Philadelphia-based Felt+Fat got their start crafting custom tableware for local chefs eager for high quality, durable ceramics with a distinct touch. They’ve since popped up in over 140 restaurants in five different countries, and expanded into the residential market. We applaud the move not just because their playful, heirloom-quality pieces are gorgeous, but because they’re designed to meet the standards of fast-paced restaurants—which means they’re sure to withstand the rigors of everyday use at home. We recently caught up with Felt+Fat’s Nate Mell to learn more about the origins of the company and what makes their wares so special.
Talk to us about your start and what made you decide to branch out and offer your products to a wider audience.
When Felt+Fat began, it was initially a one-off project in 2013 making plates for a local chef here in Philly. Back then we didn’t have a name, but we started taking photos of the process and putting them up on Instagram along with other art projects. As the project progressed, we discovered a real demand in the world of hospitality for bespoke tableware, so Felt+Fat was born with the vision to fulfill that need.
How have your ceramics evolved over time?
In 2014 we formally created the business and launched our Instagram. While we worked on more and more restaurant projects, we noticed that most of our online audience were not hospitality folks, but just normal people who loved ceramics and were interested in purchasing our wares themselves.
In 2015, we launched a Kickstarter, which was the first time we officially offered individuals the opportunity to purchase sets of tableware through donations. We managed to raise $25K and that was the launch of the direct consumer arm of Felt+Fat.
Color and pattern are huge components of your designs. What’s your process like?
Felt+Fat is all about experimentation. Over the years we’ve tested thousands of glazes for color and finish. The vast majority of these never get beyond our studio, but when chefs or shops come asking us for something, we usually either have some version of it already tested, or we can whip up a custom finish.
All of our current products came about that way, and last year we started letting people purchase wares that come from these experiments through our Glaze Lab project. It’s been a lot of fun to share that with people.
What’s unique about your glaze finishes?
We started everything with a satin glaze. To be honest, the first several iterations looked great, but were not so durable. It took us some time, but one of the things you discover when spending time with this medium is that good ceramics is about good chemistry. There are many kinds of matte or satin glazes, but many on the market are not “true” matte—they’re just under-fired glazes that perform poorly when it comes to durability.
Thankfully, we have partners in our business that are ceramic material scientists who help us make sure our chemistry is on point. All our wares survive commercial kitchens and industrial dishwashers daily, so surviving your at-home dishwasher and microwave is no sweat!
What goes into making the molds for your ceramics?
It depends on the mold! Currently, all of our pieces are made through either a slip-casting or pressing method, both of which involve molds. Creating a new mold begins with ideation: typically we go from drawings, to hand-built or wheel-thrown prototypes, and then we like to see the design fully glazed and fired before moving onto full production. Once we lock in a design, we will take it to a 3D model to really tighten up dimensions and curves. After the model is approved, we have a high-res print made and we mold off of that!
Plaster molds can take days or weeks to produce, depending on the complexity, but once the mold is finished we test it out. If we like the results, we will produce a master mold (usually out of urethane rubber), that way we can make multiple molds for increased production. It’s really a process with a lot of steps—making molds in-house is something we pride ourselves on as it is a highly technical process.
How has life in Philadelphia influenced you creatively?
We are from Philadelphia, specifically the Kensington neighborhood. I think more than anything we’re most inspired by the resilience and innovation. Philly has changed a lot in the past several decades, but it’s always been a working-class city with deep roots in manufacturing and industry.
Globalization brought a lot of benefits to people here, but the advent of big-box stores and the race to cut labor costs by exporting jobs to developing nations rocked this manufacturing neighborhood in a way that is clearly evident today. Shuttered storefronts and the opioid crisis are still commonplace here, but hidden within a seemingly bleak facade you can find incredible artists, designers and makers building tiny empires and slowly changing our city. It’s an exciting time to be here.