Clay Light Sculpture Artist: Ted Bradley

Artist Ted Bradley crafts clay into stunning, functional light sculptures.

Photo by Jon Rose.

Working from his Boulder studio, Ted Bradley crafts luminous porcelain and metal sculptures.

He discovered a love for ceramics at an early age, then turned his efforts to a mechanical engineering degree and a career in high-tech. “Early on, I found these two really strong interest areas,” Bradley says. “After college, I found myself pulled into software; it was going to be just one project, but one project turned into 10 years of working in the field.” As a project manager at Google, he came to a turning point and realized that design, sculpture, ceramics and engineering still called to him. He began experimenting with his light sculpture designs, and Ted Bradley Studio was born.

Now, he uses those design and engineering skills to craft his chandelier sculptures; forming clay into ethereal porcelain rings, then using LED lighting and finely crafted metal to assemble the pieces. There’s an elegant duality to his creations; partly a work of art, partly a functional light source, the porcelain, LED and metal elements join to create something more.

Photo by Marco Ricca.

The Process

The clean lines of the light sculptures bely the complexity required to create them. Each ring alone requires more than 300 steps and several weeks to finish. Bradley anticipated needing about two months to make his first rings; the process stretched to nearly a year as he fine-tuned the design and production. “I went through about 1,300 pounds of clay, and had over 100 failures before I was able to finish a set,” he says. His perseverance is made clear when he reveals that he worked nearly 100 hours per week near the end of that first year to create the finished product he had envisioned.

He uses a variety of tools, many of which he designed and built, to create the rings. An extruder (with his own custom CAD-designed die) pipes the clay around a form that he created; he reports that the finished, specially formulated porcelain is among the brightest white in the world. Rings are then placed into a climate-controlled, airtight drying chamber, and kept at 94% humidity for 10 days. A Bluetooth humidity monitor alerts Bradley if the air quality changes. “I’m on call 24/7,” he laughs.

After six more days in a second drying chamber, (Bradley devised and built both chambers) the rings are sanded and fired. They glow red-hot in the kiln reaching 2,000-plus degrees. Next comes a quality control process where Bradley evaluates each piece for more than a dozen characteristics, then each ring is individually numbered and glazed, using a tri-arm fixture that he designed and built.

Perfectly Precise

His mechanical engineering roots show as Bradley uses 3D-CAD to design the metal fixtures. Machining is done offsite, and he finishes the polishing and patina work. “One of the machinists I work with does fabrication for the aeronautics industry,” he says. “I love working with them, because I will send them a design and it will come back perfect within 1/10,000 of an inch.”

He loves to bring that level of precision to his light sculpture, relating that it dovetails with his own work ethic. “I want everything to be precise and perfect, and it’s fun to find companies that have the same value system, the same ethic and capabilities.”

Photo by Daniel Villarreal.

Finishing Touches

He finishes the assembly by hand, placing strips of tiny LED lights into a channel inside the rings, then carefully packing each sculpture for shipping. Bradley’s portfolio showcases more than three dozen one-of-a-kind designs, as well as his favorite, custom commissions. Business has been picking up—he’s added an employee to assist with ring fabrication, and is about to add a second person for metalwork.

Having help will allow him to accomplish some other goals—he wants to continue to use nature as his inspiration for more designs, and strives to be at every single installation of his work. “I want to meet the designers and clients and be there for the install,” he relates. “Not just for logistics, to see that it’s installed properly, but because I enjoy getting to meet the folks who are going to enjoy the sculpture.”

It’s clear that his step-by-step process is exacting and precise, and Bradley wouldn’t have it any other way. “In a world where things can be 3D printed and mass-manufactured so easily, I believe that the value of something is beyond just the physical element. I think that the care and attention, thought and story that goes into each of these, is half of what people are ultimately attracted to.”