Shortly after John Mayer started performing with Dead & Company, the current iteration of the rock band the Grateful Dead that features some of its surviving members, fans began sending him T-shirts. “These really thoughtful packages,” he recalled recently, “like welcoming me to the neighborhood.”
The Grateful Dead has a rich history of bootleg merchandise made and sold by its obsessive followers. But one shirt among the gifts sent to Mr. Mayer stuck out from the rest. It featured a blooming rose and bones and came from two designers based in Los Angeles named Elijah Funk and Alix Ross, who ran a small business called Online Ceramics, which trafficked not in clay vessels but T-shirts and accessories.
“Before I could even attribute what I was looking at to Online Ceramics, I was reacting to it in a way that was like, ‘Oh, this is too smart to be dumb,’” Mr. Mayer said.
Despite its name, Online Ceramics does not, in fact, sell clay objects. The name is a red herring of sorts, creating an “if you know, you know” status for the brand from the jump.
Over a half-dozen years or so, Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross, two lanky, heavily tattooed Ohio natives, have turned a modest operation known for loopy screen-printed and tie-dye T-shirts into a brand worn by models (Emily Ratajkowski, Kaia Gerber) and celebrities (Jonah Hill). They now work with the indie film studio A24, the outdoor apparel brand The North Face and the blue-chip contemporary art gallery run by David Kordansky. They have collaborated with the estates of Fela Kuti, Alice Coltrane and the New Age spiritualist Ram Dass. This week the brand will release a six-piece capsule collection with Heaven by Marc Jacobs, the youthful offshoot of Mr. Jacobs’s namesake luxury label.
‘Subversively remind people to enjoy their lives’
Mr. Funk has a long history making his own T-shirts, starting around when he was 11, usually for whatever band he was in. During middle school, inspired by punk and hardcore imagery and Andy Warhol, he tried to rig his own screen printing device using frames from the local craft store.
At the Columbus College of Art & Design, Mr. Funk met Mr. Ross on the day they moved into the dorms before school officially started. Online Ceramics is, in some ways, a continuation of their time there.
“To me, Online Ceramics is an art collaboration with Elijah, and it just happens to be that we’re framed in fashion,” said Mr. Ross, who has long, dark, slightly unkempt hair and a whisper of a mustache on his upper lip. The name came from when he purchased the domain online-ceramics.com partly as a joke and partly because he thought that, maybe, he would turn it into an Etsy for himself and his fellow artist friends to sell their goods. “It expands, for me, way beyond T-shirts. The language we’ve developed is much bigger.”
As graphic T-shirts proliferate wildly — they may just be the medium of the moment — the ones offered by Online Ceramics have a distinct quality to them. At turns chaotic, whimsical, psychedelic and off-putting (sometimes all at once), they read like an inside joke that you’re not sure is meant for you. They often feature sweet-looking fantasy figures such as smiling frogs, goblins, mice or flowers, mixed with menacing skeletons or demented jack-o’-lanterns. Cheerful mottos that espouse life’s ephemerality are a common motif (“Happily aging and dying,” reads one hoodie; “Don’t take life so seriously — it’s not permanent,” reads a T-shirt; another implores you to “Give back to Earth — recycle yourself”).
“It’s a subversive memento mori,” mused Mr. Kordansky, whose gallery hosted a show of their sculptures and paintings last year. “They’re utilizing the aesthetics of pop culture to subversively remind people to enjoy their lives.”
Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross say that their aesthetic is a confluence of things that they are fans of: the Grateful Dead, of course, but also punk music and contemporary art. These inspirations give their designs a certain push-and-pull between the childlike and macabre. “We like to make a really cute thing look scary,” Mr. Ross said. “That makes you attracted to it, for some reason, like a positive quote intermixed with a scary image.”
“Something that gives you pause,” added Mr. Funk, who has cropped hair and wears wire-rimmed glasses. “So you’ll be like, ‘That’s cute … I guess.’ There’s always something else going on. That’s what first attracted us to the Dead in the first place. Like, it’s bears and rainbows, but in the parking lot after the show, it can be really dark.”
“Growing up in Ohio, cornfields and harvest and Halloween were such a big part of my life,” Mr. Ross added. “That’s definitely affected our aesthetic. Everything we do has a spooky Halloween feel to it.”
On a shelf in their studio sits a smiling scarecrow doll with a brown, leafy mane and wide eyes. For them, he could be a mascot — a wholesome arts and crafts version of their Midwestern roots, tinged with dread.
Despite the specificity of their imagery, the brand has worked with a variety of other companies, mostly by keeping its own aesthetics firmly intact. “Online Ceramics is almost a vessel for us to work in industries that we aren’t involved in,” Mr. Ross said of their ongoing list of projects. “It’s given us access to work with people we love.”
“Not only are we making stuff we like,” Mr. Funk said, “but we’re making stuff for people we like.” For the collaboration with Alice Coltrane’s estate, for example, the partners immersed themselves in her discography, researched her life and used their designs to evoke something essential about her.
“They’re so true to themselves,” said Zoe Beyer, the creative director of A24, who has been working with the designers since the release of the 2018 cult horror film “Hereditary.” Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross were planning to make unofficial merchandise for the film after seeing its trailer, but were connected to Ms. Beyer by Will Welch, the global editorial director of GQ, and decided to work on it together. “What they do is always surprising,” she said. “There’s always a wink to it, but also a sincerity.”
Ms. Beyer recalls offering them a preview of “Hereditary,” but they declined, saying they preferred to see it in a crowded theater on opening night. She wrangled them and some friends tickets, and they all went together wearing the T-shirts. They’ve since collaborated on drops for “The Witch,” “Saint Maud,” “The Green Knight” and, most recently, the director Ti West’s “Pearl.”
“They understand the audience because they’re just fans,” Ms. Beyer said. “They can connect to things that get other fans excited about the movies.”
Rise of the Dead
After graduation, Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross briefly went their own ways: Mr. Funk curated shows and co-founded a studio space in Columbus, Ohio, and Mr. Ross had a stint working for the Maine Conservation Corps. They reconnected a few years later after they moved to Los Angeles. They were both diving headlong into the music of the Grateful Dead, and their love of the band helped forge a stronger bond and also planted the seeds of their future business endeavor.
“When you become obsessed with something and another person’s also obsessed, it’s so sick to just go and get so heady about it all,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s all we talked about for a long time.”
While the Grateful Dead has gained traction in certain trendy circles over the last handful of years, at the time, the band was in a cultural limbo. “It was a bit of a troll thing to wear tie-dye to an art show,” Mr. Funk recalled. “No one at a hip L.A. thing was like, ‘I’m a Deadhead.’”
But the Grateful Dead’s look gave them a visual template that they could riff off and build on — something recognizable to Dead aficionados and something that was so thoroughly well-known that it would be familiar to those who only had cursory knowledge of the band.
Mr. Welch, a longtime Grateful Dead fan, was given an Online Ceramics shirt as a gift. When he posted himself wearing it on Instagram, he was surprised at the response. “I was taken aback because all these people were commenting, ‘That’s Online Ceramics,’” he said. “They had a very loyal following.”
“It wasn’t really until I saw myself on an Online Ceramics tee that said, ‘Mayer is Dead to us,’ that I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the embodiment right there.’ Like me being accepted into this world,” Mr. Mayer said.
‘Get some coffee and get to work’
Today, the duo works out of a warehouselike studio along a dusty road just east of Dodger Stadium. Off in a corner a multipronged screen-printing machine greeted visitors like a hulking mechanical insect. Almost everything Online Ceramics produces is made in the United States if not in Los Angeles, but lately they have been exploring production facilities in China and South America to keep prices down. T-shirts cost around $55 to $65, sweatshirts are $100 to $120 and hats are $35, though they are often sold in limited quantities and fetch more on the secondary market. To Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross, the accessible price points are important, and they believe that they can find ethical overseas producers.
From this studio, so far from the crackle of New York or Paris, Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross have carved out a business model that seems to exist outside of the traditional fashion ecosystem, but is not completely divorced from it. It reflects new ideas of luxury, not in the vein of mass-produced luxury goods that fill racks in sterile malls, but something that’s small-batch, lo-fi and speaks to those who fancy themselves outside the mass culture.
Mr. Welch, when asked where the company might fit into the current fashion matrix, said, “Outside of it, in the parking lot, selling T-shirts at a pop-up table.”
But things may be changing and the big fashion players are starting to circle the brand. In addition to the collection with Heaven by Marc Jacobs, the pair said it had been approached by a large conglomerate-owned brand about a collaboration.
“I became a fan of their art and the authenticity that came with their art, which feels very rare, especially in fashion in this day and age,” Ava Nirui, special projects director at Marc Jacobs, wrote in an email. “I’m not sure you can even call Online Ceramics a fashion brand at all. To me, it feels more multipronged and expansive than that. It spans across so many different worlds and references, and that’s why it’s so special.”
In the near future, Mr. Funk and Mr. Ross hope to try out more cut-and-sew pieces, such as jackets and pants, and delve deeper into art-making and painting. They are working with A24 on a book slated to be published next year.
The partners have come a long way since the day a John Mayer hoodie drop netted them $25,000 in a day; Online Ceramics was still a side project for them at the time. They were at an airport about to head out on tour with the Dead when they rewarded themselves with a glass of champagne and, somehow, missed their flight. “It was the most money I’d ever seen at that point,” Mr. Ross said. “I was like, OK, I think we can probably start imagining a world where this is like our life, like our job.”
“I still don’t accept it too much,” Mr. Funk said. “I get up, go for a walk, get some coffee and get to work. I cannot break that. I hope to someday be able to break that a little bit. If I’m not working on something, I feel like this is all going to dissolve.”