Edith Heath transformed the art of ceramic dinnerware, eschewing the “Sunday best” formality of white china in favor of versatile pieces crafted in rich, earthy textures and tones. A sometime art teacher and largely self-taught potter, she founded her studio in Sausalito in 1948, using clay from north of Sacramento and proprietary glazes she created herself. Seven decades later, Heath Ceramics is still going strong. In 2012, the company opened its Clay Studio, a creative testing ground for prototypes and small collections, in San Francisco and hired Tung Chiang, an industrial designer turned master potter, as its director. We talked to Chiang about his love of clay and about the hallmark of the studio, his Design Series—an annual offering of themed pieces, from candlesticks and planters to figurines of three-legged dogs.

made in california seal
Michael Schwab

Let’s kick off with news: the next edition of the Design Series, objects with lids, will be the 10th and last of the series. How does that feel?
Lidded objects open and close. So this is the closure of the Design Series but the opening of the next chapter for me as Heath’s Clay Studio director.

How did you get into working with clay to begin with?
Sort of by accident. I was working as an industrial engineer in [San Francisco’s] Noe Valley, sitting in front of a computer all day. I really wanted to make something, but I didn’t know what. I stumbled upon a clay studio and took my first class. As soon as I started learning, I found it really satisfying.

What was it about clay that touched you?
It’s natural. As an industrial engineer, I was working with a lot of synthetic, plastic materials. Clay is a natural material that people have been using for thousands of years. The material itself could be millions of years old. And you could spend a long time learning how to make something on a wheel, but if you’re a kid, you could also make a little animal in no time.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

japanese american fiber artist kay sekimachi wrapped a vase designed by ceramicist tung chiang in real leaves for this collaborative piece
Japanese American fiber artist Kay Sekimachi wrapped a vase designed by ceramicist Tung Chiang in real leaves for this collaborative piece.

Ceramics have traditionally been functional. Do you mind if people just put your ceramics up on the mantel as decoration and never use them?
I am also a collector, so that’s a perfect question for me. Last year, the Design Series was planters. If someone tells me, “I pulled out all the plants and locked the planter in a glass shelf,” I’ll probably be less happy than if someone says, “You know what, I’ll be careful, but I’m putting a plant inside.” I don’t want to judge. But as a maker, I’m happier if they’re used the way I designed them.

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Do you have a favorite Design Series line?
The animal series is one of my favorites. Heath Ceramics is famous for their functional ware: dining plates, saucers, mugs. I thought, “What if I brought a story-oriented approach, with animals?” I always loved tripod dogs, dogs that are missing a limb. When humans are injured, it brings them so much emotional stress. But in animals, they don’t see a lot of difference. If they have three legs, they still run and play and chase. So I loved the spirit of it. In the end, I cared less about whether it looks like a dog or doesn’t look like a dog. I was more interested in making a sculpture about the story of a three-legged dog.

What would you do if you couldn’t be a potter?
The funny thing is, I’ve been thinking about that every day. If you ask most potters, we have back pain, shoulder pain, tendinitis. You can see my wheel is on this very tall platform, because I have scoliosis. Have you seen My Left Foot? I always thought that if I was missing my hands, I would use my foot to throw. If I can connect my brain to a 3-D printer, I’ll just start printing objects. •

Robert Ito is a journalist based in Los Angeles.