Alex Matisse is not interested in repeating the past.
You can read that any way you want to: as a deliberate decision to make his own path in ceramics without leaning on his family lineage (yes, that Matisse); an eagerness to contribute to North Carolina’s long pottery tradition by leaving its traditional ways behind; and the courage to let go of old methods to make room for the new.
Either way, he’s looking forward—the mark of a good CEO. Because what Alex Matisse is making now is a business. When he founded East Fork Pottery with Connie Coady (now Matisse) in 2010, he could have called it “Alexander Matisse Pottery,” but he didn’t. Even then, he had an inkling that the pottery at the end of a dirt road would be bigger than his name. “I couldn’t have said this is what East Fork was going to look like,” Matisse says, “but I did have this feeling that I was going into the woods to find something.”
Cup an East Fork mug in your hands or compose a salad on one of their signature, exposed-rim plates and you will know: they found it. East Fork pottery is characterized by purity of form and function, a simplicity that seems it will live long beyond your table.
The forms are full, rounded, and smooth. Matisse calls this the “potter’s quality,” an understanding of form that comes from throwing pots by hand, as both he and East Fork’s third owner, John Vigeland, have spent years doing. This distinctive aesthetic has put East Fork in the national eye, featured in publications like Architectural Digest and Garden & Gun.
Today, Alex, Connie, and John find themselves at a literal threshold—that of a 14,500-square-foot warehouse in Asheville’s Biltmore Village that East Fork plans to renovate and make home. They’ve just completed their first equity round; there are stacks of dinnerware surrounding them, along with a major transition to new production methods, an online store that pretty much remains sold out, and a lovely retail home goods store in Asheville.
This is the second significant step toward growth East Fork has made. The first was a few years after Alex and Connie added John as potter and owner, when Alex and John decided to trade the romantic, traditional wood-fired kiln they had apprenticed with for a modern, gas-fired kiln. “This is like a Tesla sitting next to a Conestoga wagon,” Matisse explains. “It was a massive shift for us. But we wanted to speak to a larger community, to make work that was more relevant to our peers.” The gas-fired kiln allowed them to keep up with demand so the pottery could grow, just as the new facility and production methods will allow that growth to continue (at an avalanche-like pace, if things keep on as they have).
Until a few months ago, every East Fork piece was hand-thrown, a remarkable feat for the tremendous amount of pottery the 6-person production team was creating. While the brand is now shifting some production to what Matisse calls “light industrial forming” methods, the process remains very labor intensive and hands-on. Each step, from design to molding to finishing, is informed by the human touch. The colorways—a core collection of earth tones and limited-edition seasonal hues—are shepherded by Connie, East Fork’s creative director, and have a rich, luminous depth.
When you look at the symmetrical stacks of pottery in pleasing, earthy neutrals lined up on blonde wood shelves at East Fork’s store in Asheville, it’s easy to forget that all this success comes from dirt. From the iron-rich clay that veins North Carolina, of course, but before that, the clay that seventh-grade Alex Matisse fell in love with during an afterschool art program. He grew up in the shadow of “capital A art,” which is perhaps an understatement: his family includes Henri Matisse, the legendary painter and collagist, Marcel Duchamp, and other figures in the art world. Clay was an escape for him. “I came down here out of New England, out of a family of artists to find my own voice. Maybe I needed subconsciously to run away to do that,” he says.
He chased the craft of clay and the beauty of utility, a journey that took him under the wing of some of North Carolina’s most revered potters, down a dirt road and through the smoke of a wood-fired kiln to this time and place: where the pottery he and Connie founded has blossomed far beyond the Matisse name. “I didn’t know it at the time, but what we really wanted to do was grow a business and grow a company,” Matisse says.
He is most proud of what they have made, what they are making: each day, the entire East Fork team gathers around the table to share lunch on the plates and bowls they have created with their own hands. It’s rewarding chaos. The pottery sells almost as soon as it’s on shelves; happy customers set dinner tables with East Fork; the youngest Matisse snoozes through creative meetings; and the clay, ever-present, moves and stretches with them. As they prepare to expand into the new location, Matisse wondered if he had a duty to do something with his wood-fired kiln. He called his mentors for advice, and they both told him the same thing: The past is the past. You don’t have to do what you’ve already done.
East Fork Pottery Showroom, 82 N Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC. (828) 575-2150, eastforkpottery.com