Shaping the Future of a New American Pottery Company
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The process of shaping thick disks of clay into dinner plates takes seconds using a roller tool, a machine on which revolving hunks of clay are pressed into symmetrical circles one by one. After the plates are pressed and travel through a dryer, the edges are deftly hand trimmed as they spin around on a different machine. The pieces are then fired in a kiln, glazed and fired again.
These dinner plates, which cost $46 each, are among the ceramics made by East Fork at a factory near downtown Asheville that the company has operated since 2018, roughly 10 years after its founders started the business on a farm about 20 miles outside of the city in 2009. In East Fork’s earlier days, when production was largely reliant on potter’s wheels, output ranged from 80 to 120 pieces a day. At the factory, up to 2,000 ceramics can be made a day using one machine alone.
When the potter Alex Matisse, 38, started East Fork with his wife, Connie Matisse, 37, and the potter John Vigeland, 37, they had aspirations for the business to become bigger than throwing pots in a rural studio. “We both wanted to do something ambitious,” said Mr. Matisse, a great-grandson of the artist Henri Matisse. In 2017, the year before its factory opened, East Fork produced some 19,000 pieces; in 2021, it produced about 327,000.
Its products, sold online and at East Fork stores in Asheville and Atlanta, come in an ever-changing palette of core colors and seasonal shades with names like night swim (a dark teal) amaro (a terra cotta red) and morel (a soft brown). A hand-thrown indigo bowl from 2016, which cost $48 back then, recently sold on eBay for $785.
“Each piece is truly different,” said Trudee Sauer, who runs @eastfork exchange, an Instagram account through which people can buy, sell and trade pieces. Another Instagram account, @molasses_for_the_masses, pays homage to ceramics made in a rich brown color, now retired, called molasses. And searching the hashtag #themug on Instagram brings up thousands of photos of a $40 cup called, yes, the Mug. Sana Javeri Kadri, the founder of the spice company Diaspora & Co., which has collaborated on products with East Fork, called it “truly the best mug to hold in your hands.”
But the ceramics are not the only reason customers are drawn to East Fork, Ms. Javeri Kadri said. “People often get excited by the story, and by Connie and how magnetic she is.”
Since the company’s inception Ms. Matisse, who for the past two years has served as its chief executive, has played an integral role in how it communicates with the world.
A mother of two children under 8, she has written or signed off on blog posts that note exactly how the Mug is made and explain why, in a state with a minimum wage of $7.25, East Fork’s salaries now start at $22 an hour. She has written email newsletters, including one about how to clean dishes, in which she also grappled with her work-life balance. She has posted selfies taken in her bathtub to East Fork’s Instagram account. Some, like a post advertising job openings, relate to the business. Others, like a post calling out body shamers, do not.
“The brand has always just been rooted in a portion of my identity,” she said, “like whatever I Live Journal to the internet.”
A Natural Candor
Ms. Matisse’s openness has attracted many fans. “East Fork is transparent about the hierarchy of the company,” Alyse Whitney, a food editor who bought her first East Fork pieces in 2018, wrote in an email. Ms. Whitney noted that the company explains why prices increase, along with details of the pottery-making process.
On a Thursday in mid October, Ms. Matisse sent out another of her characteristic emails — this one to staff at the company, which now employs about 130 people. In it, she announced a plan to step down as East Fork’s chief executive in November and to step away from her active role in its communications.
“My motto for the Marketing Team this year has been to democratize and decentralize, to slowly shift the narrative away from myself and my family, toward a brand voice that was shared across many,” the email read.
Mr. Matisse, who succeeded her as chief executive, described the change as an inflection point. He said the company must figure out “how to reduce the amount that we are relying on the voice of this one very, very talented, open, sincere person who has breathed the life into the thing.”
When the founders started East Fork, Ms. Matisse, who is from Los Angeles, was working on a dairy farm near the old tobacco farm in Mars Hill, N.C., where Mr. Matisse had a pottery studio. The two met at a farmers’ market, where she was selling goat cheese. They later got to know Mr. Vigeland, who grew up in Fort Worth, through the local arts scene.
The company took its name from the area where it was established, which became known as East Fork because the east fork of Bull Creek, a small mountain stream, runs through it. Mr. Matisse chose the name in part because he had been taught to rarely use his surname. “It was also always driven into us that the Matisse family does not trade on the name,” he said, contrasting the practice with kin of other famous artists.
In East Fork’s infancy, with Mr. Matisse and Mr. Vigeland making the pottery, Ms. Matisse took on various other tasks: firing pieces, selling ceramics at craft fairs and posting on an Instagram account to promote the business. “If I see something that needs some leadership, I’m very fast to jump in,” she said.
Scrolling through the company’s Instagram account is like flipping through a product catalog that is also a family photo album. There are stylized images of ceramics, many shot at an in-house studio near the Asheville factory, presented alongside photos of the Matisses’ 2016 wedding; pictures of their daughters, ages 7 and 5; and photos of the couple at Disneyland.
When East Fork started, Ms. Matisse said its small following of friends, family and fellow makers made it easy to be candid. As the company grew, she said, customers seemed to appreciate her candor; an early attempt to have another employee run its Instagram account ended with Ms. Matisse stepping back into the job after a few months. “Engagement really dropped because the brand voice shifted so quickly,” she said.
Mr. Vigeland, the company’s chief financial officer, said: “The brand’s power flows from the same qualities that are inherent to Connie herself — her nuanced thinking and artful writing, her courage and conviction, her sense of justice, her ability to relate and connect.”
In 2015, after about five years of making pieces with a wood-burning brick kiln that Mr. Matisse had built on his farm, the company started using a mechanized gas kiln that distributed heat more evenly, making the firing process more efficient.
The gas kiln was among the earliest pieces of machinery acquired by East Fork’s founders as they tried to build what Mr. Matisse described as “one of the most modern factories” for making serveware in the United States. Some of the equipment is new, like a Portuguese steel-mold machine and a Chinese roller tool used to make mugs and small bowls. Other infrastructure has been scavenged from factories across the country once operated by companies including Hartstone Pottery, Haeger Potteries and Lenox.
As East Fork grew, Ms. Matisse narrated its evolution in candid blog and Instagram posts that explained why its pieces can technically no longer be called “handmade” and how, by making more ceramics to sell, some profits can go toward higher wages.
Cade Hollomon, a manager who has worked at East Fork since the farm days, said that Ms. Matisse’s open style of communicating builds trust in a company. “The trajectory, it’s always been talked about,” he said.
The brand’s Instagram account has also been used by Ms. Matisse to address cultural moments — like the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — with unflinching earnestness. “The thing that I am most proud of is having gotten to a place where we can say pretty radical things on the internet because our customer base is accustomed to it,” she said.
“They are very open about who they are and where justice fits within their understanding,” said Desiree Adaway, the founder of the consulting firm the Adaway Group, who started working with East Fork in 2018 as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and is on its five-member advisory board.
When the company has stumbled, Ms. Matisse has put out fires with the same approach. In November 2019, a website glitch gave customers a double discount during a sale, causing East Fork to lose thousands of dollars in revenue. Ms. Matisse wrote about the mistake in an Instagram post, admitting how embarrassing it was and explaining that the company would bill customers who were undercharged. (It did not force customers to pay those bills, however.)
Cale Guthrie Weissman, the editor in chief of the website Modern Retail, which covers the retail industry, said that East Fork’s “radical transparency has been more than a lot of their peers.”
Reaching a Breaking Point
In January of this year, after helping steer East Fork through the early pandemic — during which its employees received full pay and benefits, the company said, with the aid of paycheck protection loans — Ms. Matisse tried to step away from the company’s day-to-day marketing. “We were so burned out, we didn’t have any sort of rest practice, we weren’t sleeping,” she said.
But in April, just after East Fork had raised its minimum wage to $22 per hour, sales started to decline and she dove back in to help steady the ship. The company’s financial predicament was later outlined by Ms. Matisse in Instagram posts that advertised new discounts as an attempt to increase sales and meet monthly revenue goals. The stress at that time, she said, turned her and her husband into “the worst versions of ourselves.”
“It took a serious toll on our relationship and our family,” she added. “Our marriage almost dissolved, like we really hit rock bottom.”
In such critical moments, Ms. Matisse said, there has been a preference at East Fork “that I take the lead.” She added, “If I do say something that ruffles feathers, at least I can be the person who is held accountable for that.”
But ultimately, the founders recognized that her voice and the company’s could not — and should not — be one and the same. On Instagram, for instance, Ms. Matisse often posts off-the-cuff, which has made it difficult to review and schedule content in advance as a team. “There is something about opening the app and writing with my thumbs that makes my brain work very differently,” she said.
Her stepping down, according to the Matisses, was necessary for the sustainability of both their relationship and the company. “If an organization is relying on the voice of one single person, that’s a pretty dangerous place,” Mr. Matisse said.
After taking a sabbatical, Ms. Matisse, who is still on East Fork’s governing board, plans to be in a role that won’t involve day-to-day operations. Her work involving content creation and communications will be taken on by a creative director and a vice president of marketing.
“We’ll continue to have a crack-shot creative team,” Mr. Matisse said. But “the brand voice will change,” he added. “It’s not going to be Connie sitting in the bathtub.”
At least most of the time, Ms. Matisse added. “Maybe I’ll do a once-a-month bathtub post.”