At Jim Schatz's creek-side home and studio in upstate New York, the trees bear the fruits of his labor: glossy, egg-shaped earthenware bird houses and feeders, including Red Hot, in a rainbow of colors, tended daily by the artist and product-tested by chickadees, grosbeaks and cardinals.
"There's experience attached to these items," says Schatz, 38. "Everything I make gets into my living space, because designs need to be fine-tuned." His line, J Schatz, also includes lighting, hanging planters, ceramic curtains and salt and pepper shakers, all sophisticated and playful.
"I sit and I ponder shapes," he says. "I need a concept or idea, and a form in front of me to hold in my hand." Eggs fascinate him: he's explored the ovoid for years in his photography, video and sculpture. "I took it to every level. The one shape has done many things."
Schatz grew up on a farm in North Dakota and spent his teens in Colorado. At San Francisco State University he took "every art course possible," then "fell into" pottery while employed at a ceramic supply company. In 2000 he moved to Manhattan, worked in advertising and, in his spare time, experimented with clay in a 12-by-12-inch test kiln in his tiny kitchen. Naturally, he made ceramic eggs. One day his partner, Dan Llaurado, suggested, "You know, these things could be lamps." That led to Schatz's first marketable product, a stem lamp.
After 9/11, the two retreated to the country, where Schatz began producing bird feeders. Most models on the market were ugly and flimsy. Through trial and error (ceramics, he sighs, is "a scientific, intuitive, heartbreaking medium"), he developed one that used gravity to dispense seeds smoothly into an aluminum base, with perches for four birds. And with its thick walls and raw-glazed surface-too slippery for squirrels and tough enough to withstand all weather-this egg didn't crack. When Fortune dubbed it one of the 25 Best Products of 2004, sales skyrocketed. (Llaurado, who died in 2003, never knew the success he helped inspire.)
Ten thousand handmade products later, Schatz continues to expand his line. He's working on a design for a hummingbird feeder. Still obsessed with shape, he's branching out: his Poodle Butt sculptures are a hit with lovers of the breed. It's a departure from eggs, but as he puts it, "You've got to break things up."