and her team do so well is sort of creating an ecosystem that both drives the narrative and acquires the customers that we’re trying to acquire. And each part is kind of integral to that ecosystem,” Vigeland explains. It’s impossible to track the customer acquisition cost inherent to this ecosystem; though they can track that Instagram is the highest driver of traffic to the website, that further raises the question, “How did they find their Instagram?” Through an influencer partnership, or after eating off their wares at the Montford? Through their newsletter, or through that profile in Fast Company? “The fact is that we are selling a lot of pottery—our demand is greatly outpacing our production ability,” Connie laughs and shrugs, “so we’re doing something right!”
There’s often a paradoxical effect of change: a newfound appreciation for the preexisting entity.
“It almost feels like a developmental stage, like in adolescence where you get to a stage where you start getting invited to the fun parties, but then you realize that’s not actually who you are,” Vigeland says, of their growth, garnering a laugh and a nod from Alex. The founders tender the names of recent clients and collaborators—household names like Stumptown Coffee and Google—with surprisingly passive apathy, not because they’re not proud of their accomplishments, but because they’ve realized that the client who matters most is East Fork itself.
At East Fork, they’ve changed a lot, but not quite everything. The modern, minimalist forms that currently sell out lickety-split, for example, maintain elements of Alex’s earliest renditions, like the rims, which carry forth the same thick-thumbed edges as those fired in the wood kiln years ago. And the trust that Connie, Alex, and Vigeland have in each other—a hallmark of both their outset and their evolution—also remains unchanged.
Then there’s the tradition from which their modern art hails. East Fork retains its ties to that network with unrelenting, if revolutionary, dedication. Though they sold the old Marshall property, it’s still in the hands of a ceramic artist, and while the wood kiln was disassembled, it was done so by local potters who will in turn use those bricks in their own kilns. And while East Fork’s apprentices won’t spend their days kneading spinning clay as John and Alex did, and their “masters” before them, the founders remain dedicated to their roles as mentors. “I think I have internalized that [role],” says Vigeland, “and culturally, it feels like it’s on us now to create a space with East Fork where people can come, and it’s a safe place for people to grow and become.”
Despite its many changes, East Fork remains many things, chief of which is “creative.” Though they have to contend with frequent assumptions to the contrary, the evolution of their personal creativity within their business (rather than the abandonment or replacement of it) is one Vigeland and the Matisses defend unequivocally.
East Fork does not so much grapple with the implications of turning an art into an expansive business model as they do champion them.
“There isn’t necessarily a sense of loss over this creative outlet, but rather, to me, it feels like the object of our creative energies is this business that is growing and becoming more and more complex and more creatively demanding,” argues Vigeland, his lanky form backlit by the floor-to-ceiling windows behind him, which expose the conference room to East Fork’s office thoroughfare. As he speaks to the inherent creativity of their burgeoning business model, it’s exemplified by the employees who traipse by: Some carry clay mugs and plates, others cherubic babies, but all share the same air of artistry and contented smile.
Here, in the increasingly metropolic curves of Asheville’s mountains and on a foundation of tradition, East Fork isn’t just changing nearly everything—they’re delighting in the process of doing so.
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