House Beautiful: "Meet the Artist Behind Cult-Favorite Heath Ceramics"
By: Christine Hendrickson | Aug 19, 2020
Tung Chiang has been the studio director for the beloved California company for eight years. House Beautiful visits him at the wheel.
Visit Heath Ceramics's storefront in San Francisco's Mission District, and you've stepped into a design-lover's retail dream: Shelves are lined with the brand's cult-favorite ceramics (Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford have collected its pieces) as well as books on modern design and other stylish accessories for the home. In a factory space behind the shop—visible through glass walls—artisans are making the company's ceramic tile. At the other end of the building, crowds are likely lined up for the fresh bread at buzzy Tartine Manufactory. But up above the shop and factory is a much quieter scene: the domain of Heath studio director Tung Chiang.
In a light, airy space with clay-splattered surfaces and colorful vases lining the walls, Chiang quietly carries on a legacy that stretches back over 70 years. In 1944, Edith Kiertzner Heath, then an art teacher at the Presidio Hill School, was invited to participate in an exhibition at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The ceramics she showed caught the eye of a buyer from the iconic department store Gump's, and within four years, Heath and her husband Brian founded Heath Ceramics in Sausalito—they were soon producing hundreds of thousands of ceramic pieces every year for the country's top retailers.
Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic purchased the company in 2003, and continue to carry on the founders' legacy—and more. Today, Heath Ceramics are sold around the world, in brick-and-mortar stores and online, and the company maintains its Sausalito factory as well as the San Francisco store and studio. But, despite its retail success, Bailey and Petravic haven't forgotten Heath's small-batch roots. That's where Chiang comes in.
I always knew I wanted to be a designer when I was young. I like to think about creative solutions. I want the tactile part of making, so while I was an industrial designer, I starting learning how to make ceramics, making cups and teapots, which is really, really satisfying.
Eight years ago, he joined Heath, where he heads the Studio, a role that combines his joint passions: "I really want to contribute my work about how I want to design, but then at the same time, to be able to make it physically by hand."
In addition to working on design and product development for the company's large-scale productions, Chiang produces the Heath Clay Studio line, handmade ceramic pieces that are highly collectible. All are made with Heath's original clay formula, developed by Edith 70 years ago, and covered in the brand's signature speckled, matte glazes.
And, whether it's a standard set of plates or a one-of-a-kind vase, to Chiang the magic remains the same: "It's always about how you translate a design from abstract to drawing to eventually three dimensional formed by your own hand," he says. "There's satisfaction in how the product emerges in front of you."