Detail of 2017 photo by Stella Kalinina of Environmental Design alumnus and Heath Clay Studio director Tung Chiang.

feature / alumni / environmental-design
October 18, 2017
Writer: Solvej Schou
Photographer: Stella Kalinina

HQ:SF – Creatives in the Bay Area / Part 3 / Environmental Design Alum Tung Chiang

San Francisco has changed a lot since 1967’s Summer of Love. Flanked by water and fog, the Northern California city now brims with technology companies and creatives. Meet three very different alums who work and live in and around the golden City by the Bay. Here’s part 3:

In San Francisco, in the northeast urban heart of the Mission District, a retail showroom, newsstand and massive tile factory for 70-year-old Bay Area-based Heath Ceramics stretches a full city block.

It’s here, in his upstairs studio, that Heath Clay Studio director and creative lead Tung Chiang sits hunched over his pottery wheel, wearing a denim half apron-half robe. He cups a hunk of clay, places it on the spinning wheel, adds water, plunges his fingers into the middle and coaxes the clay into becoming a smooth cylindrical vase. As morning mist disappears, sun streams in through three walls of windows. On one side, there’s a view of the Twin Peaks hills. On the other side, Victorian houses and cherry trees snake up streets by the Mission’s vivid murals.

“You can see the sunset and sunrise on both sides of my studio, and there's a lot of natural light coming in, so it's always beautiful inside,” says Chiang. “Nighttime, when it’s quiet, is the best time to work.”

Ceramics taught me how to let go of control. You can have a vision, but the end result is always different, which is really satisfying.

Tung Chiang

The studio is stuffed with bulbous fist-sized vases in warm yellow, peach, blue and green that Chiang made, as well as sleekly glazed plates and candle holders from Heath Clay Studio’s annual Design Series. This year, Chiang—an avid collector—has worked on an animal series, and flatware. Personal trinkets of inspiration, from a Babar elephant figure to a rubber Gumby, cover wooden shelves. Every day, early, Chiang drives in from his and his partner’s house in San Rafael, past Mill Valley. Tartine Manufactory—downstairs from his studio—is his go-to lunch spot to chomp on crisp, fragrant bread, and cake.

“Rents are high in San Francisco,” Chiang notes. “But because we have so many startups and creative industries, there are many career opportunities.” Raised in Hong Kong, Chiang worked in advertising for 10 years before studying furniture design in Environmental Design at ArtCenter. He then snagged a day job as an industrial designer blocks from Heath. At night, at a local clay studio, he honed his skills as a potter.

“Ceramics taught me how to let go of control,” says Chiang, later scraping the big ears of a clay elephant. “You can have a vision, but the end result—what emerges from your hands—is always different, which is really satisfying.”