The Professor Opines on the act of “Making” Through the Lens of a Pioneer in American Ceramics

[an array of pottery made just outside san francisco by heath ceramics]

[an array of pottery made just outside san francisco by heath ceramics]

“Noted ceramicist Edith Heath died at the end of 2005 in Tiburon, California, at age 94. Why should it matter to you, the devoted design creator and consumer?”
— from The Professor’s paean [written in 2006] to Edith and the company she founded [Heath Ceramics]

As part of teaching what can only be described as “thoughtful making,” industrial design educators like The Professor need to offer more than discussion and discourse to their young charges. Learning about making, for example, must also be experiential and [ideally] kinesthetic. For students to get this type of hands-on, hard-won type of knowledge, they need to visit various factories to see specific materials in action: to match what they have imagined is possible with what they see is actually doable.

The challenge for The Professor’s CCA students—akin to that faced by design students in other American cities—is that San Francisco has few companies left that actually make anything within its borders. The macroeconomists and B-school pundits have told us that manufacturers have left the Bay Area in search of skilled but lower-cost labor elsewhere. That they have moved out on the basis of taxes being too high. That they have left due to protective environmental laws that have had the concomitant effect of making it more expensive to do business.

As those factories have moved elsewhere, the very concept of manufacturing has been transformed. This newer manner of manufacturing has moved away from a principally mass-production-based method [making large quantities of identical things] to a far more variegated, post-industrial range of processes [moving toward making customized, personalized design solutions].

It has been The Professor’s observation that the manufacturers who have stayed tend to be small, focused on one production area, priced at a premium, and able to demonstrate clear expertise within that domain. These include individualized graphics-laden messenger bags; hand-built bicycle frames based on each rider’s bodies; personalized health-care products such as braces, orthotics and other customized prosthetics; limited-run furniture pieces sold at retail; high-end coffee drinks that come from emporia that resemble orchestrated chemistry experiments [all Erlenmeyers, alembics and clear glass tubing]; auto, motorcycle and boat body shops geared to full-on restorations and resto-mods; and, small-batch chocolates with curated-ingredient lists.

And than there is Heath Ceramics.

Both a factory and a showroom, Heath has been situated just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Sausalito since it was first founded by Edith and Brian Heath in 1948. The company was originally established during a period of intense experimentation in ceramics that built on the larger legacy of the American Studio Pottery movement that occurred in pockets across the country [from New York to Zanesville, Ohio to California]. Heath was therefore part of a much larger 20th-century pottery phenomenon, an example of material invention and dedication to creativity that students, practicing designers and design historians would all benefit by knowing more about.

[founder and force behind heath ceramics: edith heath]

[a mid-20th century image of the founder and force behind heath ceramics: edith heath]

Many regions of California offered good-to-great natural clay deposits; essentially the raw substance was there for the taking. California [like America in general] was also legendarily free from the proverbial burden of history; in the Golden State, the old roles and rules didn’t apply and that fit Edith’s mien. Under the sunny blue Mediterranean skies of the Bay area, tradition and technique informed Edith’s situation but they never dictated what she should do. Freedom and possibility were suffused into the ethos and absorbed into the atmosphere; in post-World-War II California, a can-do spirit prevailed where clay was concerned [as it certainly did with aluminum, carbon, silicon and a number of rarer elements].

The small-scale, carefully-made factory that Edith and husband Brian had built in Sausalito offered them the opportunity not just to do their work in a new way but also to start a new way of life. It was Mid-20th-century Modern design, a post-war, west-coast style of living, a way of making that intentionally blurred what was indoors with what was outdoors, what was public with what was private, and what was business with what was personal.

Heath still makes dinnerware at their original factory designed by the architectural firm Marquis & Stoller in 1959. It’s a one-story building rimmed with windows like any good manufactory. The entrance is lined with clay tiles that were initially made as glaze tests or color experiments. In that building, Edith created dinner settings, including iconic ashtrays, casseroles, cups, pitchers, platters, teapots and vases. Their signature line “Coupe” had a wiped rim that revealed the natural clay beneath the colorful glazes.

[the colorways of heath ceramics have always had nature as their inspiration although more recent piecs have been offered in lighter and brighter shades]

[the colorways of heath ceramics have always had nature as their inspiration although more recent pieces have been offered in lighter and brighter shades]

From the beginning, Heath’s products were heavy in the hand and substantial feeling to inquiring fingertips; with their thick cross-sections, they were less likely to break. Edith experimented with a variety of colors and glazing techniques but she typically chose colors that were saturated with the muted and neutral hues of nature: foggy grays, atmospheric blues, dusty yellows, wooded forest greens, stony browns and beachy tans. The shapes and glazes were considered by some observers to be primitive compared to other plates of the time, but they always struck The Professor as primal rather than primitive. They are simple and rich, more like a child’s dream—or the Platonic ideal—of what a plate should be.

[the graphic identity of heath is simple and to the point—like the ceramics themselves]

[the graphic identity of heath is simple and to the point—like the ceramics themselves]

Several other factors make the case for Heath’s significance to our particular moment in design culture:

1. Heath products employed the then-novel, now-current strategy of blurring the line between everyday and keepsake pieces. Heath’s pieces were then as now egalitarian, funky, honest [without any added ornament], localized, pure and timeless.

2. Heath products were built around the idea of industrial craft: Edith aim was to work in ways that brought the hand and the machine together. They speak to our human desire for meaningful material expression; the kind that can only come through hand-enhanced, machine-augmented processes.

3. Heath products have always been about making on your own terms. Edith’s personal conviction was embodied in the ceramics; by all accounts, she was driven to create and obsessive about making the business a success.

4. Heath products evolved by always employing the same essential appearance and sensory cues—a consistent and thorough design language—that made the pieces both rooted in their particular historic moment and [paradoxically] timeless by the same measure. The designs changed at their own organic rate, but the essential qualities have always been visible in each and every product release.

Through her stewardship of Heath Ceramics beginning in the late 1940s, Edith put out an uncommon message to the world: do what you love and love what you do. She and husband Brian created a lifestyle-workstyle way of doing things long before it became fashionable to do so. In the final analysis, she was both notoriously exacting and ceaselessly searching for those certain elements that made for a rich and deep design simplicity.

She made the making of ceramics look as if it was easy to do, almost effortless, because she took delight in it. That’s one way that Edith is connected to the larger design community today. CCA students still regularly visit the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito but they now also have the option of going to the newer Heath facility dedicated to making tiles located in the Mission district of San Francisco. Students these days say that they want to produce things of greater meaning and of higher social significance than their forebearers did, and they—like The Professor—want industrial design to be a profession that they can be proud of.

[recent ceramics have been presented as sets and benefited from using a same-but-different approach that emphasizes the relationships between pieces rather than individual pieces]

[recent ceramics from heath have been presented as sets and benefited from using a same-but-different approach that emphasizes the relationships between pieces rather than the individual pieces themselves]

Original text follows below from ID magazine, ‘Edith Heath [1911-2005],’ May 2006, p. 91

“EDITH HEATH WAS BOTH A DESIGNER and an entrepreneur at a time when the vast majority of women were neither. Along with Eva Zeisel, Ray Eames and Florence Knoll, she proved that women designers could be hugely influential on the domestic front [and beyond that when given the chance].

Edith Kiertzner Heath was born in 1911, the oldest daughter of a large Iowa farm family. In search of a more creative life, she moved to Chicago in the early 1930s and studied to be a teacher. Summer courses with New Bauhaus founder Låszlø Moholy-Nagy introduced her to the axioms of modernism: form follows function, be true to materials, put art in the service of industry.

In 1941, the year that the U.S. entered World War II, Edith met and married Brian Heath. The couple moved to San Francisco, where Brian served as regional director for the American Red Cross. Edith taught art and set up a small studio in their apartment with a potter’s wheel her husband fashioned out of a treadle sewing machine.

In 1944, she was given her first exhibition, a show of tea services and dinnerware at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco’s premiere art museum at the time. When the exhibition closed Gump’s department store offered to carry the products. New lines of serving pieces and architectural tiles were added. To meet the growing demand, Edith and Brain founded Heath Ceramics in 1948.

The timing was propitious. American retailers who had lost many of their European suppliers in the war years were eager to do business, and Heath’s relaxed yet timeless design language was a boon: her 1948 Coupe dinnerware pattern, with its speckled, earth-colored glazes and distinctive loop-handled mugs, is still in production.

Heath roughed-up Bauhaus modernism, translating its severity into California cool. Like the Bay-Area chefs who revitalized American cuisine 30 years later, she looked no further than her own neighborhood for ingredients, cultivating local clay sources and devising innovative ways to honor the material’s simplicity through shaping, firing and glazing. Appropriately, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse the restaurant that led the food restaurant revolution in California, uses Heath ceramics. “Make the most beautiful thing out of the least… just the material and the glaze is enough,” Heath said in a 1991 interview.

Like her East Coast counterpart, the ceramicist Eva Zeisel, she made minimalism poetic yet nurturing. But whereas Zeisel, who built alliances with many important manufacturers, has been the deserving subject of several publications and even a documentary, Heath was the soul of a single, only occasionally visible company.

Edith played such a vital role in running Heath that when she stepped down, the company came close to folding. [It was instead sold in 2003 to Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, a married couple who remain committed to the mid-century designs and craft techniques Heath implemented.] The narrow channel of Heath’s practice may be one reason she has been neglected by design historians. Arthur Pulos, for one, makes no mention of her in his two-volume American Design series, published by MIT Press.

As a partial corrective, the first monograph on Heath is due out this year. Edited by design critic Amos Klausner, Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity will compile products and texts that confirm Heath’s role as one of the leading practitioners of American modernism. “Her legacy is this,” Klausner put it recently, “Form should be paramount, production should be on a human scale, and the hand of the artist should be visible in every piece.”
End of the ID article

A FINAL THOUGHT

Edith’s approach to making and manufacturing represents a sweet spot that a growing number of industrial design students are now searching for: projects that in their ambition necessarily draw upon [and animate with newly-placed curiosity] the intersection between art, craft and design. Edith honored that search by being both authentic and transparent in every stage of her making process. Hers was an approach to making that was always in the making itself. That’s why it now matters to industrial design students that they make the trip to Sausalito, that they find solidarity with who Edith Heath was, and that they take inspiration from what she accomplished—and that’s why they call me The Professor.

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