Visionary mid-century ceramist Edith Heath’s timeless tableware still being served
At the entrance to a new exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California are two very different examples of 20th century dinnerware.
On one side are pieces of antique Haviland china in the Poppy pattern, with delicate flowers on fine porcelain. On the other are dishes that couldn’t be more dissimilar — pieces of heavy stoneware adorned only with solid, earthen colors.
The starkly contrasting pieces are rooted to the same story, that of legendary North Bay potter Edith Heath.
Heath inherited the porcelain china from her mother. It was the only family treasure her family kept when they lost their Iowa farm to creditors in the 1920s.
And starting in the 1940s, she made the earthenware partly in reaction to the traditional old china that she found fussy and impractical and which only came out on special occasions. Heath would dedicate her life to creating ceramics for real family life, dishes sturdy enough for weekday suppers and beautiful enough for a Thanksgiving feast.
Haviland’s Poppy motif has long been retired from production. But Heath’s Coupe line is still being made at the same Sausalito factory she built in 1960. It speaks to the enduring legacy of Heath, whose designs have never gone out of style, even after more than 70 years in production.
The new exhibit, “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay,” opens this weekend at the Oakland Museum. Not just an exhibition of her pottery, it also focuses on Heath herself, a rebel of her time who revolutionized the ceramics industry with durable yet stylish stoneware. She rejected both the impractical delicacy of fine china and the insistence by many of her peers in the pottery world that good design could be found only in handmade objects.
Heath was egalitarian when it came to design. Her ceramics were made at a small factory built on a human rather than mammoth scale, with lots of windows and a light-filled courtyard for work breaks, so her workers could produce in a pleasant environment, something few business owners were considering in the 1950s.
The exhibition includes more than 50 early hand-thrown and early production pieces, architectural tiles and clay and mineral materials from Heath and Heath Ceramics. It delves into Heath’s life, her philosophy and her scientific experiments with clays and glazes and kiln temperatures. Photographs, documentary video, personal letters and memorabilia trace her evolution.
“Heath’s story is a deeply California story,” said Drew Johnson, curator of photography and visual culture for the museum, who oversaw the exhibit. “Her ceramics are made from clays sourced within California. Her designs reflect the indoor and outdoor California lifestyle that was a very big deal in the post-war years.”
Heath belongs among such midcentury design luminaries as Charles and Ray Eames, contemporaries whose work also was quintessentially Californian, although Heath was a native of the Midwest and took her first ceramics course at the Art Institute of Chicago.
After marrying Brian Heath in 1938, she made her way to San Francisco, where she was an art teacher and audited classes at the California School of Fine Arts. She didn’t have access to professional equipment, so she and Brian converted an old treadle sewing machine into a pottery wheel. A UC Extension course on eutectics — mixtures that result from combining specific minerals so that the melting-point temperature is lower than that of each element — excited her to the science of mixing clay and creating glazes to achieve different looks. It would allow her to fire clay at lower temperatures and convert it to a glasslike form that was hard, water-resistant and durable, with a wider range of colors.
After her first major show at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Heath was recruited during World War II to produce a line of quality hand-thrown pottery for the high-end San Francisco department store Gump’s. It was difficult at the time for retailers to source china, Johnson said, so they reached out to local makers to stock their stores.
Other retailers took notice of Heath’s earthy designs, too. In 1946, she partnered with the N.S. Gustin Company to expand production and market her ceramics nationally, translating the hand-thrown forms she made for Gump’s into designs that could be commercially produced.
“She wanted good design, just like the Eameses, be available to everyone,” said Jennifer Volland, a guest curator who has extensively researched Heath’s life and was a consulting producer for the award-winning documentary “Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic.”