Inside the Heath Ceramics Clay Studio with Director Tung Chiang

The making of ceramic animals is as old as ceramic art. As early as 24,000 BC, animal and human figurines were made from clay and other materials. Ceramic animals representing spiritual, decorative or financial intentions are tradition all over the world. But for Heath Ceramics, a company driven primarily by function, deciding to dive into decorative ceramic animals was a new challenge. And that, says Tung Chiang, director of the Heath Clay Studio, was the point.

“The idea of the design series is about challenging ourselves, and learning how can we push ourselves as a company,” he said. The series changes themes every year, inspiring Tung and the Heath team to experiment and explore a component of ceramic design in a deeper way over the entire course of a year. Past themes have focused on candle holders, vases, lighting, and glaze.

For Design Series 5: Forming Fables, Tung has created over 100 ceramic animals and hand-drawn vignettes depicting moving, and oftentimes funny stories behind them. The work ranges from playful to serious to moving to sophisticated, bringing to life the story behind each animal, whether a bird, cat, three-legged-dog or the like. Most are original, hand-formed pieces: a hummingbird, made in memory of one that hit Tung’s window, fainted, and flew away from the palm of his hand, reminding him of life’s fragility and strength.

“An animal figure can be really decorative, so the challenge was how can I use the materials and philosophy we have about every day objects to tackle something like that?” he said. Some of the pieces are adaptations of Heath pieces, like covers for Heath bowls in cat and fish form. It’s a fun and playful theme, taking inspiration from children’s books and fairy tales, but pulling from the real joy and meaning that animals hold for people. “99.9% of Heath staff are animal lovers,” he said.

This bear, with a rather large behind, lays on the earth’s last iceberg, contemplating its next move, if any. Photo by Renee Zellweger.

“I was fascinated by the fact that with not a lot of equipment, just clay, a little glaze and a kiln, you can make all this happen yourself. There’s something satisfying about thinking of and then making something that appears in front of you right away.”

Inspired by the many dogs who visit our Heath SF showroom, this dog with a wheelchair emanates their contagious positivity and energy. Photo by Renee Zellweger.
The series blends Tung’s love of drawing with his skills in pottery, resulting in animal figurines, some on their own, and some that accompany hand-drawn vignettes. Glazes are in earth tones like green and brown, along with experiments in texture and patterns. Photo by Renee Zellweger.

Tung spends the first portion of the year thinking about and planning the series, and starts diving into work around May. He makes anywhere between 100 to 200 prototypes, each a different ideation. At the end the whole exploration is presented to an audience, from conception to final works. It gives customers an opportunity to understand the process and take pieces home. This year’s show opens on Friday, October 27th and the RSVP list was at capacity at the time of publication, but the show will last until pieces are sold out.

Tung worked as a designer for almost twenty years in his native Hong Kong, and went from 2D to 3D shortly after he moved to San Francisco. “I used to work in advertising and spent a lot of time making ideas around peoples’ products but I wanted to learn to make my own designs and product. Eventually, I became an industrial designer, and I was designing but still not making,” he said.

Meanwhile, he nurtured his interest in ceramics at his neighborhood clay studio at night. “I was fascinated by the fact that with not a lot of equipment, just clay, a little glaze and a kiln, you can make all this happen yourself. There’s something satisfying about thinking of and then making something that appears in front of you right away.”

It’s been twelve years since he started working with clay. He looks inside and outside the studio for inspiration, reflecting on the company’s almost 70-year-old history and considering founder Edith Heath’s process and dedication. His life experience, including moving to California and appreciating the natural environment here, has served as a compass.

“After I moved to California I really appreciated all the green and the water, and it was really important for me to learn that when you design you should be considering those elements. I want to be sustainable and respectful in my design.” he said. “Inspiration comes from exploring as a human being, as you grow up you start dialing in on things you like, you become more certain about what lifestyle you want and who you want to be.”

Learn more about the Heath Clay Studio.
Visit the Heath Ceramics profile.

Thanks to eszter+david for the photos of Tung in this piece.
eszter+david are an Australian-born, San Francisco-based photographic team with David behind the camera and Eszter looking after all things production related from pre to post. Their photography encompasses many genres including hotel/resort, lifestyle and environmental portraiture and their assignments see them shooting around the globe. eszter+david thrive on working across a broad range of projects and subject matter to keep themselves inspired, see more of their work here.

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