Sustaining a business led by a fine artist, while retaining the integrity of one’s work, is not an easy task. I am an artist who grew up in Philadelphia. Since returning, after living elsewhere for more than 20 years, I have been searching for artists who have created unique and successful business models in Philadelphia. These artists are an integral part of the new creative and entrepreneurial spirit that is happening now in the city.
Last summer, at an evening of entrepreneurial speakers at Temple University, I met one such artist, Nate Mell, who has a thriving studio in Kensington called Felt+Fat. He was there to talk about how he and collaborator Wynn Bauer developed the studio.
Together Nate and Wynn design and craft handmade porcelain clay tableware. Each dish, plate, bowl, vase, and tray is cast in a handmade mold and finished with custom glazes. Colors include muted earth tones and pastels — pinks, lavenders, blues, greens, and yellows. Some lighter-colored plates have rainbow flecks splashed over them.
Nate began his talk by explaining the inspiration behind the studio’s name. One of his influences is 20th century German artist Joseph Beuys — also one of my favorites. Felt and fat were the signature materials Beuys used in his performances, sculpture, and socially engaged art practice.
The business grew out of a desire to enter into new creative relationships. When Nate was a waiter at Fork, a high-end farm-to-table restaurant in Old City, the head chef, Eli Kulp, asked him to make some dishware for the restaurant. Nate agreed. He had a space at The Clay Studio, a leader and hub for ceramic art in Philadelphia. He realized he needed help and began working with Wynn, who also had a space at The Clay Studio. Felt+Fat was born
That openness and willingness to go with new opportunities for collaboration opened many new possibilities. After his years of waiting tables, Nate knew a lot of Philadelphia chefs. He called on them, and Felt+Fat began making dishware for their restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, and across the country. Felt+Fat’s creative business has a constant stream of new collaborations with chefs and other artisans and craftspeople.
One new collaboration is with Isaiah Zagar, Philadelphia’s infamous mural artist. Zagar’s many works around Philadelphia depict an international folk aesthetic and often use shards of mirror and colorful tiles enmeshed in concrete walls.
Felt+Fat’s new line of plates and cups incorporate Zagar’s drawings of people. On individual pieces, inky black strokes form parts of a face that, when combined with other plates or bowls in the series, reveal a whole face. This use of dishware makes a puzzle out of Zagar’s drawings. It’s a vibrant, joyful, and unique play between artists.
Last summer, I visited Felt+Fat’s enormous studio at Maken Studios, which is home to many creative entrepreneurs in Kensington, a block away from the Market-Frankford elevated train. Sunlight poured through the large windows that wrap around the entire space. Several employees were hard at work on Felt+Fat’s unique designs. They were making molds of new plates and cups that would eventually be fired in the studio’s three professional kilns.
Walking around the light-flooded, warm studio was a delight. Several racks of stacked dishware revealed varied styles and colors. Nate informed me that one shelf of dishes, which I thought were gorgeous, would not be sold because they did not pass their quality test. Felt+Fat had experimented with different clays at great expense to themselves until they found the material that worked best for their tableware. This experiment shows their commitment to craftsmanship and integrity.
Artists are a revitalizing force in Philadelphia. The city is affordable and accessible, meaning there is less pressure on creative people than in other cities. There is a wealth of art, culture, and creative businesses in Philadelphia to draw from. Nate says would like to fill a niche by becoming the leader of handmade ceramic tableware on the East Coast.