Somewhere in California, there is a beloved ceramic mug that has been forged in fire three times—the first two in a kiln, the third in a forest fire. During the frantic rush to evacuate a home threatened by one of this winter’s wildfires, its owner grabbed the cup (and nothing else), hopped in the car, and drove through a thirty-foot wall of flames to safety. Or so goes the tale, recounted via Instagram to the makers of that mug, East Fork Pottery.
Such an anecdote is extreme, but not altogether surprising to East Fork founders and owners Alex and Connie Matisse, who sell their ceramic dinnerware that has amassed a cult following online and at a brick-and-mortar shop in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. The mugs are pretty perfect, as far as conduits for coffee and tea go, but even more irresistible is East Fork’s brand appeal.
“People really connect with our story,” says Alex. At its heart is a simple love story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love, grow up, work hard, have babies, build a life and family. But that’s not why people drive through fire for East Fork Pottery.
There’s the romance of East Fork’s “dirtfloor workshop that smells of wood-smoke and pine,” situated in a valley between steep green mountains, as the website describes seductively, as well as the old-world craftsmanship and handmade idiosyncrasies of the pottery. Collectively, between Alex and East Fork co-owner John Vigeland, the two potters spent six years training in traditional pottery apprenticeships. They’ve thrown so many pots by hand, with such painstaking care, that their instinctual understanding of form is an art in itself.
There’s also the social media prowess that brings fans along for the ride—their Instagram feed at once an array of artfully styled product shots, a platform for social commentary, and an intimate look at the life of the people behind the business—with selfies galore and frequent cameos by the toddler and infant Matisse daughters.
Then, finally, there’s the backstory, the one that, unbelievably, isn’t included in East Fork materials but appears in all the press: Alex Matisse is the great-grandson of Henri Matisse—one of the world’s most celebrated painters—and the step-grandson of the French art provocateur Marcel Duchamp. Alex’s parents and siblings are all artists; his grandfather, Pierre Matisse, is credited with bringing the modern art movement to America.
Now, Alex and crew are shaking up their corner of the craft world. Later this year, East Fork will open a 14,500-square-foot factory in Asheville’s Biltmore Village, a far cry from that dirt-floored workshop in the mountains where East Fork was born in 2010. For a company centered on the humble potter’s wheel, the velocity of East Fork’s evolution may seem jarring.
A commission for Calvin Klein Home in 2015 underscored the inherent difficulties of relying on the laborious wood kiln, which motivated East Fork to move to a computerized gas kiln—the difference between a “Conestoga wagon and Tesla,” as Alex puts it. Mentor Mark Hewitt, an esteemed North Carolina potter with whom Matisse apprenticed, encouraged the ambitious East Fork potters to consider themselves industrialists, an offhand comment that proved galvanizing.
“We realized we were more interested in growing a sustainable business that could employ a bunch of people instead of just going to craft fairs and making pottery alone in the woods for the rest of our lives,” explains Connie.
Along the way, a fresh and minimalist aesthetic emerged for the East Fork Collection of dinnerware, one that’s as at home in urbane restaurants as it is in country kitchens. According to the East Fork crew, the new factory will be the first ceramics manufacturing facility of its kind to open in the United States in some fifty years. By year’s end, the Matisses’ little labor of love is set to employ around forty-five people.
As the East Fork family expands, some things stay the same. Plans for a commercial kitchen at the new facility will carry on the East Fork ritual of taking time to break bread together daily. Though the staple line of dinnerware will be created by a standardized process—shaped by mold on a RAM press or spun with a jigger—there will always be potters throwing clay on the wheel too, at work on limited product releases. Form and function remain as paramount as integrity and a deep commitment to honoring the craft. And, like the best dinner party, everything boils down to a desire to make connections. “A three-dollar plate from Ikea is going to do just as good a job as our plate, but the world is made up of relationships,” Alex says. “We offer a beautiful thing—aesthetically, it’s simple, durable, and shows the food well—but you’re also part of this thing that’s bigger than you when you own a piece of East Fork. Our vision is to be an example of how one can be in the world. It’s a caring, exuberant, thankful place that we inhabit.”
Not a potter by trade, co-owner Connie Matisse brings her own sharply honed skill set to the table, from an eye for just-right glaze colors to an Instagram voice that has earned East Fork some 47,000 followers. But it could be her love of fine food and connections to that world including years working at one of Asheville’s top dining spots, Table, as well as restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles—that has most influenced East Fork and its collection of dinnerware.
For starters, though East Fork dishes are meant first and foremost for the home, they are designed to stand up to the rigors of restaurant use. “It was really helpful having a service industry background,” she says. “Things like whether your hand can easily go underneath the lip of the plate, or if you walked a plate from the kitchen to the table did it have enough of a lip for sauce not to slosh, but was it flat enough to comfortably cut meat or fish without having to scrape your knife up against the rim—all those little details were really heavily considered.” Among East Fork’s earliest and most loyal customers are the Matisses’ friends, who make up a who’s who of the Asheville food scene, from top chefs and bakers to farmers and sorghum harvesters. So it’s only natural that East Fork plates appear in a handful of Asheville’s top dining destinations, including Cúrate, Gan Shan Station, Cucina 24, Table, and the Montford Rooftop Bar, among others. Matisse says East Fork prototyped some sixty to seventy versions—“all round, nothing that was reinventing the wheel”—before deciding on the final form.