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Visionary mid-century ceramist Edith Heath’s timeless tableware still being served

If You Go

What: “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” showcases the life, craft and legacy of the ceramist with more than 50 pieces of Heath ceramics, photographs, documentary video and personal memorabilia.

When: Through Oct. 30

Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Information: museumca.org

Heath Ceramics: heathceramics.com

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.”

New glazes in Heath Ceramics Coupe line. (Jeffery Cross for Heath Ceramics)
New glazes in Heath Ceramics Coupe line. (Jeffery Cross for Heath Ceramics)

California cool

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.”

If You Go

What: “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” showcases the life, craft and legacy of the ceramist with more than 50 pieces of Heath ceramics, photographs, documentary video and personal memorabilia.

When: Through Oct. 30

Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Information: museumca.org

Heath Ceramics: heathceramics.com

One of the hallmarks of Heath’s pieces is that they are beautiful everyday objects that look handmade even though they were produced in a factory.

“She believed there could be bad designs for handmade objects and beautiful and functional design for machine-made objects,” Johnson said.

By the late 1940s, she had opened Heath Ceramics in Sausalito and was producing 100,000 pieces a year.

Heath tapped into the California cool, casual and outdoorsy zeitgeist, with dinnerware that was as appropriate for a picnic table as it was for a formal dining table. Her work has been featured in the New York Museum of Modern Art and in Sunset Magazine, which speaks to her success in crossing the divide.

Floor of the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, circa 1965. (Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)
Floor of the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, circa 1965. (Courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

Connection to the earth

Long before anyone was talking about locally sourced materials, Heath rejected the common imported white clay artists used, dismissing it as “gutless.” She went in search of the perfect clay for true earthenware that was uniquely Californian.

“She had a deep, almost mystical connection with the earth and elements that came from earth,” Volland said. “She saw clay as a fundamental element.”

Heath traveled all over the state in her search, settling on the clay pits around Lincoln, where the venerable Gladding, McBean company made Franciscan tableware until the line was sold to Wedgwood and production moved to England.

Heath Ceramics still sources its clay from those pits, said Robin Petravic, who along with his wife Cathy Bailey, stumbled on the aging Heath factory in 2003 and peeked inside. They soon bought the factory and revitalized the brand. At the time, it was one of the last of many potteries that flourished in California in the mid-20th century. Edith Heath died two years later at age 94, knowing her creations would be carried on.

“We really value the stability and not changing things too often,” Petravic said. “Her original dinnerware line is called Coupe, and we still make it. The shape has changed very little since 1948. We still have glazes that Heath has been using for over 40 years.”

One of Edith Heath’s original aims to was to democratize good design. And while Heath ceramics are more expensive than something you might buy at Target or Kohl’s, they are comparable in price to a setting of fine china like Villeroy & Boch or Wedgwood at Macy’s. A five-piece place setting of basic dinnerware in the Coupe line retails for $177 on the Heath website.

With the factory, the couple inherited all of Edith Heath’s original recipes, which were written out on notecards and kept in a metal box. There were 24 employees left at the time, but over the past nearly 20 years, they have rebuilt the company and now have more than 170 employees. In addition to their factory showroom at 400 Gate Five Road in Sausalito, they have a second factory, two showrooms in San Francisco (one at the Ferry Building) and a fourth showroom in Los Angeles. Heath has no retail outlets and sells only directly through its showrooms and online (heathceramics.com).

This place setting includes a variant of Heath designs, including classic Couple dinner and salad plates in Cocoa Fawn and a Rim dessert bowl in cranberry. Heath has expanded to feature other design products. (Hugo Ahlberg for Heath Designs)
This place setting includes a variant of Heath designs, including classic Couple dinner and salad plates in Cocoa Fawn and a Rim dessert bowl in cranberry. Heath has expanded to feature other design products. (Hugo Ahlberg for Heath Designs)

Among their lines of dinnerware is the Chez Panisse line, smooth and elegantly simple and created in collaboration with restaurateur Alice Waters and designer Christina Kim. Part of each sale is donated to Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project.

Heath also sells the classic tile first created by Edith Heath, while expanding to include new designs for dinner tables and home decor made in the spirit of their founder. Their Clay Studio in the factory allows their designers to do handmade studio work, which gives them a chance to experiment with glazes and one-off pieces.

Petravic and Bailey have maintained their own archive of Heath and contributed a few items to the Oakland Museum exhibit.

An important part of the story of Heath, also told in the exhibit, is of the factory she and Brian Heath created, collaborating closely with architects Marquis & Stoller to come up with a building built for people, with a showroom and a sweeping semicircular factory.

The collection of objects through the arc of Heath’s career, the interviews and experiments laid out in the exhibits tell of a woman who was both of her time and ahead of her time.

“She realized that Californians in particular were hungry for something new that reflected the California reality and that talked about our indoor and outdoor lifestyle, with design that was more casual and democratic,” Volland said.

“Edith Heath was a woman who had such a rich and long life. I really hope this exhibit will be a great primer for people who don’t know anything about her. But for people who do know about Heath Ceramics, it will shine a light on information they haven’t had access to before and tons of objects they have never seen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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