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The Making of Heath Clay Studio’s Design Series 5: Forming Fables

12.12.17 | By
The Making of Heath Clay Studio’s Design Series 5: Forming Fables
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Ceramicist and head of Heath Clay Studio (the experimentation division of Heath Ceramics), Tung Chiang, recently launched Design Series 5: Forming Fables, the fifth show that explores ideas with clay throughout an entire year. This year he chose to create hand-formed ceramic animals and trees that illustrate the stories that go along with the collection. Throughout the year-long project, he spent time brainstorming ideas, fleshing out shapes and glazes, and honing the process of making the final pieces – all in he made over 100 one-of-a-kind pieces for the show. For this month’s Deconstruction, they take us through the process of how this storied collection came to fruition.

Tung Chiang in the Heath Clay Studio in San Francisco \\\ Photo by Eszther Matheson

Continuing to explore what design means to Heath, Tung Chiang, a well trained designer, gifted ceramicist, and head of the Heath Clay Studio, presents Design Series 5: Forming Fables. It’s the fifth presentation of Heath’s special Design Series show exploring the possibilities of designing with clay, this year focusing on hand-formed ceramic animals, painted vignettes, and the moving, and oftentimes funny stories behind them.

Tung’s animal sketches \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

To start, Tung spent time sketching animals. When designing, his focus is on a wide range of design that allows him to think as broadly as he can. The Design Series is about exploration; Each sketch represents a different idea of how to capture the expression of an animal or the stories behind them.

Tung’s collection of animal figurines line his shelf in the Heath Clay Studio \\\ Photo by Renee Zellweger

Tung is an avid collector of animal figurines from around the world. Many come from Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and some are his childhood toys. He enjoys having items he loves around him as he begins a project.

Tung’s sketch of “My Tree” \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

Design Series 5: Forming Fables includes over 100 hand-formed ceramic animals, along with paintings. Here’s a focused look at how one of Tung’s pieces came to be.

The story of “My Tree” according to Tung: “Each of these animals is born under a tree which they call their own and look after their entire life. One fox has a tree that’s dying, and is past the point of recovery. A neighboring squirrel offers a helping hand by sharing its seed collection with the fox. The seed later sprouts, and is under the fox’s care. Turning to you, these animals ask: which tree are you protecting?

I like the story, and the form itself. The tree forms offered more variety whereas animals have established looks — a dog had to look like a dog, a cat like a cat. The trees were almost like spirits I could explore.”

Heath’s proprietary clay \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

The Heath Clay Studio uses the same proprietary clay that Heath Ceramics founder Edith Heath developed in 1948. The clay fires at a lower temperature for a longer stretch of time, ensuring durability.

Tung at the wheel, beginning to form a tree \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

Tung usually throws with the sketch nearby, but with this tree design, the form allowed for flexibility, letting him throw freely with just the abstract memory of trees in mind.

Freshly thrown object with clay tools \\\ Photo by Renee Zellweger

Two of the trees after throwing \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

After the pieces are thrown, they are cut off from the wheel and allowed to air dry for a day before trimming the feet.

Trimming \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

Trimming is done when the clay is leather hard. This is the time to create the feet of the piece.

Winnie glazing a Bud Vase as a test \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

The shape of the Heath Bud Vase is ideal for glaze testing and experimenting. Tung worked with Heath’s master glazer, Winnie Crittenden. Winnie has been working with Heath for over 40 years and is also Edith Heath’s niece. Glazes in Design Series 5: Forming Fables are in earth tones like green and brown, along with experiments in texture and patterns.

The popular Bud Vase wall in the Heath Clay Studio \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

Throughout the years, Tung has collected his glaze experiments and pulls them from the wall when thinking about future glaze applications and firing techniques—glaze is not only about color.

The bisqued animals are measured by square inch \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

By experimenting with glazes on the Bud Vase, Tung discovered a useful formula when trying to figure out how to best apply glazes to his hand-formed animals. The ratio of glaze by gram per square inch allowed him to apply glazes on more complicated shapes.

Glazing the tree with spray gun \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

At Heath Ceramics, most of the glazing is done by spray gun. It requires a long training process to achieve the even surface on each piece.

Tung and Winnie at the kiln, happy with how the pieces have fired \\\ Photo by Heath Ceramics

As each piece from Design Series is unique and the result of the glaze firing is always unpredictable, often times he will not know what may come out until the firing is done. Opening the kiln is always a nervous but exciting moment.

The final result of “My Tree” \\\ Photo by Renee Zellweger

“My Tree” is one of many pieces Tung created for the show. 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. And some are adaptations of Heath pieces, like covers for Heath bowls in cat and fish form. This show explores Heath’s take on decorative objects and takes inspiration from children’s books and fairy tales.

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Photo by Renee Zellweger

A glimpse of other finished pieces like sleeping foxes, hummingbirds, and cats in Heath bowls.

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Photo by Renee Zellweger

Caroline Williamson is Editorial Director of Design Milk. She has a BFA in photography from SCAD and can usually be found searching for vintage wares, doing New York Times crossword puzzles in pen, or reworking playlists on Spotify.