How a design-led New York vodka brand funds the contemporary art world

Vodka by Material and portrait of its co-founder Pati Hertling
Left, the Material vodka bottle, designed by creative director Patrick Li. Right, Pati Hertling, Material’s co-founder.
(Image credit: Robbie Lawrence)

It would be easy to write off Material vodka as another boutique label that simply looks good on the bar shelf. But while its branding is restrained and attractive, the outfit has also become known for its patronage of the arts, bestowing an award for performance and time-based art onto a new recipient each year.

Co-founder Pati Hertling is a Berlin-born, New York-based lawyer who specialises in the return of art stolen during the Holocaust to its rightful owners. She’s also a part-time curator (her next project is a group show for Gavin Brown’s Enterprise), and a full-time figure on the New York art scene.

Hertling says she created Material as a smart means to an end. ‘It’s hard to sustain art making without having to ask people for money all the time,’ she says, ‘so why not make a product that everybody in the art world consumes already, so that we can have this perpetual cycle that keeps on giving back?’

Together with Thymaya Payne, a filmmaker and friend, Hertling enlisted Abe Stevens, a distiller from Humboldt County, California. An old friend of Payne’s, he runs Humboldt Distillery, the only certified organic purveyor of spirits in the North Coast region. ‘This area has one of the softest waters in the US, which is very beneficial, since vodka contains 80 per cent water,’ says Hertling. After tasting several different formulas, Hertling and Payne settled on one with no added sugar or acids: ‘We went for a more Eastern European taste, very classic and not as sweet as other vodkas. It’s wheat-based, organic, and filtered through coconut carbon. The smoothness is really its most successful trait.’

Although the brand is still in its infancy, Hertling has great ambitions. ‘We could potentially have a very significant art fund of more than a million a year,’ she says. ‘The idea is to become one of the biggest corporate art funders, and to support performance and time-based art, as opposed to painting and sculpture, which already have an established market. These more intangible art forms are generally dependent on sponsorships or grants, and are so important in shaping our culture; they are often more political and engaged in social issues.’ This year’s award goes to Sondra Perry, an artist best known for video, performance and computer-based works that investigate black history, heritage, femininity and identity.

Thanks to the recent launch of a crowdfunding campaign, Hertling is also pushing on with a slew of collaborations with politically minded creatives, chefs and mixologists. Angela Dimayuga, previously of Mission Chinese Food, and Gerardo Gonzalez of Lalito are both collaborating on special infusions for Material.

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As originally featured in the April 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*229)


For more information, visit the Material website

Pei-Ru Keh is a former US Editor at Wallpaper*. Born and raised in Singapore, she has been a New Yorker since 2013. Pei-Ru held various titles at Wallpaper* between 2007 and 2023. She reports on design, tech, art, architecture, fashion, beauty and lifestyle happenings in the United States, both in print and digitally. Pei-Ru took a key role in championing diversity and representation within Wallpaper's content pillars, actively seeking out stories that reflect a wide range of perspectives. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, and is currently learning how to drive.