P icture Frank Lloyd Wright, arguably America's most famous and influential architect, a man known for his exacting nature and highly individual styles. His devotion to organic architecture, a style that concerns itself deeply with context, could be seen down to the finest design detail, including furniture, light fixtures and decorative elements. He designed his own clothing (all capes and flowing ties) and drove custom-made cars. So when he specified tableware for his projects, where did he get it? Heath, a small ceramic and tile factory in Sausalito. It's still operating today, producing exceptional handcrafted ceramics and architectural tile.
Edith Heath appears on the shortlist of mid-century modern movers and shakers. She and her husband, Brian, purchased the Sausalito factory in 1947 after a successful ceramics show at San Francisco's Legion of Honor prompted large orders of Edith's wares from Gump's and Neiman Marcus. Later, Wright discovered her dinnerware, and architects like Eero Saarinen began ordering her tiles in the 1960s for interior and exterior projects.
Many of Edith Heath's pieces are in museum collections, including the permanent collection of New York's MOMA, and she became the first nonarchitect to win the American Institute of Architects' Gold Medal for the exterior tile on Pasadena's Norton Simon Museum. Today, Heath tableware is in use at Chez Panisse (which has its own line) and the Slanted Door, among other stellar establishments.
Raised on an Iowa farm during the Depression, Heath's intellectual curiosity and disciplined nature fueled her deep exploration into the chemistry of ceramics. She tested the science of glazes and their interaction with clay in entirely new and groundbreaking ways; this, combined with her attention to form and craftsmanship, created a legacy, one that might have ended when she died in 2005 at age 94, after running her company for 60 years.
But just a few years before her death, husband-and-wife team Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey, two industrial designers looking to get out of the city, stumbled upon the factory. "The building was clearly mid-century modern architecture, which we both love," Bailey says, describing the moment. "It was also in an interesting context, an old ship-building industrial area right near the water. There were lots of pallets of tile sitting outside in the Heath yard.
What I think made us curious was the mix of an architectural intention that pointed to an interesting design period in history combined with the evidence that it was a working design studio and factory. A factory that cared about design, and that had a historical context, all in a quick glance at the exterior of this place."
The young couple made inquiries and learned that Edith Heath was not well and Heath Ceramics was for sale. They purchased the business in 2003 and have revitalized it, while enthusiastically and tenderly maintaining its vision and core values. The forms are simple and clean, the production is small-scale and each piece is nuanced by the hand of the artisan.
When asked what she thought was the most important way that she and Petravic have carried on the Heath tradition, Bailey says, "Keeping all of our manufacturing here in the original building; we do not outsource anything. This alone is quite ambitious. We have looked at our production process very carefully and made sure that when we do make changes in our process, the product's look and feel remain uniquely Heath."
The harborside factory—one of the few remaining American potteries—is a humming, multi-ethnic, multi-age, hands-on operation. About 40 artisans work at the factory; many of them have been there for over 20 years, and at least 10 of them are from the same family. Lawrence Wing, a glazer, has been punching in at Heath for 37 years and Miguel Iniguez has been a kiln fireman for 40.
"People who work at Heath are people who like to make things," Bailey says. "It's satisfying work when you can see the things you are making at the end of the day. We have a wonderful building where most of the people are working next to windows—great natural light; it's the scale of a company where you can get to know everyone."
A walk through the factory reveals an energetic atmosphere—lots of banter, deep concentration and apparent pride. A woman making platters on a hydraulic ram press holds up her piece after a burst of steam peels the brown Sacramento clay off the mold, and presents it to us beaming, yelling over the ambient machinery noise, "Beautiful!" And it is—even before glazing—with its clean, simple lines.
Many of the machines are originals that have been in place since the factory was built; some were designed and constructed by Brian Heath. Though the pieces are made using light-industrial techniques like jiggering and slipcasting, the machines are hand-operated and all the pieces are hand-finished and hand-glazed.
Heath Ceramics is known for its signature wiped edge, a style that illuminates the interplay between clay and glaze. The glazes were formulated and the California clay chosen by Edith Heath to most effectively show off the material of both elements; it all becomes clear when you hold a piece in your hands.
"You can take a photo of a Heath plate on a table, and it might not look so special; it's a pretty classic or iconic form of a plate," Bailey explains. "But once you see it in real life and touch it, it's quite a bit more. The thing that makes its character is its interesting textural quality, in the glazes and in the rougher exposed clay edge. It has a weight that gives you confidence in handling it. Finally, it's beautiful and intentional. The combination of these characteristics gives it its special feel."
Heath Ceramics makes only a few lines of tableware, pared down to its essentials by the new owners, with the Coupe line in continuous production since 1948 and the Rim line since 1960. Glazes are all Heath originals, though new colors have been formulated since Edith's time and old glazes and shapes replicated and re-instated. For instance, co-owner Petravic found an ashtray at a thrift shop in a forgotten turquoise color and had the color reformulated. They found old molds in the factory and recast them, and discovered prototypes that had never been made and put those into production as well.
Today's owners had the opportunity to meet Edith Heath before she passed away. "Though she was quite old when we met, you could feel Edith's passion for this place that she spent her life building," Bailey says. "She didn't have good short-term memory, but she could still recite complex glaze formulas and would walk into the pottery, examining the ware she had designed so many years ago. She was quite pleased and content to see that we were continuing to make her original designs. I think she always wondered if this would be the case when the business changed hands."
Like the great Bauhaus-trained ceramicist Marguerite Wildenhain, who established a legendary guild in what is now Armstrong Redwoods State Park in Guerneville, Edith Heath was formidable in her vision. Today, the Sebastopol-based artist Aletha Soule appears to be carrying on the tradition of a strong woman making disctinctive homewares with care. Here is how to learn more about both.
Heath Ceramics Free factory tours, which show some of the original methods and equipment developed by Edith Heath, are led Saturday and Sunday mornings at 11am. The factory store sells tableware, including plates, bowls, vases, platters (at up to 30 percent off) and tile (up to 80 percent off!) in seconds and overstock of current lines and discontinued items, samples and prototypes. The Heath Ceramics factory store is open Sunday&–Wednesday, 10am to 5pm, and Thursday&–Saturday, 10am to 6pm. 400 Gate Five Road, Sausalito. 415.332.3732. www.heathceramics.com.To purchase without visiting the factory or going online, go to these North Bay retailers:
Collure 1106 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur. 415.461.6155.
Corrick's 637 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.546.2423;
Ray Design Studio 602 &–606 Wilson St., Santa Rosa. 707.570.0128.
Soule Studios Artist Aletha Soule makes everyday dishware and vases in irresistibly organic forms that beg stroking and careful handwashing, though they're tougher than they look. Focused on glazes that closely mimic colors found in nature and in shapes also drawn from the outdoors, Soule's work is in high demand. She hosts a highly anticipated yearly studio sale that offers her work at greatly reduced prices (slated next for May 24, 2008) and sells her two lines, Mélange and Citrange, from her website and at select North Bay outlets. The Mélange line is being discontinued, so now is the time to buy if you're already a collector. www.soulestudio.com.
St. Dizier Design 259 Center St., Healdsburg. 707.473.0980.
Summerhouse 21 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 415.383.6695.
Vanderbilt & Co 1429 Main St., St. Helena. 707.963.1010.