Heath Ceramics might have scaled the heights of global success, but the company remains a champion for local, small-batch manufacturing in the US. The company was founded in 1948 by enterprising ceramicist Edith Heath and her husband Brian in Sausalito, California. Driven by Edith’s experimentation with clays and glazes, Heath flourished as a pottery turning out high-quality ceramic tableware prized for their modern lines and functional, avant-garde designs.
When the celebrated San Francisco ceramic institution faced danger of being forgotten, new owners Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic — both former design consultants — stepped in to kindle a revival. They had chanced upon the old Heath factory while exploring their new neighbourhood of Sausalito and immediately saw the potential to turn Heath’s legacy into a viable, values-driven business. They purchased the property from Edith Heath, retaining the 24 employees still working in the factory at the time.
Together, Catherine and Robin charted a slow but steady route to growth by streamlining the original offerings and adding new products while preserving the timeworn practices of Edith’s era. Even today, the low-fire kilns in the factory are the same ones Brian Heath built in the 1950s, and the tableware and tiles are crafted in much the same way they have always been.
Today, Heath Ceramics employs close to 200 people, and along with the original Sausalito factory, has opened a store and showroom in Los Angeles, a store in San Francisco’s Ferry Building and most recently, a state of the art tile factory, retail space, and design studio in the Mission neighbourhood of San Francisco. The business operates like a self-sufficient ecosystem, with every step of the manufacturing process — from conceptualization to design to retail — embedded within the factory complex.
We find out what it takes to rebuild a company with a history like Heath’s, and how owners Catherine and Robin continue to stay ahead of the curve.
Tell us more about your initiation into the world of ceramics. Where did your appreciation for ceramics begin?
My first love of ceramics was the American mid-century industrial forms that I learned about in college, Russell Wright’s work for Steubenveille and Iroquois and Eva Zeisal’s work for Hall. I found the forms and colors beautiful, and I collected a ton of Eva Zeisal’s fantasy pattern that I mix in with the Heath I have today.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New Jersey, a town called Holmdel. It was home to Bell Labs, which was housed in a fantastic big glass box Saarinen building set among sprawling landscaping. My dad worked there so it made a big impression on me.
Let’s rewind to your discovery of the original Heath factory in 2003… What struck you about the building and how did you arrive at the decision to purchase Heath Ceramics?
The building had interesting bones, clearly mid-century lines and really interesting indoor/outdoor intent, but it was quite overrun with decades of accumulated stuff, and it was hard to tell what was interesting and what was junk. The most amazing thing was that the people and machines that it housed were still working every day. The business was going to close if someone did not buy it and figure out how to make it viable in 2003. We were tired of our existing jobs (design consulting) and wanted to do something more holistic and Heath seems like an ambitious but exciting challenge!
Tell us a little about growing Heath into what it is today.
In 2003, there were 25 people at Heath, today there are 200. It’s a wonderful size, and we like the scale we’re at now: big enough to make an impact in terms of how we want to do business, but small enough to keep all the integrity in our products and keep running the business ourselves.
How do you balance the need for preservation — to honour the Heath legacy — with the drive to innovate?
This is never really a challenge. If something is beautiful we keep it in the line, and we don’t worry about innovating; we just continue to make products that we think are beautiful. We love experimenting with glazes in our existing line and we now have a clay studio so we are constantly doing new work. In our shops you’ll see a lot of one of a kind work along side production pieces. And we continue to keep exploring design in other mediums outside of ceramics, less in terms of innovation and more in terms of what feels right to us.
Tell us a little about each of your design personalities. What kind of challenges comes with rebuilding a company as a married couple?
The challenges are more in communication and keeping each other up on the details. In terms of our values and the overall aesthetic, we’re a good match, and we always agree.
Do you feel there’s been an increasing interest in pottery in recent years? Why do you think that is?
Yes, it’s exciting to see so many potters popping up. The work is really varied: some inspires us, and some is derivative but more people making things is very positive.
Your co-authored book, “Tile Makes the Room” launched last year. What sparked the idea for this book?
There are lots of great books about tile as an object, but very few about tile and its role in creating wonderful spaces. This book is about opening peoples’ eyes to the potential of tile, to understand more of the ways it can be used to create wonderful spaces.
Heath has been a great supporter of creative collaboration between makers, artists and designers. Can you tell us a little about these collaborations?
We collaborate with people we’ve had long relationships with. We almost never dive in and start making products with other people unless we’ve known each other for while. Collaborations like the dinnerware with Alabama Chanin and the clocks with House Industries are inspiring and successful because we each bring something different to the table, and we design things together. To us, a collaboration is not us making someone else’s design, it’s about working out the concept, design and details together to create something that neither of us would do on our own.
Which aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?
Working with the design team on new ideas, developing ideas and palettes for glazes.
What would be the best response you could hope to elicit from someone who has experienced a Heath product?
It’s beautiful, timeless, I can see and feel the touch of the hand in it, and I love it.
How have you arranged your work and living spaces to make yourselves feel inspired?
Though our home is a great source of inspiration and trying out new ideas (We’ve got many tile installations in our house, and it’s a constantly evolving creative space), we have a really wonderful studio and hang out space in our San Francisco facility. It’s actually our office, and a great place to shut out all the distracting “noise” as well as feel connected to Heath’s creative work and the city of San Francisco.
What do you like to do in your downtime?
I spend a lot of time designing spaces, houses, and offices. It’s satisfying. I spend a lot of time at work helping guide them on what we should and should not do, that it’s nice to sit down and sketch spaces and small ideas. We also spend a lot of time in Tahoe, in the woods, hiking, skiing, and really getting far away from city life.
What are you working on now and what are you looking forward to in the near future?
We’re excited about our Heath Designs initiative, where we are branching out beyond ceramics in ways both expected and unexpected. I’m also looking forward to a new line of furniture made for Heath by a local design company called Jacob May, our Winter Seasonal collection (we have two new limited edition collections each year) and our annual Heath Clay Studio Show which we’ll be holding in November of this year.