PREVIOUS ARTICLE

Collector’s Eye: Bob and Charla Nelson

With three galleries, two auctions and two museums to run, the Nelsons are collectors to their core

NEXT ARTICLE

Perspective: N.C. Wyeth [1822-1945]

The legendary artist’s painterliness and exuberance defined his illustrations of the West

Visitors to Tang’s studio will find hundreds of examples of arts and Crafts-inspired tiles. The abstract ceramic tile in the foreground was cast from an actual fossil of Crinoids, a prehistoric animal that looked like flowers.

In the Studio: A Garden of Imagination

From her Craftsman studio in Pasadena, Cha-Rie Tang creates artisan designs that are grounded in history but realized with contemporary flair

Michele Blackwell  
December 2014 | January 2015


Cha-Rie Tang says nature inspires everything she does, and a survey of the hundreds of handcrafted tiles and glass sculptures that fill her garden provides visitors with ample evidence. Since 2001, Tang has used the excavated 1930s molds of Arts and Crafts-era ceramics master Ernest Batchelder to produce revival tiles. Along the way, she discovered her creative voice. Today, in addition to the reproductions, she crafts original artisanal tiles and fused-glass designs — works she says are rooted in history but reflect a modern sensibility.

Batchelder and his counterparts sought to infuse design with organic motifs as a counterbalance to the Industrial Age. When Tang began carving her own designs, she also took cues from nature. As with her predecessor, she works both inside and outdoors. Over the years her garden, nestled in the heart of Pasadena, has evolved into a living workshop, a combination of spaces that allow her to be surrounded by her muse.

Tang’s family encouraged her to major in architecture, which she did at MIT. There she met a biology major named Bruce Hubbard, who eventually became her husband. After moving to Colorado, where they both earned master’s degrees, they ultimately settled in Pasadena, California, in the 1970s.

“I fell in love with Craftsman architecture,” she says, “even though at the time its popularity was at a low point.” 

Together the couple explored various forms of artistic expression. Then their longtime friend, Chris Casady, unearthed what would become Tang’s passion.

In 2001, Casady discovered that his home’s previous owner had used molds from the Batchelder Tile Company to build retaining walls in the backyard. He excavated them and brought his find to Tang. When she saw the Arts and Crafts-era designs, she decided to try her hand at fashioning tiles from the antique molds.

“I got hooked.”

Tang mastered the art of slip casting using Batchelder molds, but then went on to develop her own line of glazes. She graduated to sketching and carving her own designs. Now her affinity for the Arts and Crafts style can be seen in both her work and her creative space.

The heavy, Japanese-inspired gate, a popular accent in Craftsman architecture, is the portal to Tang’s garden.

The beams extending beyond the buildings create a short breezeway, which serves as another open-air gallery. One side displays Tang’s fused-glass originals.

On the other wall, mounted display boards showcase all of the glaze colors she has developed. Beyond the breezeway is another open workspace. Like the space at the entrance of the garden, wooden beams and a trellis provide shade for the patio. It is here that Tang shapes, molds and carves clay into her works of art. Tucked into a corner is another kiln used for firing tiles. Signs of works in progress are everywhere. Sketches are scattered
upon the table. Tightly sealed slip buckets are stashed underneath. Carved squares have been laid out to dry. The exterior walls are lined with shelves containing hundreds of molds. Some are invaluable antiques. Others are the result of Tang’s diligent efforts to document Craftsman tile work.

“People have been kind enough to let me come into their homes and take impressions of original tiles from the period,” says Tang.

Many will be used to create a public art installation at a local subway station later this year. According to Tang, the project reflects a new sense of pride in the area’s architectural heritage, and she is happy to be part of it. “I am glad to be able to combine my love of nature, working with my hands, Craftsman sensibility, technical abilities and creativity into my life,” says Tang. 

Passing through it one is immediately immersed in her process.

A fence spanning the length of the property serves as an open-air showroom. Its planks are laden with dozens of examples of both Batchelder and Tang designs. Opposite sits a long granite counter sheltered by rounded wooden beams. Ferns climb over corrugated awning panels that rest atop and diffuse the harsh Pasadena sun. This is where Tang greets clients to discuss their visions and her ideas.

The sound of water tumbling over cinderblocks beckons from around the corner. Along the walkway leading to a koi pond are several tile groupings spread out upon the ground. Each represents a custom order. Having an open space for layouts allows Tang to examine how the custom-glazed pieces interact when grouped together. Even with the same glaze, no two pieces are alike. They must be arranged to create a harmonious blend. The space also gives clients a full-size preview prior to installation. Several varieties of koi peer out from behind the glass wall of a raised pond. Aerated by a massive, moss-covered, cement-block fountain, it’s one of Tang’s first garden creations.

“I designed it like a Frank Lloyd Wright wall. It frustrated the builders even though I had built a full-size mock-up,” says Tang. Extending the pond above ground breaks with the Japanese tradition for presenting koi but provides a unique perspective for both fish and viewers. At the center of the garden are two buildings in the Craftsman style. As a licensed architect, Tang designed the studio, taking care to integrate the structures into the garden. Set on stone-battered wall foundations and clad in chocolate-colored shakes, they look as if they simply grew up from the ground. That’s exactly the effect that Tang wanted. “The stone wall reduces the visual height and blends in with the stone on the path,” she says.

Tang used the dirt that was excavated during construction to create a petite, hilly garden that establishes a flow between the fountain and the studio. The first building serves as a small office. From its tall Shaker window, Tang can look out at the garden. The second building, which serves as the fused-glass workshop, houses an oversize kiln with a hearth measuring 3 feet by 6 feet. The kiln, designed and built by Hubbard, took almost a year to complete. According to Tang, it was costly but worthwhile because it has allowed her to complete large-scale public art projects that otherwise would not be possible.

The beams extending beyond the buildings create a short breezeway, which serves as another open-air gallery. One side displays Tang’s fused-glass originals.

On the other wall, mounted display boards showcase all of the glaze colors she has developed. Beyond the breezeway is another open workspace. Like the space at the entrance of the garden, wooden beams and a trellis provide shade for the patio. It is here that Tang shapes, molds and carves clay into her works of art. Tucked into a corner is another kiln used for firing tiles. Signs of works in progress are everywhere. Sketches are scattered upon the table. Tightly sealed slip buckets are stashed underneath. Carved squares have been laid out to dry. The exterior walls are lined with shelves containing hundreds  of molds. Some are invaluable antiques. Others are the result of Tang’s diligent efforts to document Craftsman tile work.

“People have been kind enough to let me come into their homes and take impressions of original tiles from the period,” says Tang.

Many will be used to create a public art installation at a local subway station later this year. According to Tang, the project reflects a new sense of pride in the area’s architectural heritage, and she is happy to be part of it. “I am glad to be able to combine my love of nature, working with my hands, Craftsman sensibility, technical abilities and creativity into my life,” says Tang. 

Architect and artisan Cha-Rie Tang creates works with ceramic tile and fused glass.

An extensive array of tile molds, many from the original batchelder studio, flank the outer walls of the studio.

With koi as her muse, Tang demonstrates her own unique carving style.

Moss climbs the cement block fountain, an homage to Frank Lloyd wright and the focal point of the garden.

The raised pool with a glass side provides a unique view of Tang’s school of koi. it also prevents raccoons from poaching the fish.

A battered - stone ledge also serves as a display.

Cha-Rie Tang did extensive research on the care of koi before designing her pond and fountain.

Wooden fence planks are transformed into a gallery showcasing Tang’s original carved tiles and her batchelder reproductions.