East meets West in idyllic home

The view from the ceramic studio of Teresa Chang's looking towards the garden and home. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer )

Ceramicist Teresa Chang is known nationally for her modern, Eastern-inspired, functional teapots and dinnerware characterized by a deceptive simplicity.

The design of her 100-plus year-old rowhouse in Northern Liberties might be similarly described, in ways best illustrated by the dining area.

There, Bellini chairs surround an Ikea table topped with three porcelain pieces - a ghostly white apple, candlestick, and vase by KleinReid. Set up on the floor nearby, courtesy of the 4-year-old and 6-year-old in residence, are a cardboard castle and "garden." Above the mantel hangs a cherished painting by her uncle, Louis Chang, that Teresa spent hours studying as a girl, trying to find all the "animals" hiding in its colorful whorls and blobs.

It's a mix of high, low, and sentimental style that is repeated in Chang's master bedroom, where wavy paper Ikea lanterns hang over a bed flanked by Korean chests and a pair of Noguchi lamps.

"That's our house: Noguchi and Ikea," Chang says of the home she shares with husband Eric Furst and their two children.

"We have valuable things, but they aren't showcased in any formal way," she says, pointing to antique Japanese cooking vessels that double as bookends on a living-room shelf. "We like to incorporate beautiful things into our everyday lives."

When Chang and Furst, an associate professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Philadelphia in 2001, she rented a studio in the nearby Loft District. But as the children needed her more at home, her time in the studio decreased.

So Chang talked with friends at Qb3, an architecture/graphic/product-design firm, about creating a freestanding studio in the backyard.

A few years earlier, Qb3 had transformed a forlorn toilet closet on the third floor into a spa-like bathroom. Chang and Furst had been ready to lose the light from two large windows near the closet, but Qb3 came up with an elegant answer.

"We ran the bath across the length of the building like a ribbon," says Kevin Angstadt, a Qb3 partner, "and put a center wall in line with the gap between the two windows." That center wall was flanked by a frosted wall and a sliding pocket door that allowed light from both windows to pour into the main room while also creating a narrow, serene bath with small green and blue tiles, niches for Chang's orchids, and a roomy shower.

"It hardly cost more than I would have paid for [a] vanilla bathroom," says Chang.

For her studio, she asked Qb3 to think simply and economically: "I wanted to cut overhead because I was working less. I said, 'Build a cinder-block box,' and they came back with a sensitive design that honors my work. That was really remarkable."

It helped that the architects knew how she works.

"She's an amazing perfectionist. There's a level of precision in everything she does," Angstadt says.

So they set out to make a place where Chang could achieve that level of precision with few distractions. The result is a crisp black box clad with horizontal bands of burnt cedar that create a subtle pattern.

The wood is passed through a fire bath that brings resins to the surface, a progression that mirrors what Chang does with clay.

"It's that same attitude of taking a simple thing and running it through a process to transform it into something else," Angstadt says.

Light enters through sliding-glass doors facing an ivy-covered wall, a skylight, and a small slot window positioned so Chang can turn to see the courtyard while she's sitting at her wheel.

"The obvious thing would have been to bring in light by opening up the studio side of the courtyard," she says, "but they were thoughtful enough about my work and my relationship between work and home to create an introverted space."

Construction is no friend to plant life, which meant another project once the studio was completed in 2008. Chang hired landscape designer Maria Hasenecz, owner of Livable Landscapes in Wyndmoor, to create a lush, low-maintenance garden that doesn't feel overdesigned.

"She needed something to tie the studio to the house and be visually appealing," says Hasenecz, who responded by repeating plant material and colors - blues (Japanese painted fern) and chartreuse (creeping Jenny) - near the house and studio and by keeping the flowering plants to a minimum.

The result is a naturalistic spot Chang can either leave or punch up with annuals in containers.

Having a studio in the backyard could have been dangerous for a workaholic like Chang, but the closeness has made it possible for her to log about 20 hours per week there without sacrificing time with the children.

"Now, it's easy to sneak back into the studio after the kids are in bed to work for a few hours," she says. "The studio has really improved the quality of our lives."

Is your house a Haven?

Tell us about your haven by e-mail (and send some digital photographs) at properties@phillynews.com.

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