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Heath Ceramics

Author: Teresa Esquivel
Issue: September, 2014, Page 30
In 2007, the Café Bowl (seen stacked here) was created for Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant. They were designed to mimic classic porcelain restaurant-ware but in the signature Heath style.

Earthen-toned Heath ceramics celebrate the beauty in simplicity and American ingenuity

Dinnerware produced by Heath Ceramics is usually described as minimalist, simple and practical, yet the pieces have garnered an almost cult-like following since they were first introduced in the 1940s.

“Edith Heath’s ceramics represent a quintessential Mid-Century dinnerware design,” says Jennifer Doublet, who is at work on a book based on the Brian and Edith Heath Foundation archives housed in the Environment Design Archives at University of California, Berkeley. “She invented her own method of handcrafted industrial design with her husband, as they developed and oversaw all of their own production for the better part of 50 years. Her chic, smartly designed pieces exude an earthy minimalism that moves as seamlessly from oven to table as from museum exhibition to brunch buffet. Heath’s work is associated not only with 20th-century Modernism, but also with the iconic indoor-outdoor California lifestyle that blossomed in the post WWII period.”

As a young girl growing up on a farm in Iowa, Edith’s days were filled with chores, schoolwork and taking care of her younger siblings. It was a hardworking life that helped shape her future as the driving force behind one of the most well-known—and one of the few still existing—Mid-Century ceramic companies.

“She was very frugal her whole life and that certainly came from living on the farm and being poor,” remarks Jay Stewart, a family friend and trustee of the Heath’s estate. “When it came to designing her ware, she wanted it to be something that could be used for Sunday best as well as for every day. She had her mother’s Haviland china; she really prized it but rarely used it. It both inspired her and was a lesson to her.”

The Bud Vase, one of Heath’s best-selling items, has a classic and timeless form that allows it to pair well with a panoptic array of items.
In an oral history recorded for the Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, Heath recalls life on the farm fondly, noting that, if her family needed something, they made it, from fences to furniture to clothing. She recounts time spent looking through catalogs from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward—not to copy the fashions she saw, but to improve on them or at least make something different. It was a philosophy she held throughout her life.

Driven to improve on more than just the clothes she made, Edith also knew early on that she did not want the same farming life as her Danish immigrant parents. After high school, she got a job and saved enough money to attend a teacher’s college in Chicago. That’s where she first got her hands on clay—a material she likened to the dough she used for baking bread on the farm—and it’s also where several instructors noticed her artistic talent and encouraged her to pursue studies at the The Art Institute of Chicago.

Soon after graduating from the teacher’s college and while continuing her own art education, Edith was invited to teach for the Federal Art Project, a Depression-era program focused on art production, instruction and research. The director at one so-called “camp” was Brian Heath, the man she would marry three months later. The couple eventually moved west for Brian’s work with the Red Cross. There, Edith took a ceramics class at The Art Institute of San Francisco. The class, though, was not enough. Along with a dozen or so other students, Edith petitioned and convinced the University of California Extension to teach a ceramic chemistry course, a class that would educate them about the geology of clay, and another course on the science of glazes, not just the artistic side of the craft. Through both classes, she learned that the clay determines the aesthetic quality of a piece. On weekends, Edith and Brian drove out to clay pits and brickyards to gather clay samples, looking for “clays that had certain properties that I could do something with, that would then turn out to look like something that nobody else had ever made,” she explains.

Edith ran tests on clays and glazes from a kiln on her kitchen counter. Eventually she moved her clay operation into the basement, continuing to experiment with different combinations of clays and glazes, and shaping wares on a potter’s wheel Brian fashioned from a treadle-powered sewing machine. Then things really started to snowball. At the urging of a friend, Edith took some of her pieces to show a buyer for a store. Nothing came of that meeting, but afterward, she and her friend dropped in at a nearby art gallery. A higher-up from the California Palace of the Legion of Honor happened to be there. He asked to see her wares; then he offered her a solo exhibition. A buyer from Gump’s saw the resulting 1944 show, bought most of the pieces to sell at the store, and set Edith up in a pottery workshop so that she could start producing tea sets and dinnerware for continued sale.

The light, soft neutrals used by Heath Ceramics means the company’s dinnerware can be mixed-and-matched with ease. The pieces are known for their rustic, yet Modern aesthetic.
A few years later, she was invited to exhibit at the San Francisco Gift Show. There, her work was picked up by a distributor who also helped the Heaths lease their own workshop. In 1948, the couple formed Heath Ceramics. Brian left his job with the Red Cross to help with the booming business by taking care of finances and building or modifying equipment to suit Edith’s needs. By 1949, an estimated 100,000 pieces of Heath Ceramics had been sold. In the 1960s they added architectural tiles to their offerings, and in the ’70s began producing restaurant ware.

“One of the things I like about Edith’s story is that the connective tissue between her early life on a farm and Heath Ceramics is so incredibly hard working,” Doublet comments. “Not everybody who decides to make something is going to actually build their own factory. The level of industry that Edith had partially comes from a farm-life aesthetic. There’s stuff to be done all day long, and you just get up and do it.

“They were also in the right place at the right time in terms of becoming an actual brand as opposed to just making pots in the basement,” Doublet continues. “Edith had the industry to follow through on multiple fortuitous events, and the timing was right, with the post-war Zeitgeist in the United States of getting things from designers out to the public.”

After a lifetime of hard work and innovation, Edith passed away in 2005, but her legacy lives on in the dinnerware still being produced in the same Sausalito factory the Heaths built in 1959. Its new owners, Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, stumbled across the site while exploring their new neighborhood. They purchased it in 2004 and helped breathe new life into the brand by opening a tile factory in San Francisco, as well as four showrooms in California that sell not only Heath Ceramics but the work of like-minded artisans.

“While we aim to be a design leader for the present day, like Edith Heath, the company continues to place a strong emphasis on craftsmanship and materials. Though we are cautious in introducing new products, we continue to introduce new glazes and designs. Our philosophy is to create pieces that complement existing collections, not replace them,” Petravic stresses.

Among the existing collections is Heath’s first line, the Coupe, designed in 1948. “It’s remarkable that, across so many generations of users, a design that was finalized more than 60 years ago has been in nonstop production ever since,” Stewart remarks.

Heath Ceramics dishware is microwave-, dishwasher- and oven-safe, living up to the owner’s original vision for durable, thoughtfully designed pieces.
More recent lines include several collaborations, such as wares developed with restaurateur Alice Waters and designer Christina Kim for use at Waters’ Chez Panisse Restaurant and Cafe.

“We make beautiful, enduring products that enhance the way people live,” Bailey says. “Our style is classic, simple and fresh. We create our products to last, both in terms of quality and in terms of design, and are so honored that many people buy our products with the idea of passing them down through the generations.”

Stewart is among those who enjoy owning handed-down pieces. “I have ware that I’ve eaten on my whole life, ware my mom and dad had when I was a kid. That’s how durable it is,” she says. “There’s one dinner plate I use everyday that dates back to the ’50s or ’60s and it’s still going strong. Edith engineered her ware very carefully so the glazes and the clays really fit. It’s not easy to chip a Heath piece, you can break it in half with some difficulty, but you rarely have chips on the edges because the glazes are really well bonded to the clay body.”

Stewart also counts among her treasures a vase that was hand-built by Edith. “The most important aspect of her design, to me, is the integrity of her aesthetic, from developing her own clay bodies and her own glazes to being extremely demanding in terms of the minimalist lines,” Doublet says. “There’s a depth to the simplicity and  a timeless quality. I hate to sound corny, but her work puts you in touch with the earth. Edith knew you could reach into the ground, pull out some clay and make a beautiful object that will last forever.”

This Large Teapot is one of Heath Ceramics’ iconic products. Featuring a copper handle that is hand-wrapped in leather, it was designed in the 1940s.
Where to buy:
Heath Ceramics,

Heath Tile installations
In the late 1960s, Heath Ceramics began developing architectural tiles. “Edith’s most significant architectural collaboration was with Ladd & Kelsey, architects for the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena,” says Jennifer Doublet. “The 1969 curvilinear building facade is sheathed in more than 115,000 Heath Ceramic architectural tiles that are 5 inches wide and 15 inches tall.” Other significant architectural tile installations, she says, include the floors of the original Los Angeles County Museum of Art buildings designed by William Pereira and Associates, the executive floor of the Ford Foundation in New York by Roche Dinkeloo, and the John Deere Factory in Moline, Illinois, designed by Eero Saarinen.

Closer to home, Heath tiles graced the facade of Malcolm’s department store in Phoenix, built in 1960 as an anchor at Maryvale Shopping City (later Maryvale Mall). When Maryvale hit hard times in the early ‘90s, so did the mall. It sat empty for many years before its developer, John F. Long, sold the structure to Cartwright School District. In 1999, the district began renovating the structure in order to house Marc T. Atkinson Middle School and Bret R. Tarver Elementary School. Unfortunately, the Heath tiles did not survive. Ronald Peters, AIA, AICP, project architect for the renovation, says: “The mall had been empty for more than 10 years when we started this project, and a lot had already been stripped from the buildings. We basically took the area down to the basic structure and went from there.”  
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