Clay StudioTung Chiang of Heath Ceramics
What I learned about working with clay for many years is that there is a human quality to it. It is like sculpting, or raising a child: it is something that has come from the earth, which then goes away and becomes something new, perhaps something unexpected.
Heath Ceramics have been celebrated for their everyday creations in clay since 1948, when the small factory was founded by studio potter Edith Heath and her husband Brian, in Sausalito, California. Following a period of renewal in 2003, when its current owners, Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, purchased the brand, today the company continues to build on its heritage, maintaining constant production of the Coupe dinnerware line, the classic bud vases, and the distinctive architectural tile collections Heath are known for, while pursuing collaborations with other design studios such as Artek, and opening a new factory in San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, in 2012.
In this new location, Heath opened their Clay Studio, an experimental workshop led by ceramicist Tung Chiang, which aims to push the creative limits of clay, glaze and form. Chiang and his team embark on a design series each year, focusing intently on one particular theme and producing unique pieces by hand, to discover new processes and methods of making. In previous years the team has developed hand-formed ceramic animals, small decorative pieces created from moulds, and an in-depth exploration of glazes.
This year’s Design Series 7 saw Chiang interrogate the potter’s most basic form: the bowl. The creations are now on display at Heath’s San Francisco location, and are to join in a retrospective show of Chiang’s work at the Curator’s Cube in Tokyo. Cereal speaks with Tung Chiang to learn about his creative process, and to hear his thoughts on the nature of studio pottery.
Cereal: How did you arrive at the theme for Design Series 7?
Tung Chiang: We always want the design series to be a challenge. I chose the theme of bowls this time because I wanted to go back to wheel-throwing – I used different techniques for the previous two series and was missing the method – and because the bowl is beginner territory: the open form is the first thing you throw as a potter. I wanted to work on this simple process, after seven years of making ceramics, because it is very difficult to make something simple stand out and shine, without overcomplicating things, while also allowing it to speak my language and the language of Heath.
I spent the first few weeks of the year asking myself general questions, to discover what this subject matter means to me personally: How do you define a bowl? What is the difference between a bowl and a plate? How can a bowl be used? What makes one beautiful, or ugly? Usually, I would then make a lot of sketches, and select some that I like, and begin throwing. But this year, I wanted to reverse that tendency, so I reduced the time I spent sketching, and went straight to the wheel to throw. It is a very interesting process of design; you can let the material guide you, and shape the clay while it’s still soft.
Sometimes, I had to pause to sketch or meditate before I could finish the piece. In a sense, this difficulty I found in creating without sketching first was almost a defeat, or a weakness in me – but I am happy to learn this about myself. It prompts me to think, ‘how can I strengthen what I do well even more,’ and ‘how can I improve what I don’t do well’? Both are good inquiries.
How does this series compare with your previous series?
TC: I think of the design series as a continual process. Each theme is drastically different, but I accumulate the knowledge that I have learned from one to the next. What I learned about working with clay for many years is that there is a human quality to it. It is like sculpting, or raising a child: it is something that has come from the earth, which then goes away and becomes something new, perhaps something unexpected. You can push it really hard in one direction, but it will sometimes surprise you. Eventually, I learned I need to be as human as the clay. I need to forget my mechanical training as a designer, the traditional notions of problem solving and so on, and allow myself to grow with my designs. Humans love challenges and finding new ways, but clay teaches us to be humble, to follow its natural rules.
What are some of the surprises you encounter?
TC: The glaze is always a surprise element for a potter; it never comes out exactly the same. As a factory, we need to minimise this quality to some extent, but the unpredictability is also the beauty of ceramics. Edith Heath was always very interested in the variation and subtle changes in the glaze of her pieces. When we introduce a new glaze into production, we undergo rigorous tests to learn its qualities. It takes around six months to a year of tests to understand it fully. But in the case of the design series, it is all about exploration, so we allow the mistakes to happen. Sometimes there are heart-breaking results, but mostly it is exciting to see.
Can you discuss how the final show takes place?
JC: First and foremost, the purpose of the design series is internal: to discover what Heath’s design for the future will be, in order to build on the legacy Edith Heath has left us. When the firing is complete, I invite the design teams and developers to view the pieces, and I talk them through how they were made, and what we learned along the way. This is the most valuable aspect of the work.
We then put the show on externally too, because we believe Heath should be transparent. We are open about each piece: how we make it, how much it costs to make. Industrial design tends to be secretive; you know a large company is probably spending millions researching and investigating their designs, but they will never allow you to see any of that. We want to show our processes to the audience – that is why we put the show together. It’s about presenting every step along the way – the prototypes we have made, the evolution of the pieces.
Each piece is made to be functional, with the intention that it finds a good home. I hope that, when someone picks up one of the bowls, they may not be able to explain why, but they feel it and think, ‘I have been using bowls for many years, but I find this one to be different and interesting.’ I think that would be the best compliment.