Heath Ceramics is a hallmark of mid-century modern design, and behind this long-running Sausalito-based company lies the legacy of a strong woman whose personal history, politics and aesthetic melded together to give Heath Ceramics its unmistakable DNA.
Born Edith Kiertzner, Edith Heath coaxed simple beauty from the earth beneath her. In her oral history, “Tableware and Tile for the World” at UC Berkeley, she said, “…“I was looking for clay (when I began potting) that nobody knew anything about, that had unique properties that I could utilize and develop, that would be expressive of the region. ...” Edith’s artistic inclination and experience eventually gave birth to a classic ceramic dinnerware — the Coupe Line — which has been in continuous production for more than half a century.
See a timeline of Heath’s milestones below:
Edith Heath was born on May 24, 1911. She was the second of seven children and grew up on a farm in Iowa. As the eldest daughter, she grew up to be a sort of “mother of all of the others after me.”
It was a life filled with chores and responsibilities at home including embroidering and baking bread.
Just before Edith graduates high school, the family lost its farm and sold most of their possessions. To help make ends meet, Edith took on a job as a bookkeeper and teller with the Iowa Public Service Company.
Edith was able to save enough money and left Ida Grove, Iowa for Chicago.
She enrolled at the Chicago Teacher’s College, where she studied art education. There, she was influenced by the theories of John Dewey and pragmatism. Dewey’s philosophy of hands-based activities and problem solving would manifest itself in Edith’s work throughout her life. “John Dewey [was always] saying that you learned through doing, not talking; [his] way of seeing education was that everybody’s an artist, everyone is a genius,” said Edith.
After finishing her studies at Chicago Teacher’s College Edith enrolled part-time at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Federal Art Project
Edith received an invitation to work at a Federal Art Project training school in Batavia, Illinois, which exposed Edith to the ideas and aesthetics of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the former faculty of Bauhaus in Germany, and former director of the Museum of Modern Art, Edgar Holger Cahill.
While working there, Edith met Brian Heath, whose comparatively exotic life intrigued the Iowa farm girl. Brian had an itinerant childhood, traveling with his mother to Guatemala at age four and then to Greenwich Village in New York, where she typed manuscripts for writers. “As a child he was an observer of the bohemian art world in New York. He was ‘farmed out’ to live with different families. Later, in the mid-twenties, his mother moved to San Diego where she became secretary of the Fine Arts Gallery until she retired in 1944. … So his background was in a creative environment,” said Edith. At the time, Brian was getting his degree in social service administration, but had earned his bachelor’s in sociology at the University of Chicago.
Edith married Brian in August of 1938, three months after they meet. They live in an apartment in Chicago’s Southside.
Brian accepted a job as Regional Director for the American Red Cross. This brought the Heaths to the west coast in 1941.
San Francisco Art Institute
Edith taught art classes at Presidio Hill School, while auditing classes at the California School of Fine Arts (later renamed San Francisco Art Institute). She also petitioned University of California Extension to host a class on ceramic chemistry, which started her on the road to a lifetime of experimentation in clay and glaze.
In the early days of their time in San Francisco, Brian and Edith Heath lived on Filbert Street. The couple turned their Julia Morgan-designed apartment into a ceramic studio. Here, Edith immersed herself in her study of clays and glazes.
Brian used his skills to convert an old treadle-powered sewing machine into a wheel, which gave Edith full-time access to a pottery wheel.
A large gas-fired kiln was also in the basement, while a smaller one on the kitchen counter was used for clay and glaze tests.
Edith experimented with different clay types and how the clay mix affects aesthetic qualities of her wares. Her mastery of this science combined with her modern sensibilities for proportion and form made Heath an expert ceramist.
“I began to work with California 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,” said Edith. Here are some of Edith’s handbooks, which she likely used in her quest for the right stoneware clay body. She wanted to understand the properties of different chemicals and how they interacted with one another in the kiln.
Even early on, Edith’s aesthetic had beautiful, simple and useful shapes. The textured surface of these early examples was created with burlap fabric.
On a visit to a San Francisco gallery with a friend, Edith meets Jermayne MacAgy, the acting director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum. This eventually leads to a one-woman show at the museum. Edith had only three months to complete about two hundred pieces. The exhibition opened on September 1, 1944 and ran for a month.
Bill Brewer, a buyer for Gump’s, attended the Legion of Honor exhibit. Due to the dearth of European imports during World War II, he was in search of high-quality American crafts that he could sell. It dovetailed perfectly with Edith’s vision for practical, useful dinnerware of beautiful design. “I wanted to make something that was for the American Way of life, not the kind of dishes that were used in Europe among the aristocracy, but was much more peasant-oriented, and yet could be for Sunday best as well as for everyday use,” said Edith.
Brewer consigned almost all the pieces in the exhibition. To ensure an ongoing supply, he also rented Edith a studio space on 565 Clay Street with production equipment for $50 a month. It was there she worked with three of her students to produce pottery hand thrown on the wheel.
Edith quit teaching and Brian came on board in 1945, acting as business manager.
Soon, other retailers like Neiman Marcus, Marshall Field’s and Bullock’s became interested. Retail gallery America House in New York, which focused on American crafts, also began to carry the line. At the time, the director of America House was Frances Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright’s youngest daughter. Edith’s work would later be specified for several of Wright’s projects.
While Edith was preparing for the San Francisco Gift, Toy, and Houseware Show, Nelson Gustin of N.S. Gustin Company visited. After several months, he offered Heath a distribution agreement which promised a store in every major city nationwide. To help with production, Gustin offers to co-sign on a loan to expand operations and to purchase the company’s output for one year. Through N.S. Gustin, Heathware would be distributed in the original Pottery Barn and Bloomingdale’s in New York.
To meet production goals, Brian found new factory space in the former shipyards of Sausalito. It was here that Heath shifted from handmade pieces formed on a wheel to machine-assisted production using new kilns, jigger wheels designed and built by Brian, and slip casting. Edith’s hand-thrown ware served as prototypes, and by 1949, the company was producing 100,000 pieces a year and grossing $5,000 a month.
Heath’s first official dinnerware line was perfected. It was named Coupe. Original colors included sand, sage, blue, aqua and apricot.
Though Edith gained fame and popularity in helping create a post-war lifestyle, she also came under fire for moving to more commercial methods. Yet, Edith remained committed to the Bauhaus principles that fused art and technology and saw her early prototypes as a templates for mass production. “I was very badly criticized for being part of the establishment, that I was no longer an artist, that I had sold out,” said Edith.
Museum of Modern Art and other exhibitions
Attention from curators like Edgar Kaufman, Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art led to Heath’s inclusion in a number of important exhibitions throughout the country.
To lessen their commute from San Francisco, Brian and Edith bought a boat, an old potato hauler, named the Dorothea, with Eral and Kenny Leek as co-owners.
With the help of Eral (an architecture student and a Heath studio manager), they docked the Dorothea at a Sausalito shipyard and built a house on the barge. The idea appealed to Edith because it was reminiscent of fishing culture of her Danish family. The barge encapsulated the indoor/outdoor casual lifestyle that is also reflected in Heathware.
In 1950, Arts & Architecture, an influential magazine, which helped spread the tenets of mid-century modernism, features Heath Ceramics. The magazine showcased the latest in architecture, interior design, art, and products — and often how they worked together.
The couple’s makeshift home gained more permanency as it was floated over from Sausalito and raised off beach on four waterfront acres in Tiburon.
Eventually, the Heaths bought out the Leeks, added a wraparound porch, and create a landscape plan with designer Robert Royston.
This 1952 House Beautiful cover with Heathware used in an outdoor setting shows how much Heath was becoming part of the post-war lifestyle and its appeal as a durable and adaptable product.
A new Heath Ceramics factory
With production growing, Heath Ceramics needed to grow as well. The Heaths purchased land on Gate Five Road in Sausalito and started designing their ideal space. Working with architecture firm Marquis & Stoller, Edith championed an open and adaptable floor plan, suited to the flow of production, as well as a(and people being able to look out the window) and cross-ventilation. The factory is completed in 1960.
By 1958, Edith experimented with tiles and worked with French ceramicist Leon Galleto who created a series of individually cast shaped tiles.
Heath Ash trays
One of the most popular Heath Ceramics pieces is credited to Brian Heath. Both Brian and Edith Heath were heavy smokers. Because Brian found it difficult to talk on the phone or take notes while smoking, he decided to design a solution.
Brian cut V-shaped notches on the side of a clay bowl drying on the rack. The notches helped hold the cigarettes in place. He also found that it could self-extinguish because of the tapering of the notch.
The item gained tremendous popularity, so much so that the city of Seattle named Brian’s design “safety ashtrays” and required them to be installed in every public building in the city. The design was so popular that at one point, the ashtrays were 25% of Heath Ceramics’ business.
Los Angeles tile production
To help facilitate the production of tiles in different lengths and sizes, Brian built a “ribbon machine.” For the first couple of years, the tile was made in the factory, but as commissions got larger and more complex, they moved production of tiles to a plant in Los Angeles, where they had a press.
Architectural Heath tile
Heath tile becomes part of an architect’s toolbox and soon is seen in a number of projects, including the Norton Simon Museum designed by Ladd and Kelsey. Here, Edith experiments with one glaze on top of the other — onyx glaze under brick red, evoking the reddish brown of the San Gabriel Mountains. The project won Edith an AIA Industrial Arts Medal in 1971.
Edith experiments with small modifications to the Coupe line, most notably in the offshoot called the Rim Line. Rim line had a thicker exposed clay edge, making it durable and easily stackable. It becomes a favorite of restaurants and remained a profit maker for Heath throughout the 1970s.
By the 1980s sales drops significantly, precipitated by the decentralization of shopping and the end of small retail outlets.
Environmental crackdowns in the 1980s forced the Heaths to look at toxicity levels in glaze waste. As waste was difficult and expensive to dispose of, not to mention hazardous, it became a priority. Edith began using the waste to fashion new glazes, effectively reducing waste material and creating new formulas for production.
Edith continued experimenting well into her eighties.
Brian and Edith weather many storms during the five decades running Heath Ceramics, and their commitment to the success of the company never wanes. Brian died in 2001 and Edith died December 2005. In 2003, the company is sold to its current owners Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey, who have carried on the company’s mission and re-injected new life to the classic line.
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.
This visual timeline was created based on the research of Jennifer M. Volland, consulting producer of “Artbound” S10 E2: Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic.
Top Image: Heath ceramics | Courtesy of the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley