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Brian Heath: An Artist's Engineer

Heath Ceramics has been in continuous production for more than 50 years, an honor few objects can lay claim to. Learn more about its founder and designer, Edith Heath, and the ethos behind Heath Ceramics. Watch “Artbound” Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic.

In the history of Edith and Brian Heath’s namesake company, Edith’s outsized, creative, visionary legacy often takes center stage. But Brian’s skills as a mechanical engineer and business manager were equally crucial to the company’s early and enduring success.

“I don’t know if there would have been the Heath Ceramics we know today without Brian,” says Jon Brooder, a tile manager who has worked at Heath since 1964, and worked closely with Edith and Brian for nearly four decades. “He was self-taught, a brilliant mechanical engineer with no training, just intuition.” Brian Heath instinctively knew how to build and run a business, and theirs was a sometimes-volatile if equitable partnership. “They had strong personalities, and they had major disagreements about important things,” Brooder says. “But they also needed each other and really complimented each other.”

Despite his vital contributions to their partnership and co-ownership of the business, far less is known about the life of Brian. In death, Edith was treated to profiles and lavish obituaries. And yet, perhaps because he was the behind-the-scenes partner, much of what anyone knows about Brian is thanks to the enduring memories of friendships like the one between Brian Heath and Jon Brooder, and is based on official documents such as company records and personal papers including birth, marriage and death certificates.

Young Brian Heath | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Young Brian Heath | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

Brian Heath Hobson was born on September 25, 1913 in Westport, Connecticut, the first and only child of 34-year-old Winifred (or Winnie) Heath. Brian never met his father, an Irish journalist named Samuel Hobson, and it isn’t clear when Brian began using his mother’s last name. As a young man, Brian was in and out of foster homes, and the homes of family friends, but always eventually rejoining his itinerant mother in her travels. “Brian never had a settled childhood,” Brooder says.

As a single mother, Winnie Heath worked as a typist — Brooder remembers she was known as the fastest typist in the country — and she took Brian with her on work and personal journeys to far-flung regions, from Guatemala to New York’s Greenwich Village and out west to California, where she worked for Jack London and helped establish a writers’ colony in San Diego. Their bohemian lifestyle made for an interesting if at times unsettling childhood.

Brian grew into a tall, handsome man with dark hair and a booming voice, a man sympathetic to others after his own tumultuous upbringing, but also at times an antagonistic bully. In the early 1930s, he made his way to the Midwest and attended the University of Chicago, graduating with his Bachelor of Arts in 1936. In 1938, he was employed as a social worker in training at a Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Federal Art Project (FAP) children’s art camp in Batavia, Illinois. It was there that Brian Heath met Edith Kiertzner, a teacher at the camp two years his senior and in many ways, his opposite. They married three months after meeting, and when Brian finished his master’s degree in 1941, he landed a job as regional director with the American Red Cross in San Francisco. On the first of their many adventurous trips together, the couple drove west before settling in California.

On San Francisco’s Filbert Street, they rented the lower level flat in a four-story house designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. Edith had been inspired to work with clay as a teacher and was eager to expand her practice as a ceramicist. In support of Edith’s interest, Brian, tinkering as a self-taught engineer and inventor, turned a treadle-powered sewing machine into a pottery wheel that Edith could use in their home. A friend also salvaged a gas-fired kiln dumped on the Berkeley waterfront for Edith; Several friends tied a rope to the kiln and lowered it to the basement level of the hillside house. At times, Edith’s work took over their living spaces; she also kept a second tabletop kiln in the kitchen.

While Edith was experimenting with clays and glazes and teaching at a prestigious school, Brian would travel all over the western states helping families who lost loved ones in World War II. Visits to clay pits were common weekend outings, as plenty of pits and brickyards closed down due to the war. As Brian’s work with Red Cross wound down after the war ended, he joined Edith as her studio manager.

In 1946, they moved production north to Sausalito. When they tired of commuting from San Francisco for work each day, they bought a barge, the Dorothea, and docked at a Sausalito shipyard. (It would eventually be floated over to Tiburon.) Using wood leftover from wartime shipyards, they built out the indoor-outdoor living spaces.

In 1948, they founded their eponymous company to keep up with the demand from retailers eager to stock Edith’s beautiful handcrafted dinnerware. Brian’s mechanical engineering sensibility led him to design molds for jiggering machines, which replaced the need for taxing, time-consuming hand-throwing and significantly scaled up the company’s production.

Brian also made one of the most substantial consumer-facing contributions to the company. He wanted what now seems like a simple, obvious household item: an ashtray that would hold his cigarette while he was on the phone, and one with a ceramic coolness that would extinguish embers if it tipped into the bowl. Because one to his liking didn’t exist, Brian snagged an unfired bowl from the factory to experiment with manually cutting grooves into the dish, and he eventually invented a contraption that used a piece of bent tin to cut V-shaped notches into the Heath ashtrays of all sizes.

The stylish stoneware Heath ashtrays came in four sizes — individual, small, large, jumbo — and in rich, California-inspired glaze colors such as desert ochre, redwood, sea and sand, and spruce. Before long, the beautiful, useful ashtrays showed up in magazine spreads and in publicity photos used by architects. By the 1960s, ashtrays accounted for a quarter of the company’s business, expanding the small ceramics company’s reputation well beyond dinnerware, the ashtrays popular any-occasion gifts. Advertisements from the time noted, “Capacity is generous.”

Brian’s own capacity for creating useful tools was generous, and in addition to early implements for Edith, he also designed an early kiln prototype that is very similar to those used today in the San Francisco Heath Ceramics factory. Brian also devised a ribbon machine, through which a blob of clay would roll flat and come out a tile. “The yields were not great — maybe 60% — and it was pretty low-tech, but it worked,” Jon Brooder remembers. For years, all wall tiles produced by Heath were made on Brian’s machine.

Brochure for Heath ashtrays | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Brochure for Heath ashtrays | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

Story continues below

Brian and Edith Heath on the patio of Dorothea, a barge they converted into a home | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Brian and Edith Heath on the patio of Dorothea, a barge they converted into a home | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

As much as the company consumed the couple’s life, it was also their social nexus, as some early Heath employees became close friends with the founders. On Saturday mornings starting in the 1960s, loud, jovial Brian would make coffee and hold court into the afternoon with Brooder and a production manager named Nash Ruiz, who worked at Heath for 30 years. (Nash’s wife Mary, who was a glazer, also worked at Heath for over 20 years.) “We’d all sit around and talk without any pressure,” Brooder remembers fondly. “We would meet at the factory — Edith would be on the barge — and we’d just chat half the day.”

Little was off limits. “Brian was very well read, and we would often discuss books,” Brooder says. “I think that his macho look kind of disguised the fact that he was a sensitive, vulnerable person.” The couple was also incredibly well traveled, and Brian, ever erudite, could speak useful phrases in a handful of languages. Even though Edith hated to fly, they often took trips abroad, including one to Iran in the 1970s, which was cut short by the nation’s revolution.

Even as the Heaths grew older, Edith couldn’t bear to let anyone else run the company. And Brian wouldn’t retire without her. “You were the playful one,” Edith once wrote of Brian. “Who suffered the doing of things just to be by my side…your only purpose in life to please me.”

Brian did eventually stop going into the factory, but until his death, and then hers, the Heaths stayed involved with the company they built. Brian had long dreamed of volunteering with Amnesty International, and the couple supported it and many other organizations, from American Civil Liberties Union to the San Francisco Symphony and SFMOMA.

When Brian died of a stroke in 2001, Edith built a shrine to him in their fireplace. Brooder remembers Brian as complicated but sweet. “I loved Brian, and I was really close to him — maybe closer than anyone,” he says, noting he was lucky to have worked so intimately with both Heaths for so long. “Brian was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known.”

Sources

Brooder, Jon. Interview by Brittany Shoot. Phone interview. San Francisco, April 11, 2019.

Heath, Edith., “Tableware and Tile for the World, Heath Ceramics, 1944-1994,” transcript of an oral history conducted in 1990-1992, 1994 by Rosalie Ross, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1995. 411 pp. 

Klausner, Amos. Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2007.

Research conducted at the Environmental Design Archives (EDA) within the College of Environmental Design at the University of California, Berkeley.

Top Image: San Francisco bridge with Heathware | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley 

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