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Felt + Fat

An Experimental Dish

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We want to make everything, all the time. And to be a bit impractical sometimes.

__Nate & Wynn

They say that creativity is the joining of two unlike things into something altogether new. It’s a powerful juxtaposition, and sometimes a collision that elevates both elements into an entirely new realm of possibility.

In the art world, juxtaposition is as much a physical expression as it is a symbolic one. Mid Century sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys implemented this dichotomous expression in his sculptural work, particularly utilizing such unheard of components as felt and animal fat. Inspired by Beuys, modern-day ceramicists Nate Mell and Wynn Bauer have made this legacy of intentionality and daring material risk-taking their namesake. As a duo, the two go by Felt + Fat, and in a few short years have built their reputation on pushing the bounds of their medium with genuine and active curiosity.

Nate and Wynn first met at a gallery and art space called The Clay Studio in Old City Philadelphia. As a collaborative spot for all levels of ceramicists, it hosted resident artists and weekly classes. Wynn was one such artist in the studio, balancing a steady flow of freelance ceramic prototyping here and there. He was precise and exacting in his work, influenced by years spent studying architecture and the beautiful lacquerware he’d seen growing up traveling all across Asia. Nate, on the other hand, had come to The Clay Studio with a background in glass and mold making. Curious about ceramics, he had come in as a part of a work exchange program that gave him full access to the facilities and the freedom to dabble and learn.

Long before The Clay Studio, Nate worked in restaurants all over the city. With a long history in the business, Nate began noticing an exciting shift headed towards Philadelphia. Trickling down from the best of the best – places like Copenhagen’s NOMA – locally sourced plateware was popping up in all of the finest spots. Small batch ceramics echoed the delicacy of these meticulously plated dishes, and represented an upgrade in the entire dining experience. Just like any handmade item over a mass-produced one, these small batch ceramics communicated to the clientele a value system, an intentional stake in the local economy that went beyond sourcing ingredients.

At the time, Nate was serving up sophisticated New American cuisine at Fork, one of the top restaurants in Philadelphia. He was hardworking, dependable, and over time had become like second family with the owners. His interest and time spent on ceramics were no secret, so when the time came to invest in their own handmade plateware, it was to him they turned.

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Knowing his own limitations, Nate accepted the order, and immediately sought out Wynn to partner on the project. “I’ve always seen myself as a jack-of-all-trades,” he explains. “Wynn is super precise, and had a lot of experience with precise ceramics. So I talked to him about the job, and it started off as maybe another one-off job.”

That first line for High Street was a crash course in becoming Felt + Fat. The two worked at Nate’s three-hundred square foot studio traveling back and forth to fire in The Clay Studio’s kiln. “We had to transport things from one studio to another. Sometimes 50% of the plates broke along the way; sometimes 30%.” Despite the heartbreak of losing hard work and a looming deadline, they managed to complete the line, already picking up other interested restaurants around the city. “A lot has happened from just doing custom jobs for chefs and different restaurants. So much of the initial things we were doing was a collaboration between ourselves and the people we were making work for.”

Within any partnership, there exists a necessary but beneficial inequality. It comes with an inherent humility that suggests that together we are better than we can ever be apart. When two competent halves collaborate, it creates a powerful whole in which both are able to go further than either could alone. For Nate and Wynn, partnering their skills meant combining Wynn’s precise execution with Nate’s foresight within a changing industry. “The nice combination that we have is Wynn has a technical background so we can make informed decisions. But I kind of come at it from more of a naive background so I can say ‘Oh, what if we just threw this on that?’ and he figures out how to actually make it work.” To add to their complementary expertise, the tensile nature of their collaboration rests in a wealth of shared admirations. “We both really appreciate a clean aesthetic. Japanese, Scandinavian. But we also love some really funky things, too.”

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This complement within their team has drawn out some engaging similarities with their culinary clientele. From collaborating with chefs over custom pieces, they’ve recognized some key similarities they’re able to draw from kiln to kitchen. “We’ve had conversations about how heat moves, how sometimes you have a ‘sweet spot’ in an oven just like a kiln. We have recipes we like to riff on, too.They’re gathering all these ingredients and making a product in a way and then we do the same thing. Except we don’t usually do taste tests on our stuff.” The commonality and involvement they establish with each chef they work with improves the specification and success of these pieces. “We’re always seeing chefs we did work for months ago or a year ago and asking them what’s working, what needs changing. We get good feedback, like shapes that would make more sense for certain types of plating.”

It’s been that intentional allowance for experimentation that has led to their signature flair in design. Despite the busyness that has come with their success over the past two years, this room to play with ideas and materials remains an integral part of their process, and staying furiously interested in their craft day after day. “I think a lot of the new work comes out of experimenting along the way while doing big orders,” Wynn states.

He continues, “Just to keep it fun for us we have to play around. And just learning how the material works and responding to it as well. That way we can have our consistent line and our short runs of different ideas. It’s tricky, we just want to make everything all of the time. And to be a little impractical sometimes.” That sensitivity toward their material has been one of several exceptional attributes distinguishing Felt + Fat from a growing niche of small-batch ceramicists. Instead of forcing a design, they interpret it, learning something new each time a mold is cast. “Materiality really is important to both of us and not to try and make a material to do something it doesn’t want to do.” To be as intimate with the material as possible, they make their clay and glazes in-house from scratch. “We have a good bit of control in creating a pretty consistent product. Everything we do is slip cast, so it’s a liquid body cast into a mold.” This is excellent news for restaurants who without a doubt will break a percentage of whatever plateware they buy over time. With a single, specific mold, they’re custom line is easily reproduced when, uh, they’re needed. “There is still a lot of the hand involved in that because we have to make the clay, make the mold, cast the mold, clean up the casting, fire it, glaze it, re-fire it. But because we’re using the mold, someone can get things from us now and a year from now and they’ll be technically the same, but still have the marks of a handmade product. They’re all slightly different from each other.”

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One other integral part of Felt + Fat’s identity is their role as “designer craftsmen.” This term signifies both their vested interest in each design, as well as the personal touch they have on each and every item they produce. “We both definitely like to have our feet in both worlds of both craft and design,” Nate asserts, a duality that is definitively local. “I think that’s where we see ourselves. We never want to outsource our work to another country or even another city really.” Keeping up with high level design and up-close control of production is certainly a noble goal, but how do they manage to do it all? “I don’t really know,” Nate laughs, himself a bit amazed. “You just work seven days a week. Try not to sleep too much.”

Of all the experimentation and collaborative limit-pushing Nate and Wynn do on behalf of Felt + Fat, their work is truly that of designer craftsmen. It is attentive to form – for the sake of what can be – without neglecting the consequence of function. But not everyday is a seamless step towards the latest design solution.

“Sometimes you work seven days a week in a bubble. You see your product so much that all you can see are the flaws, the things you want to change. Suddenly someone else sees it and says, ‘This is amazing!’ and I think, ‘Really? I thought it had this problem that I’m trying to work through.’ It’s so gratifying.” It is those problems worked out over, and over again that shines in each piece as a silent statement of its creators.

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