Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics

by Annie Werbler

Ceramic artist Isabel Halley occupies a sunny corner of New Clay Studios in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, which retains the soulful details of its turn-of-the-20th-century beginnings as an apple distribution plant. Thirteen years ago, ceramicist Amanda Moffat took over the space and transformed it from a pile of bricks into a beautiful and safe clay studio. Runoff grates on the sides of the room allow for areas to be hosed down at the end of each day, and everything is on wheels for the easy relocation of both heavy and fragile items. “Clay dust is a ceramicist’s biggest enemy,” Isabel shares. “Being able to easily clean one’s space is paramount to keeping your lungs healthy.” For a positive mood, seven skylights provide enough of the sun’s rays that bulbs aren’t even often necessary.

Having everything she needs at eye level is Isabel’s key to staying organized. When she has to go looking for miscellaneous items stored in milk crates found Upstate, she gets easily distracted by the rediscovered treasures she finds. Her chairs, rulers, sieves, buckets, measuring cups, and desk all come from hunting tag sales in that New York region. She also keeps her tile tests right in front of her for inspiration. “You can’t tell what any colors in clays or glazes are going to be until they are fired,” Isabel explains. “That means that every time I make a new clay or color, I have to send it through two kiln firings to find out what it really looks like. It makes things very exciting or very disappointing!”

This labor of love is steeped in complicated processes. For example, large pieces such as her Seder Plate and 1000 Pinch Bowl need lots of time in which to dry. They must first be wrapped in plastic, then draped in plastic, draped in cotton, then covered with newspaper — and only then are they usually dry. But even once the pieces make it all the way through these steps they can still cause heartbreak. “You have to be very careful that the kiln does not heat up too quickly or cool down too slowly because this can cause the pieces to crack,” Isabel says.

Isabel has been obsessed with clay, Silly Putty, kneaded erasers, and squishy textures since she was a little kid. Having grown up in Tribeca in the 1980s, Isabel found herself surrounded by a community of artists — a lucky circumstance that inspired her future vocation. The tips of her fingers are still very soothed by soft things, and the textures of all of her pieces are created by their pinching. “Being an artist can often be super solitary,” Isabel conveys. “I can get lost in podcasts and clay.” While going to the sink, Isabel is glad to check out the other talented people working around her, providing her very own grown-up community of likeminded makers. —Annie

Photography by Cory Antiel

Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Ceramicist Isabel Halley keeps the inventory of her Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn studio organized so she may easily fill the web orders that come through. New gray clay pinch bowls with a 22 karat gold rim and striped wine cups reside on shelving illuminated by natural light. Additionally, "the bumpy vases are the only pieces I made that are not glazed clear," Isabel shares. "They have white glaze on them which, for me, it very daring. It isn't so important to see my fingerprints on these pieces because they are all about that bumpy texture."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Isabel's corner of the studio also holds storage for her supplies, a standing desk area where everything she needs is at eye level, and a trusty worktable.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
One of Isabel's favorite designs, these tiles are supposed to hang sideways on a wall to resemble tree mushrooms. "One day I will tile a room with them!," she promises.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Over her desk, Isabel keeps outlines used to make her bumpy vases, stickers, and a drawn interview that Buzz Aldrin did for the New York Times Style Magazine. "I have one sheet of paper that I keep the weight of every piece I make. To keep pieces uniform, I have to weigh the clay on a scale," she explains. The pinch pot drawings show how differently the pieces can turn out from one another. "I have always thought of the rims of my pinch pots [as] lines, or extensions of a line drawing."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Isabel getting ready to ship out her pinch pots, of which she checks each piece. This playful, enamel-colored rim collection was made for the Whitney Museum last year.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"What I love most about my studio is the light." - Isabel Halley, written in pencil on a dry porcelain slab
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
The worktable, clay and slips on wheels, tools and inventory in the studio.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Shelves lined with everything Isabel needs to make her work. On top she stores boxes and tape from Uline, as well as a little graveyard of pieces that didn't work out but she can't part with. "I actually use that hatchet when I have to break pieces into smaller parts to throw away," Isabel says.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
Isabel's "way too many rulers." She loves that she can bend shapes into the foldable one.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"Behind me are all of my colored slips and other experiments with color... I am really interested in colored clay right now. I am constantly thinking about how new colors would change the gestalt of my pieces. I love this picture because if you went to my Dad's studio (he is a painter) you would find his paints in exactly the same containers with little test swabs next to them.
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"A lot of my custom stamps come from Casey Stamp on 11th street in the east village. Run, don't walk, to his store. He has [incredible] stamps of his own and he has helped me make my own from drawings and books. The top left stamp is from a drawing on my pinch pot. I cheated on Casey and made it online."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"The studio was built in the early 20th century to be an apple distribution plant," Isabel shares. "By the time it was transformed into a ceramic studio it had become completely derelict."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"The kiln room is like the belly of a ship," Isabel begins, "It's always buzzing with kilns heating up and cooling down. I can never wait for the kiln to cool down to a temperature that I can [handle] without gloves. I think I opened it when it was still 500 degrees that day. I am very impatient. That is such a challenge with using clay! You have to go through so many steps to get to the final result."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"Inside the kiln I have new colors," Isabel shares. "Grey and pink are my favorites."
Studio Tour: Isabel Halley Ceramics, on Design*Sponge
"These are the kiln shelves that are stacked with my pieces. I have to wipe each one with a sponge before I put it in the kiln to make sure that my porcelain pieces don't get any unwanted spots on them."

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