“We should be so grateful that we live in this part of the world. It’s one of the most beautiful areas and we are so lucky. I’ve had my pleasure out of it, and that’s how I feel about what’s going to be the future of Heath Ceramics, that it’s brought me a great deal of pleasure . . . that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do.” 1
—Edith Heath, 1994
The natural beauty and abundant resources of The Golden State of California have held their appeal ever since Native Americans called this land home. Over a few centuries, its sense of promise and possibility has drawn Spanish conquerors, lured Forty-Niners, and provided a portal for many to the land of opportunity. California was, and still is, a place where a pioneering spirit can realize a vision in a variety of industries, from farming to film, and from craft fairs to high-tech enterprises.
One of these pioneers whose life journey has had a great impact on the ceramics world was Edith Heath. In the 1940s she left her family farm in the Danish community of Ida Grove, Iowa, to study and teach art in Chicago, Illinois. A short time later, en route west with her new husband, Brian Heath, Edith discovered the legendary black ceramic wares of Maria Martinez in the pueblo of San Ildefonso, New Mexico. It was then and there that she recognized her calling: to create lasting utilitarian forms of beauty from the earth beneath her feet. And she wasted no time in realizing her vision.
Immediately upon arriving in San Francisco, the city that would inspire them for the rest of their lives, the couple set to work in the converted basement of their Filbert Street flat, acquiring a kiln and her first throwing wheel, a contraption Brian designed with the treadle of an old sewing machine. (This was later replaced with a jigger wheel, still used in their factory today, along with slip casting for complex forms.) Edith’s artistic choices in formulating glazes were in some ways the result of post-war circumstance, as single firings became a necessity.
“The kind of clay used determines the aesthetic quality of the piece,” she wrote. “I was looking for a clay that nobody knew. . . that would be expressive of the region. . . . California clays that would turn out looking like something nobody else had ever made.”
Edith’s vision and the aesthetic that Heathware is known for is characterized by its essential materiality, a spare design that reflects a casual lifestyle, and absolutely flawless craftsmanship. Heathware endures because it pays homage to both domesticity and design, adhering to the Bauhaus Modern design tenets: “form follows function,” “less is more,” and “truth to materials.” The look remains contemporary, and the original Rim, Coupe, Chez Panisse, and Plaza lines designed by Edith remain in production to this day.
Toward the end of her long and productive life, Edith was faced with a daunting question about the future of Heath Ceramics. Who could possibly steward the company and continue her carefully conceived aesthetic tradition? Who else but Edith could maintain the community of makers and evolve her early model of an environmentally sound manufacturing facility well into the 21st century?
Carrying Forth a Legacy
The answer came in 2003, when a young couple out for a stroll happened across the original Sausalito pottery studio. Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey were at a crossroads after leaving successful but less-than-ideal jobs in the harried world of industrial design. Recognizing the value of Heath’s tradition as “a community of makers,” they made an acceptable offer. The new owners maintained ties with Edith, who, when well into her 90s, toured the facility one day and greeted old friends, including the wares she had designed 60 years earlier. “This is really, really, really remarkable,” she said, “ . . . thank you.” She passed away not long after, knowing her legacy was in capable hands.
Today, Heath Ceramics (www.heathceramics.com) continues to reinvent itself, cleaving to its original founder’s philosophy, while clearly pushing some boundaries. The original ethos “less is more” and “buy what you love” remain central to Heath, and the ongoing demand for Heath products is reflected in its multi-million dollar revenues. Showrooms in San Francisco, and recently in Los Angeles, feature the original ceramic lines as well as Heath Finds, a showcase of home products such as Amherst linens, Hampson wood, Lodge Logic cast iron, Stan Bitters birdhouses, Garza Marfa furniture, David Mellor flatware, Kirsten Mueller jewelry, and more. Factory tours and artists’ exhibitions are ongoing throughout the year, with projects such as The Boiler Room, a series of gallery events that bring inspired work into a public forum.
The company still occupies the original Sausalito factory, where a corps of their 170+ employees continues to produce dinnerware. Over in San Francisco’s Mission district, a former industrial laundry serves as Heath headquarters, a 60,000-square-foot design campus where, among many other things, the tile manufacturing takes place. The setting is industrial but relaxed, with the Heath Clay Studio and offices, several artist workshop spaces, and a communal café. Kids and dogs loiter. A glass wall separates the factory from the showroom, reflecting a commitment to maintaining transparency in the making of things. It’s a literal window into the making of pieces we live with day to day. Edith would have loved this.
While rooted in tradition, Heath also fosters exciting new wellsprings of creativity through selective collaborations with professional artists. The Alabama Chanin collection is one example of combining talents, in this case with a textile artist who had never before worked with ceramics. The result is a set of ceramic pieces that complement the original Heath lines, a mix and match of tableware. Similarly, visual artist and illustrator Brendan Monroe set to work for the first time in clay, creating molds and his own glaze techniques in a collaboration that blurs the edges between the mediums. An exhibition of his work was featured in November 2014 in the Heath Los Angeles showroom.
Looking to the Future
As if this weren’t enough to maximize the best of Heath’s original values, Petravic and Bailey are also entirely committed to minimizing waste streams. They describe an ultimate goal of zero-waste manufacturing facilities as a big part of who they are. A gray-water system recycles all water used in production, and glaze overspray from their application process is mixed in with fresh glaze for re-use. Retired kiln shelves are crafted into work tables, and fired clay remnants are repurposed into tile pavers.
Petravic and Bailey have also co-authored a book, Tile Makes the Room (Ten Speed Press, 2015) on what they call “the quiet side of our business.” The focus on tile gives a nod to Edith’s architectural contribution in 1966, when she developed an onyx-glazed brick red tile—a deep patina of volcanic color inspired by Hadrian’s tomb—for the vast, curvaceous exterior of the award-winning Pasadena Art Museum (currently known as the Norton Simon Museum).
Building artistic communities like villages, producing timeless wares while protecting natural resources, borrowing the muted and brilliant colors of sky and earth, the Heath legacy continues to honor the heritage of its California birthplace.
the author Victoria Woodard Harvey is a fiction and magazine writer living in Santa Barbara, California. She earned a degree in studio art at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and has since continued studies at UCLA and Stanford University. Through an internship at a ceramics studio in Triana, Spain, she learned about the centuries-old, secret glaze techniques of the region’s historical maiolica. She has served as a contributing writer for Food & Home, Destination Wine Country, and Oceana magazines.