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Edith Heath: A Rebellion in Clay

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.

Heath Ceramics has been part of the cultural landscape of America since Edith and Brian Heath began dinnerware production in 1947. Countless families have set tables with Heath plates and bowls, cups and saucers. Arts and Architecture magazine staged Case Study Houses with Heath accessories. The Seattle Fire Marshal specified Heath ashtrays for all public buildings. MOMA, SFMOMA, LACMA and a host of other institutions acquired Heath pieces for their collections. Architects clad buildings like the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and the Theater at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco with Heath tiles. In 2003, Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic bought the company and opened new outposts at the San Francisco Ferry Building and in Los Angeles. Later they opened a state-of-the-art factory in San Francisco’s Mission District, not to mention built a slick online presence. Heath Ceramics has achieved ubiquity in the global marketplace.

The omni-presence of Heath Ceramics makes it easy to overlook one thing: this modern-day design staple started as a rebellion against white clay.

Haviland Limonge china | Elaine with Grey Cats / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Haviland Limonge china is the epitome of the kind of ceramic that Edith Heath found superfluous. | Elaine with Grey Cats / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The seeds of this rebellion trace back to the Great Depression when Edith Heath was a teenager living on a farm in Iowa with her Danish immigrant parents and six siblings. As the eldest girl, Edith shouldered immense responsibility — entertaining and caring for the children, baking bread and feeding the family and hired hands, making and mending clothes, gardening and fixing things around the farm. This forced maturity was set against the turbulence and instability of the 1920s. During World War I, farmers produced record amounts of crops and livestock and, when prices fell, they overcompensated by buying more equipment to keep up with demand. Eventually prices dropped so low that many farmers went bankrupt and lost their farms. Edith’s father was among the casualties. Everything the family owned had to be auctioned off; the few items that remained included the piano and Haviland China (because no one could afford them).

The trauma of the experience proved life changing for Edith. Two things happened: one, she decided would never rely on anyone for her livelihood, and two, she developed a disdain for useless or superfluous objects.

Edith’s independence came quickly. After high school, she went to work for the Iowa Service Company as an itinerant bookkeeper and teller, and within two years she saved enough money to go to the Chicago Teacher’s College. Recognizing Edith’s artistic spirit, her teachers encouraged her to continue her education at the Chicago Art Institute after she graduated from the college. It was here that Edith studied not only art but also art history, learning the deep relationships between the arts and society as a whole.

Throughout her life, Edith would return to a central theme: that entire civilizations developed around the location of clay deposits, that ceramics was one of the earliest art forms, and that through her own practice, she could become part of this evolution. While studying at the Art Institute, Edith also taught art through the Federal Arts Project at the Howell Neighborhood Settlement House that served as a cultural center for immigrants. The non-hierarchical social structure, along with the celebration and sharing of cultures, proved — much like her formal education — to be an enriching experience. 

Edith Heath making a water jug | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Edith Heath making a water jug | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

The most fortuitous event in Edith’s early life came when she taught at an artist training school in Batavia, Illinois, in the summer of 1938. Organized by FAP director Holger Cahill and New Bauhaus director László Moholy-Nagy, the camp promoted a cross-fertilization of ideas among various creative disciplines. Edith felt a kinship with these like-minded people, perhaps no one more so than a young and ambitious camp director named Brian, who became her lifelong love and business partner. After three months, the two married, and several years later they followed Brian’s work with the American Red Cross to San Francisco.

Edith and Brian first lived in a redwood-shingled Julia Morgan flat on Filbert Street chosen because of its proximity to the San Francisco Art Institute. Edith had been introduced to clay at the Chicago Teacher’s College and wanted to pursue it further. However, the ratio of potter’s wheels to students at SFAI proved prohibitive to her diligent practice, so Brian converted a treadle sewing machine into a potter’s wheel and Edith made pottery at home. She mixed glazes in the kitchen and fired in a gas kiln in the basement.

Edith’s disenchantment with white clay, however, proved to be a bigger issue than the logistics of creating on the potter’s wheel.

Porcelain imports from Europe and China had long dominated the dinnerware market, and as a result, clays had become more purified and refined — or, as Edith called them, gutless. So, she set out in the mid-1940s to find an alternative clay. “I was looking for a clay that nobody knew anything about, that had unique properties that I could utilize and develop, that would be expressive of the region,” said Edith. “I began to work with California clays that would turn out looking like something that nobody else had ever made.” Heath liked the vigor and earthiness of coarser clays and how they translated into a dinnerware that was useful, durable, unpretentious and compatible with California’s indoor/outdoor living style.

Edith was not content with a cursory knowledge of ceramics or understanding just enough to allow her to practice her craft. From early on, she explored the ubiquitous material of clay with intensity, passion and depth: where it came from, its properties, how it had been used throughout history, how it reacted to temperature and how different types produced different aesthetic qualities. It is this scientific background, along with her innate sense of form that set Edith apart from the other potters who proliferated in 1940s America.

Edith achieved her signature clay body by mixing two fire clays combined with other silicon materials and oxides. In its unglazed state, this clay body possessed a sandy tactile quality and was the color of coffee with cream. She used glazes in a subordinate fashion and with high percentages of clay to achieve a matte and scratch-resistant finish. She fused the clay and glaze together in a single firing, and the subtle colors produced “textural and tonal colorations similar to those found in rocks and pebbles.”

Convincing consumers to embrace the unpredictability found in nature took perseverance; uniformity in dinnerware had been the standard for centuries. “One of the characteristics of Heathware — and that’s — you sort of court a danger — what would be considered a fault, the variation,” explained Edith. “We had to . . . educate people that that’s the way it was, that’s the way we wanted it, we wanted that variation.”

Edith’s nonconformist attitude didn’t end with materials. She also extended it to process, believing that good design was not synonymous with handmade items only. Many of her colleagues, including those at the San Francisco Potters’ Association (which she helped start) and America House (a New York cooperative retail store for affiliated craft groups), labeled her a “sell out.” But Edith saw using a potter’s wheel in an industrialized society as an anachronism and firmly believed “only the artist-potter, who puts respect for humane values above mechanical marvels, will be able to harness the machine to do Man’s highest esthetic biddings.” The machine merely served as a translator of ideas.

Story continues below

Brian and Edith Heath out in the patio of their home | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Brian and Edith Heath out in the patio of their home | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

Fortunately, tastemakers fell firmly on Edith’s side. In the late 1940s and 1950s, many major American museums were exhibiting everyday arts, which included manufactured items from flatware to automobiles. These curated selections of “Good Design” toured nationally and internationally, giving designers like Edith a platform to show how their products could enhance contemporary life.

Equal to usefulness, however, Edith sought longevity in her dinnerware. She rejected the notion of built-in obsolescence that favored churning out new designs every six months. Instead, she focused her energies on constantly experimenting with and improving upon her clay and glaze formulas. Quite simply, Edith believed in evolution versus revolution — her work was a bridge between the past and the future.

Only a handful of American companies can claim the continuous production of their products for well over a half-century; Levi’s 501 jeans, Red Wing’s 875 Classic Moc, Hermann Miller’s Eames Lounge Chair, the Chemex Coffeemaker and Bausch & Lomb’s Ray-Ban Wayfarer glasses are a few on this short list. Heath Ceramics fits squarely within this distinguished group. With the Coupe line, Edith produced completely new dinnerware, which quickly became a classic. Coupe has been a mainstay of the company since its origins, boasting a loyal and multi-generational clientele, and serving as a design yardstick by which other dinnerware is measured.

The story of Edith continues to resonate in the ceramics field and in the consumer market because she accomplished what few people can: she made a product line that broke with tradition; she balanced her craft with mass production techniques; she committed herself to scientific knowledge; and she became a woman business owner and creative driver of a company that weathered a half century of ups and downs and emerged stronger in the shadow of her death in 2005.

Edith Heath believed the world was written in clay. And through her practice, through her rebellion, she has done more than write her story. She has become a part of history.

A Day in the Life of Edith Heath | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
A Day in the Life of Edith Heath | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Brochure of Heath's Coupe and Rim Lines | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley
Brochure of Heath's Coupe and Rim Lines | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

Sources:

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

Edith Heath, letter to Sheila Hibben at The New Yorker, July 14, 1949.

Edith Heath, “What Makes A Potter Good,” transcript of symposium at the Palace Hotel presented by the Association of San Francisco Potters, October 20, 1950.

Top Image: Heath factory | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley

 

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