For Matt Cavallaro, Designing Cast-Iron Cookware is for More Than Material Goods
Artists work with myriad materials, but the craft of cast-iron cookware designer Matt Cavallaro utilizes a metal that is practically otherworldly. Just as a tenured chef honors his ingredients by composing each dish with considered purpose and intent, so, too, does Cavallaro, who carefully crafts the vessels in which the chefs will cook.
“Really, there’s a magic in this material; a history. Taking that historical context into consideration is important to me,” says Cavallaro, 30. “This is a metal from myth. Before it could be cast, the only metallic iron on the planet came from meteorites—it’s metal from the gods.”
When the ancient Hittites discovered how to extract metal from ore, called smelting, civilization advanced from the Bronze Age (when bronze was the prolific material used for things like tools and weapons) to the Iron Age.
“Iron begat steel, and steel was the base for all modern industry. For a material that is plentiful on this planet and relatively inexpensive, iron is pretty under-celebrated, in my opinion,” says Cavallaro.
He first came to Providence from Rochester, NY, as a Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) undergrad, studying industrial design with the intent of launching a career in production design for films. A studio course on cast iron changed that trajectory.
“I fell in love with the material and the process,” he says. “I love the idea that when I’m designing pieces in cast iron, or any ancient material, I’m designing artifacts. That ends up giving me a totally different perspective on the lifetime of my projects and a kind of reverence to the iron itself.”
Cavallaro explains that, in a way, he feels a responsibility to the iron; that he needs to make forms worthy of this material, as the pieces could last, theoretically, forever.
Cavallaro hadn’t initially intended to stay in Providence after graduation, but “the Creative Capital” got a hold on him. At first, he found work in product design and brand strategy for a few apparel lines and, while that industry might not seem related to hand-crafting cast-iron cookware, the artist found the experience enriching.
“Apparel is a much different animal. The trends that come and go imply a certain sense of passing relevance, no matter how good the clothing may be. Trying to communicate something meaningful, something lasting, in that particular environment was a really good experience,” he says.
In 2013, Cavallaro launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Nest Homeware, a collection that featured what he dubbed “stick pans.” The handles on the cast-iron pans are an abstract form of a cherry tree branch. The stick pans came in two sizes (a 4.5-inch “egg” pan and a 9-inch skillet), in addition to the cast-iron 3.5-quart Dutch oven, napkin rings and candlesticks he crafted. People believed in Cavallaro’s vision, and 235 backers pledged more than $35,500 to bring Nest Homeware to life.
“I [ … ] love Providence,” he says with gusto and an unprintable adverb. “This place is full of the right kind of people—collaborative in nature, encouraging, creative, genuinely helpful and fun, and there are so many resources for designers and manufacturers immediately surrounding us.”
Ever since, the artist has “nested” in the capital city. “Oh, the pun is not lost on me ...” he says. “I can’t imagine having been able to build this business in another city, really. I’m thankful to have anchored here. This city has really taken care of me.”
Today, the stick pans and Dutch oven remain the crux of the Nest Homeware line, which ranges in price from $77 to $250 for individual pieces. The full set, which includes the larger skillet, the Dutch oven (with a beautiful lid adorned with a brass “twig” handle) and two egg pans, costs $500. He understands these pieces are an investment, but cast-iron pieces can last a lifetime.
“Most people understand that a good castiron skillet will last much longer than even the nicest pair of jeans or most durable jacket. That said, making sure that I can tell my brand’s story and products’ value in such a way that they feel as appealing today as they will feel relevant 10 years from now—it’s really important,” he explains. “It’s getting easier, though, especially in telling that story to folks closer to my age who are buying cookware for the first time—and also to people who have been around the block and seen what lasts and what doesn’t.”
Cavallaro also appreciates the environmental benefits of his work. “We’ve all seen how much waste there is in the world, how planned obsolescence and bad design with other products has contributed to so much pollution and garbage in the landfills. That’s the beauty of cast iron, really: it’s forever.”
Cavallaro speaks with near-reverence about his work being a perk of someone’s daily dining. “If I can add value to someone’s experience while they’re making a meal or serving it to someone else, I’m adding to their life story that day. And other than meals, stories are the things we share the most as a species,” he says.
He adds that there is nothing like cooking with cast iron as it’s such a versatile and reliable material. “Nothing sears meat better, nothing bakes bread better,” he says. “It’s the original, and it remains the best, in my opinion, for cooking almost everything.”
Nest Homeware is currently available online, at Anthropologie stores, a few additional retailers across the country and here at home, at Stock Culinary Goods in Providence. “Jan [Dane] at Stock has been one of my strongest supporters from the very beginning of it all. She’s so rad,” declares Cavallaro.
While getting Nest Homeware off the ground he began a side business called Ares Iron designing iron table legs, which is also taking off. Cavallaro plans to expand into designing furniture, lighting and other “meaningful products.” But in between designing and sometimes teaching cast-iron courses at RISD, he’s looking forward to building his growing cookware business.
To learn more about Nest Homeware, visit NestHomeware.com.