Let There Be Lights

December 29, 2014

Text by By Julie Dugdale

Felicia Hwang Bishop flicks a switch in a smallish room that occupies a corner of her 4,000-square-foot studio. A single white clay form, graceful in its sculptural simplicity, stands on a table near a backsplash spattered with jewel-toned hues. This is where the magic happens, she says. It’s like a spray-tan booth for ceramics, but instead of artificial bronzing, each piece is sprayed with a hand-mixed liquid-glass glaze. That piece will eventually become part of Hwang Bishop’s eponymous collection of designer lamps, produced entirely out of her airy workshop in the coastal enclave of Warren, Rhode Island.

It all began more than twenty years ago when Hwang Bishop was working in a Chicago design showroom. “I noticed there was a niche market not being filled, and I loved sculpture,” says the designer, who studied textiles at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. So she sculpted. “My manager let me put some pieces on the floor—and they sold!”

She started with wood, designing the lamp bases and outsourcing the wood-turning. She moved to the East Coast and, after taking one ceramics class at the Rhode Island School of Design, switched to clay and brought every aspect of production in-house. “There’s so much you can do with your hands and sculpture,” says Hwang Bishop, whose studio shelves are lined with ceramic lamp bases of all shapes and sizes waiting for a glossy finish.  “All these vessel forms are functional but beautiful—sculptural forms that are at the same time practical. There aren’t too many companies in this area where you can work in this medium as a job, because so much is imported.”

But her clients, mostly high-end interior designers and architects for both residential and hospitality properties, are more than happy to commission locally.

The line is represented at nine showrooms across the country, including the Boston Design Center and the Decoration & Design Building in New York, and a retail website is in progress. Furthermore, the designer has recently been collaborating with other companies on joint product lines, like Hwang Bishop for Oomph (a home decor firm based in Connecticut).

So how do these lamps go from raw slip (liquid clay) to sleek, polished vessels befitting a five-star hotel? The studio has just five employees, but each one is passionate about clay. They pour the slip into molds and let it dry into hardened clay; these solid forms get transferred to a small kiln, where they are fired to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The next stop is the glazing room, which is where Hwang Bishop’s specialty lies: designers can send swatches that the studio uses to formulate a customized color. The second firing, in a larger, hotter kiln, creates the desired effect, such as a crackle finish.

If she’s not firing up a glazed piece, Hwang Bishop might be found working on a different lamp finish: gold leaf. The hand-appliqued technique requires more painstaking labor, but the rich metallic effect is delightfully decadent. “I love beautiful objects and beautiful colors,” she says. “I love the whole process. And I love problem solving.” She’s referring to the fact that all her materials come from the earth, which can mean variation in characteristics. For instance, if the clay company that supplies the studio begins sourcing the clay from a different site, or if the weather fluctuates drastically, that could affect the drying time and other steps along the way. “There’s an art to figuring out how long to leave it in the mold, when to take it out, whether to cast it thicker or thinner,” she says. “There’s a learning curve.”

Hwang Bishop takes her design cues from history. “I’m definitely influenced by Asian vessel forms, by trips to museums,” she says. “There are so many beautiful forms from the past.”

But she relishes the unexpected results of her craft. “The designers are so creative,” she says. “They might ask for something crazy that we’ve never done before. That’s always interesting—the customization aspect of it. Seeing what people want and being surprised at the outcome. My favorite thing is opening the kiln up. It’s kind of like Christmas; you don’t know what you’re going to get.” •

Editor’s Note The Hwang Bishop Collection is represented in New England at Studio 534 in the Boston Design Center, (617) 345-9900, s5boston.com. To see more of Hwang Bishop’s work, go to hwangbishop.net