• Photo of three of the LA mugs styled together.


A Q&A with Karen Tong

Meet Karen Tong!

Meet Karen Tong!

Counter Culture Coffee’s headquarters may be in North Carolina, but our passion for coffee can’t be contained to a single city. Our team spans the continental US with roasteries on both coasts and over a dozen training centers in between.

To celebrate these cities, we’ve teamed up with local ceramics artists to create a series of limited-edition mugs. For the third and latest in this series, the L.A. Mug, we partnered with artist Karen Tong (she/her) of HEO Ceramics, whose aesthetic dwells somewhere between the lively colors of pop art and the muted sensibilities of the American Southwest, unified by Southeast Asian design.

To better understand both the artist and the art, we asked Karen a few questions about her process, her influences, and—most importantly—her connection to coffee. 

Photo of Karen reaching into a kiln.

Counter Culture Coffee: Can you tell us a little about your journey?

Karen Tong: My story is actually a bit mysterious, even to me. I moved to New Mexico ten years ago to practice optometry on the Navajo reservation, and somehow returned to California as a potter. Perhaps they call it the Land of Enchantment for a reason. As hokey as it sounds, I think the red rock desert forms and rich blue skies gradually molded me, and the winds blew the dust off a clay path I never knew existed. The shapes, the colors, the expanses, the proximity to an earth not covered in concrete, or lawns, where everything’s out in the open for you to see, but constantly changing—I wanted to hold it in my hands.  

CCC: What is the project are you most proud of?

KT: I recently created sculptures for an art show exploring the hopes and dreams of Asian Americans. I had never worked in such an abstract conceptual way before, especially as my focus has mostly been on functional ware. But it led me to reflect on my parents’ experiences of arriving here as refugees after the war, and the process of trying to capture my own emotions around this and then sculpt them into physical form was extremely arduous and so fulfilling. It really opened a door for me, and I’m exhilarated (and a bit terrified) to walk through it. 

Photo of Karen's hand in the kiln with all the LA mugs

CCC: Tell us about the inspiration behind the LA mug. What did that creative process look like?

KT: This mug is a California baby, born of beaches and mountains. Sand-colored clay meets undulating water and the white foam of the waves, or if held at another angle, the dusty winter mountains capped with snow under a desert sky. The particular green glaze inside the mugs was inspired by the colorful panels at Counter Culture’s Siller Lake Training Center. I developed my own version of a celadon glaze which allows for a more liquid feeling, giving some parts of the mug richer depth, almost like deeper water.

Throughout this process, Amanda and Christy at Counter Culture have been so thoughtful and encouraging and I’m so grateful for all their support.

CCC: How do you see your business and art evolving? 

K: The hardest part of ceramics for me is trying not to burn out. I get excited very easily and want to do everything all at once, and don’t want to stop until I’m finished (which can be a very long time), and so I often don’t hear the alarm bells ringing inside my stomach telling me to eat and drink, or the ones telling me to sleep. And then I’m always confused as to why I feel so depleted after several weeks of this.

But then I fell prey to COVID, forcing weeks of bedrest, followed by a long, slow recovery. I had always prided myself on being a one-woman show, and for the first time I was confronted with concrete physical limits. And so I asked for help, something I’m not accustomed to doing. And it arrived in the form of two wonderful assistants who have re-invigorated me and reminded me of why I love doing this!

Photo of the bottom of the LA mug with a Counter Culture x HEO stamp.

CCC: What is your coffee story? 

KT: I have a sacred ritual to ensure a great start to my day. Every morning, I make myself a pour-over coffee and sit with it for 20 minutes, doing nothing else but drinking it, sip by sip.

The technique and coffee equipment has changed over the years, gradually becoming more refined and farcical neurotic, but my favorite item as of late would have to be my warm milk frother, which foams my oat milk to the perfect consistency and temperature. Sometimes, the thought of coffee is the only thing that gets me out of bed, besides my dog Brody.

CCC: Is there anything we didn’t ask you about that you want us to know? 

KT: HEO is actually the Vietnamese word for “pig” and in the lunar calendar I was born in the year of the boar. When I was just beginning to experiment with clay, the first shapes I made were squiggles, like literal pig tails, and that’s how I chose the name HEO. I didn’t know it then, but that moment also coincided with a new kind of exploration into my Vietnamese heritage. The piggy squiggles will forever always hold a special place in my heart. 

Photo of a large stack of many LA mugs.

Speed round!

  • What do you do to recharge? Nap for 20 minutes and no more than that. 
  • Morning person or night owl? Mid-morning person
  • What is your favorite sound? Harmonies
  • What is your favorite smell? Citrus
  • What are three things you can't live without? Coffee, clay, internet
  • Favorite way to brew coffee at home? Pour-over
  • Hot or cold coffee? HOT. Even on hot days. 
  • Light and fruity coffee or dark and chocolatey coffee? Light and fruity
  • Top three musical artists? I’ve been on a 70s kick lately: Donna Summer, Dolly Parton, Grease Soundtrack
  • If you could have any superpower, what would you choose? Time-space manipulation, to experience all the things and also leave.  
  • What is the best thing that has happened to you in 2022? I surfed for the first time in Oahu despite living in SoCal most of my life.

Follow Karen and her work on Instagram!

Counter Culture is
  • pushing potential
  • freshly roasted
  • quality coffee
  • sustainably sourced
  • coffee-driven
  • people-driven
  • independently owned