Online Ceramics: From Grateful Dead Bootlegs to Streetwear Staple
Founders Elijah Funk and Alix Ross chart the meteoric rise of their brand
In just a few years, the Online Ceramics shirt has turned into one of the most coveted items in nearly any wardrobe, but also the most subversive. Sure, they design shirts for Dead and Co. shows and A24 films, but there is a message of openness and experimentation behind every design.
After meeting in a Columbus, Ohio, college dorm, Elijah Funk and Alix Ross became fast friends over their mutual love for art and experimental music. They went their separate ways for a brief time before reuniting in Los Angeles. The idea then was simple: a homemade pottery and book store they would call Online Ceramics. They have since created a visual language all their own through a vast collection of thickly-inked and wild-dyed tees, knits and accessories that couple Grateful Dead imagery with Eastern spirituality, counter-cultural icons, punk-rock aesthetics and the everyday joy of shed-tour style.
InsideHook caught up with the duo to see how they make it all work.
InsideHook: The two of you met at a time when seismic shifts happen in people’s creative and personal lives. What is it that’s kept you working together to this day?
Alix: Elijah has always inspired me and inspires me to want to make art together.
Elijah: I think it was pretty inherent that early on, whatever made us friends was also a creative motivator in the way that we just trusted each other. Sometimes Alix has an idea or I have an idea that the other one sees and says I don’t know … But at the end of the day we’re always like, well, you’ve been right most of the time. It’s a severe level of trust and understanding of taste and quality that I think is pretty rare for two people to have. In the same way when you get a really good band together, you say well I’ll always work with that guy because he makes great songs. And we have a really similar sense of humor and dynamic while being pretty different people.
What was it like at the onset of Online Ceramics and how has your relationship changed from working side-by-side?
Elijah: We have a lot more responsibilities. We’re a little less crazy now. We don’t have to chase each other down at night. But for the most part I’d say it’s been fairly consistent.
Alix: The way it kind of started out was that I was working for Laura Owens, the painter. She had all this gear that we could use to screenprint. I was using her screens to print shirts while Elijah was primarily designing most of the first designs. So I wasn’t designing full time until a year and a half ago. But Elijah had been doing freelance design pretty much within the first couple of months of living in L.A. You quit your coffee job pretty quick.
Elijah: I worked a real job here for maybe 8-10 months. And then new years 2016 I was just done. They scheduled me until midnight then wanted me to come in at 5 a.m. on New Year’s and there was just no way. I was like whatever, I’m just going to make this thing work. And that allowed me the time to really build my chops. I was freelancing and I figured out how to get through the work within an hour or two every day. I would pump out band shirts. And the rest of the day was pretty much not leaving my apartment in Koreatown and figuring out how to do Online Ceramics. Now it’s a little less pressure on me, creatively, where before I would design at night, Alix would burn the screens after work and we would print until one in the morning, wake up and do it again. Now it’s a little bit more of a balance.
Alix: Something that’s really dope is that I can now actually spend the whole day designing. And there’s definitely been a learning curve for me because I was never really a designer, per-se. Elijah’s always been designing T-shirts and punk posters and that’s been a part of his history as an artist. I did that stuff but not nearly as much. I was making a lot of video art in college and doing weird performance sculpture stuff. So I basically taught myself how to use Photoshop … I still don’t know how to use Photoshop, but I can use it enough to get around to making the designs that I make and build up my visual style within the brand. So being able to actually focus on Online Ceramics and build my own visual language within it was a big change since it started.
Elijah: Both of us were making pretty far out contemporary art that was probably relatively indigestible to most people, honestly, aside from our crew and our freaky little scene at the time. I think a lot of those variants have been a consistent marker in no matter what we’re making, if it’s a shirt for a movie or a shirt for us, or an event that we do, it kind of always has the same undercurrent.
There was an amazing noise and experimental scene both in and coming to play in Ohio around the time you were in school together. What sort of lasting impact did that have on how you approach what you do?
Alix: I think it’s really laid the foundation on how me and Elijah work together. We have another partner, Jack, who was also part of that same crew. Elijah and Jack ran a few noise spaces, punk houses. And later in college I was living at a place called Skylab and would book shows there. Jack eventually moved to Skylab and then Elijah moved there too.
Elijah: I remember my mom dropped me off at my first noise show at Skylab. I showed up at like 4 p.m. and the shows at Skylab didn’t kick off until 11. And there was some kid who was like, “Come up here and hang out with us all day.” But I remember being physically terrified of being there. It was the most no-holds-barred, anything-goes performance world. I think it erased a lot of fear in what we do. And also just the physicality of living in places and experiencing those things … I mean we joke around all the time with our friend Ross who works here too, and Jack, who lived in that place. We didn’t have windows, we didn’t have heat. We were literally squatting.
Alix: Yea, well Ross smashed the windows out, so …
Elijah: Yeah, but the actual physicality of being that desperate and that confused and young and saying, “I will do whatever to essentially be a freak,” that I think has made this thing happen. Because I think If Alix and I didn’t learn that at such a young age we would have given up a long time ago. It gives you a stubbornness to say I’m going to be into this thing no matter what that takes and I’ll probably do it forever, quietly.
Alix: Honestly, it’s kind of similar to a fraternity. Me, you, Jack, Josh, and Ross all work here with us at Online Ceramics, and those are all old homies from back in the day that we lived with at these spaces. So there is this unspoken psychic thing that we’ve built upon through living in really intense situations and creating beautiful experiences for people.
Elijah: Being pretty wide open and free for most of our lives and not really subscribing to other stuff has really shifted the way that we are as adults. And I just want to say that the band Sword Heaven … I recommend anyone watch a video of that because when you’re a kid and you see that, like the best noise band to come out of the Midwest aside from Wolf Eyes … If that’s your entry point into what art can be, it really does manipulate your whole consciousness.
Alix: I was 16 years old and the first noise show I ever went to was a Wasteland Jazz Unit show in Cincinnati and Wolf Eyes headlined and that fully obliterated my concept of what art and music could be at all. I had never known or seen anything to be like that and it was really inspiring at a young age.
So if you didn’t have the influence of that scene, what do you think you might be doing now?
Elijah: I fully intended on being a teacher or an art therapist, you know, and just be a hobby artist in my garage. I was already kind of running around with some pretty fringe groups, like people really into hardcore and veganism and “Food Not Bombs” when I was a young kid. But I only thought it could go so far, you know.
Alix: I would have gone to art school no matter what and eventually probably moved to New York City, so I would be making art in some capacity for sure.
If you can, take me through a typical shirt design. How do you both work to bring the idea from your head to our backs?
Alix: I have probably 20 different Photoshop files going at one time. Three or four of those files are going to eventually become one design. I usually start with either a quote or a really strong drawing or image that I have. That could be a Clip Art piece, that could be just a drawing that I’ve done. At some point those three components will eventually make it onto one design but it always varies with which comes first.
Elijah: I work relatively similarly, but i’ll kind of just gather and gather and gather images and I’ll read and think, and generally I’m pretty stumped for weeks on what to do. And then something hits me. That’s the jumping-off point. Then I’ll usually come in and it’s just about listening to music, looking at all the images around and it usually kind of forms itself. Once I stop thinking it really comes together. I have to allow space for it to not be exactly what I was thinking when I considered it in the first place. And that’s usually where the sweet spot is, like “Oh yeah this goes here, that goes there.” But sometimes I’ll genuinely have a really solid concept and say, “This is what it needs to be.” When it comes to the crazier detailed stuff I kind of let it go until it feels resolved. Generally I can’t plan that too hard.
Online Ceramics has expanded a great deal since the first shirt came out in 2016 and yet you continue to run it like a small family business. Why is that important to you?
Alix: I think for our own mental health, honestly. I like being close with everyone that we work with and I think Elijah feels the same. It has expanded a lot but we’re trying to not let it feel too crazy because the weight of running a big business can affect me on a stress level. I feel like keeping it small, keeping it as few employees as possible and just dialing it in feels good for me.
Elijah: One of the important things to remember is that we never set out to really run a business. Neither of us thought we were going to be businessmen. We never thought we’d be talking to an accountant. We never thought we’d have to worry about an LLC. That is all foreign enough to where I think the idea of turning into some conglomerate would not only take the soul out of it and take away what I think people really like about us, which is that we’re not some giant entity that they’re getting a shirt from. I like when I see on the internet that people say, “Oh it’s going to take them a while to ship, they’re a bunch of hippies.” I think that’s important to our story, but it’s like Alix is saying, it’s also a psychic thing. At what point are you producing just to produce, to keep the lights on? At what point are we actually fulfilling a purpose here? I think we have a pretty explicit purpose for what we’re trying to do. Maybe for ourselves, maybe it’s a learned thing from this noise and punk and Grateful Dead world of not wanting to over-expand and eat yourself alive.
Since day one you’ve made experimental bootleg Grateful Dead shirts. How does it feel to now work with Grateful Dead Productions and what’s the story behind the project name Turtle River?
Elijah: We’re in a trial period with this whole thing kind of fishing it out. And considering that we’ve already worked with the band Dead and Company, It’s obviously the biggest honor to get to work with people who you love and respect so much. But I don’t think there’s been a giant dynamic shift.
Alix: There’s a few people at Rhino who have been really supportive and amazing to have a connection with now. And yeah, It’s a huge honor for us to be able to use the trademarks. The whole thing with Turtle River [Online Ceramics’ dedicated Grateful Dead collection] is that it was a way for us to use the trademarks but not fully impact the Online Ceramics core brand. A few times a year we’ll do a few official trademark shirts or pieces.
Elijah: It’s how now we work with movies. We don’t want to be the brand that just makes shirts for A24. We want to have our own creative freedom to do what we want without being pigeonholed and that’s just a nice little escape hatch to keep these things going and moving in new directions without carrying the weight of saying, “This is what we are”.
Alix: Yeah, it keeps it all at arm’s length so we can be more free in some way.
Elijah: And Turtle River is just one of those cool names that we liked. All the names we use are kind of like little bands or pet projects.
Alix: We had a few working names for six months and I eventually asked my girlfriend if she had any ideas for names. One had the word river in it and another had turtle in it, and she just said, “What about Turtle River?” And that was it. We had been failing for a minute, thinking about what we were going to call it.
Elijah: Yeah, we had been failing because it’s intimidating. It’s like we’re trying to honor this tradition of this thing that’s one of the core elements of not only our brand, but our existence. But it was about doing it in a way that feels true to us. And obviously all love and respect to Liquid Blue [another Dead merch purveyor] and what they’ve done, but we don’t want our enterprise to be that either. We want it to still be us and for people to see that and say, “That’s definitely Online Ceramics’ take on that universe.”
You’ve spent a few years in the parking lots at Dead and Company shows. Who or what inspires you in that scene?
Alix: I’m a huge fan of Nick and Alaina from Deep Thoughts.
Elijah: There’s this one guy who makes these digital paintings and I can’t remember his name off the top of my head. He’s an older head and he’s been doing it forever. He’s the one who got us a parking space at Boulder.
Alix: Oh, that guy.
Elijah: Yeah, he’s dope. I think more than imagery wise, I think just the actual humans involved is what really inspires me. I’m not really out looking for inspiration when I’m in the parking lot. We kind of started Online Ceramics as a result of feeling less than inspired by a lot of the modern shirts. So to me it’s the actual energy and the friends. And the number-one takeaway for me is the show. That’s always the biggest inspiration factor. I think we’ve only ever gone to one parking lot and didn’t go in to the show. End of the day I want to go watch the music. It’s why we started. It’s funny, I think people may have a misconception of why we started or think we’re from this different world, but it was genuinely to raise money to go to concerts.
Alix: Partially as a joke. We heard about the Grateful Dead lot and thought, “Why can’t we try it?’ Let’s see what happens.” It wasn’t ironic, it was more like, would people buy these shirts from us? Let’s see if we can do this.
Like saying, “Can we join the circus?”
Elijah: Exactly, through our completely warped lens. Looking back at that, we were crazy. We were insane.
Alix: What we thought was possible … I can’t believe we had that mindset.
Elijah: We were kind of raw.
Alix: We were insane.
Elijah: We learned a lot. It was truly going out on a limb, sincerely and honestly. We both had just gotten off the high of Fare Thee Well. We were new as best friends and Deadheads and neither of us had a partner in crime in that way. It was just about going and living this thing that we were both so interested in. The thought was how do we enter that life, respectfully and artfully. I feel like we did it pretty gracefully.
How’s it feel to be at a Dead show, in that atmosphere, and you see your little corner of it?
Elijah: It’s humbling. I mean, how fortunate are we that anyone cares about what we do? Luckiest people in the world.
Alix: Yeah, we’re super grateful.
Many Online Ceramics shirts have spiritual texts and images or references to various causes or lifestyles. Do you ever think these doses of consciousness get lost in the hype of it all?
Elijah: I think there’s potential for that but I think every time someone is activating a positive thing in their environment, whether they are consciously accepting it or not is a great thing. Even if the person wearing it doesn’t get it or read into it deeply, you never know who’s behind them in line at the grocery store. You know what I mean? I’ve been a proponent for positivity my whole life and if that’s what we can do, that’s the sickest mission that we can be on.
Alix: I feel like no matter what, it has the ability to spread.
The collection you dropped before the new year has some fairly normal pieces in it. Was that done consciously as an olive branch to the less adventurous or are you just mixing things up a bit?
Elijah: Honestly, sometimes it just gets really hard to be psycho crazy creative. And sometimes you have to accept that you can do a simple thing. That’s one of the biggest things we’ve been learning, me in particular. If you saw my computer right now you’d say, “This guy needs to calm down.” It’s like not every song has to be an insane hardcore jam. Sometimes you want to hear a sweet little thing, you know? Fortunately for us, Online Ceramics gives us this room to try new instruments, sing new songs, see where it goes. Personally, I don’t wear crazy clothes. I can be a fan of something that’s so ornate and chaotic, but that doesn’t mean I want to exist with it 24/7.
Alix: The way I usually work my designs is that Elijah will bring his maximal style and I’ll contrast that. A lot of my designs are smaller and very reactive to his more dense images. It gives people the ability to have a gamut of the vibe. You could wear a simple logo or something that’s super vibrant and intense. They’re all statements. But I think It’s fun to make something a little more simple.
Both OC and A24 have had a big year and you’ve made a lot of merch for them. Which was your favorite to create and are you working on anything with them now?
Alix: Honestly, there are no favorites with them. Pretty much every movie that we’ve done merch for, me and Elijah have been extremely excited about. Working with them, I’m so stoked and excited. It doesn’t matter what movie we’re doing. I would be just as excited. Being able to be associated with a movie when we’re a design brand is such a privilege. It’s cool to me to say the movie The Lighthouse in the same sentence as Online Ceramics. Like how could we even be associated with something so amazing? We definitely have more amazing projects coming up with them this year.
What do you have your sights set on for 2020, either personally or with your brand?
Alix: We’ve gotten down our visual style down well and have built the brand up, so I feel like now maneuvering it within its current context and finding who we align with for more collaborations.
Elijah: We’re really excited to shift gears for a minute. And kind of riffing off what he’s saying, we have figured out how to do this now. Alix and I have sacrificed a lot to get here. And the first year of my 30s I want to figure out my personal life a bit more. Find a better apartment. Find a girlfriend. Calm down. Have time at night to watch a movie. Really simple things that we threw out the window to get here. How do we navigate this monster while maintaining sanity and clarity and the things we talk about with our shirts? How do we achieve those things? How do we grow into those things, too, and how do we apply those to our own lives? Next year I want to chill out a little more. I want to go on vacation. I want to cook.
When you said you have some incredible opportunities my mind immediately went to an Online Ceramics-designed electric car.
Alix: That’s hilarious.
Elijah: Dude, well if you know anyone…
What would that even look like?
Alix: A Model-T replica.