The Hai Interview: Felt+Fat
In late 2015, Chef de Cuisine Angela Hernandez of Top Knot was searching for the perfect table wares to accompany the restaurant’s playful Asian-inspired food. Through word of mouth, she discovered Felt+Fat, a Philadelphia-based collaborative design and manufacturing studio whose brand identity was inspired by Joseph Beuys. The company is headed by Nathaniel Mell and Wynn Bauer, and their focus, aside from creating unique custom designed pottery, is building strong relationships with the chefs they collaborate with.
Chef Angela, Nate, and Wynn worked together to create the perfect pieces for Top Knot. From custom color glazes, to hand drawn sake cups, they did it all. We sat down with Nate after his recent visit to the restaurant to hear more about his experience working with Top Knot.
Hai: Where did the name Felt+Fat come from?
NM: We wanted a name that would sort of speak to how we think about art and how we think about making… A big part of what we do is process driven. We design something around the material, and what the material wants to do and how it reacts. Our process is very specific, and so we were looking for a name that said that and wasn’t too typical to ceramics. We also wanted to insert ourselves into an art historical context. There’s this artist, Joseph Beuys, who was an installation artist, performer, theorist who was around in the middle of the last century, 40’s-80’s. He very iconically and famously, used very strange art materials like animal fat and felt. Among other things, but those were two he was very well known for. I think we were very interested in how his work and his theories spoke to materiality and to process. That’s a big part of what we think is important in design. So, as an ode to Beuys, we named the company Felt+Fat.
Hai: On average, how long does each one of your pieces take?
NM: You know, we get the question a lot. Essentially each piece from start to finish if you have the mold and really rushed it, you could probably get something start to finish in like, five days? Everything happens in tandem with each other. You’re doing your casting stuff, you’re glazing stuff, you’re loading kilns, you’re unloading slip casts, you’re making clay, you’re making glazes… That’s another big thing is that we make our own clay and we make our own glazes from raw materials.
Hai: That’s so amazing, so next level, so personal. I feel that in the way that you describe your relationships with your chefs and how important that is with y’all and your process.
NM: Making the clay and making the glazes is something that I think is really important for us and kind of sets us apart from a lot of producers. There’s not a lot but there are certainly other companies like us who are small ceramic producers around the world. From what I’ve seen though, they are primarily using commercial clay and commercial glazes. There’s nothing wrong with that. They are focusing more on form, but there are limitations in that. Someone can approach us and the sky’s the limit.
Hai: Moving on to your relationship with Top Knot, how did you become connected to our restaurant?
NM: Chef Angela found us through Kevin Fink of Emmer & Rye in Austin. Kevin had purchased some wares from us before the opening of Emmer & Rye. He found us through Chef Matt Lambert of The Musket Room in New York’s Instagram. Once Angela saw the wares at Emmer & Rye, she contacted us because she had been looking for potential makers for Top Knot. We started talking and just really formed a great relationship, which is something we try to do with all of our clients. We formed a great rapport with Angela. We’ve worked with a lot of chefs, and she really stood out. Not only is she incredibly diligent, hard working and ridiculously talented in creating an amazing product, she’s also gregarious and really friendly.
Hai: What all did you end up creating for Top Knot?
NM: We did most of the tablewares for Top Knot. Aside from their basic share plates, which was everything from bowls to plates to sake cups… You name it, we made it. We developed some new colors specifically with Angela to go a long with that very fun, bright décor they have in there. We created this new really awesome, bright lemon yellow that right now is my personal favorite color that we do. We also did a really nice aqua and an orange color.
Hai: Sounds like you and Chef Angela worked pretty closely throughout the design process?
NM: Oh yeah. Top Knot is the largest client that we’ve done so far. I think we did something like 1,200 pieces for Top Knot. Choosing to buy and work with us, as opposed to buying something from China or wherever, created a job here, in the states, for somebody. Which, in my opinion, that’s awesome. More than being able to make cool stuff and say we are in some cool restaurant, we are excited about producing here in America, in our city, in Philadelphia and giving jobs to young creatives.
Hai: How did you feel about meeting the Top Knot staff?
NM: The whole staff was incredible. We really try as much as we can with the restaurants that we work with to meet the staff-front of house, back of house-so that we can put a face to the product. We want them to be able to see who makes the wares they are using that way they can have a higher respect for the materials they are using. We came in before opening while in town, met the whole staff, talked about our story, our process and then we invited anyone who wanted to join us for drinks after work to come out with us. We have a bunch of people come out and it was a lot of fun!
Hai: What’s next for Felt+Fat?
NM: We’re moving into our new studio as we speak. Going from 1,700 square feet to 5,500 square feet. We have a lot of new designs coming out this spring. We are doing a big design show in New York in May called Sight Unseen. Big things… More restaurants, more work.
Thanks for your time, Nate!
Follow Felt+Fat on Instagram to see where you might spot their wares next.