Online Ceramics started as a joke between friends. Surely that domain name had to have already been taken by some middle-aged man selling flower pots and ceramic cups out of his garage, right? If you pull it up on Google, online-ceramics.com takes you to a peculiar looking website, almost comical by today’s standards, but it has nothing to do with selling pots or cups.
Instead, you’ll find a happy-go-lucky story of a drug trip gone wrong, a cross-stitched serpent, and an online store selling otherworldly T-shirts and sweatshirts. Some with elaborate, chaotic, psychedelic designs of spirituality and self-discovery. Others alluding to a love and admiration for The Grateful Dead and the Deadhead’s iconic imagery. All thought-up, designed and hand-printed by two friends who never thought they’d end up making shirts.
Nestled on the top floor of a nondescript building on a sleepy block of South Central Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, is the small studio where Elijah Funk and Alix Ross make their inspirations come to life. It’s cramped, to say the least, with two small work tables, covered in stacks of colorfully-printed sweatshirts and painted canvases from another artist that they share the studio with.
Freshly-dyed T-shirts hang to dry on a clothesline that hangs above the space, one that has housed a wealth of creative enterprise, long hours of hard work and undeniable growth for Funk and Ross’s brand, Online Ceramics.
The two met in Ohio as fellow art school students in the local DIY punk and noise scene, worlds away from the art school trappings aiming to breed animators and designers ready to work for PIXAR. Both Funk and Ross are far removed from that cloth, bonding over communal cigarette breaks and discussions about their favorite records, not over a coding language or the best design app on your tablet that feels the most like an actual pen and paper. Graduation only deterred their will to work together briefly, until a trip to Los Angeles for a mutual friend’s wedding reunited the two, who finally decided it was time to take a chance on their creativity.
What began as a foray into the art world and getting work placed in friends’ galleries didn’t quite pan out that way. A quick favor for a friend to design a shirt for a book fair spawned the idea to take on a new creative avenue with a much better bottom line, and one more accessible to the DIY communities they both grew up in.
T-shirts aren’t a one-of-one sculpture for an individual to own and others to admire from afar. They’re essentially accessible art for people everywhere, which speaks volumes for two guys who can now crack a smile about how broke they were when they first moved to LA.
“Across the world now, everyone owns a little bit of us,” says Funk. “I like that way more than art as the commodity or the object, the all-important thing.”
The duo officially began printing shirts as Online Ceramics last summer for the Dead & Co. tour, the band formed by John Mayer and original Grateful Dead member Bob Weir, and selling out of them in just a few days. Their designs earned them some financial breathing room, allowing their profits to be funneled back into more blanks and new designs. The brand quickly developed a following on the tour and beyond it. One of the most notable supporters being Mayer, with whom the duo collaborated on a hoodie for the Dead & Co. Fall tour.
The appeal is clear among Deadheads, who can cherish the vivid imagery and devoted message of some of the graphics that can be tied back to Ross and Funk’s mutual love for the Dead. But for those who can’t identify with those nuances, Online Ceramics offers an intimate experience often missed in the realm of e-commerce. These guys don’t just want to sell you a shirt or a sweatshirt, they want to kick back and get to know you over a beer.
“I immediately put our phone numbers on the website,” explains Ross. It was a way to reach out to people who were interested in Online Ceramics and have a dialogue with them.
They both go on to excitedly list different people they’ve met on trips they’ve taken, like the guys at Art Basel who stopped by their hotel to pick up some shirts and ended up staying for some beers and good music, or the red-haired kid wearing overalls who recognized Funk at a show and yelled: “Online Keramics!! What up dude?!”
When Funk and Ross tell these stories, it becomes more and more clear how much these connections are central to the brand’s ethos. They view it as a privilege to be able to meet and share their art with people all over the country, who then take that message and wear it daily. There’s a sincerity in this duo, who take ideas from each other’s heads and mold them into a design that can be ridiculous, uplifting, spiritual or all of those things at the same time.
Each shirt is approached as an entirely new entity —a blank canvas—to create a new piece of art with different layers of visuals and messages. They’re more concerned with creating art that brings them spiritual and mental satisfaction, rather than what sells—and yet, they continue to grow.
Online Ceramics’ continued success has relieved Funk and Ross of having to print each and every order themselves, though they’ll be the first to tell you that they’re not anywhere close to being rich. With their shirts and sweatshirts now officially being sold through Union Los Angeles and a new studio on the horizon, the duo is now firmly set on continuing to grow and expand their community. They may even venture beyond T-shirts, but the name won’t ever change—because it’s still a funny joke.
Now check out another promising brand: New York City’s design duo Abasi Rosborough.