On a recent trip to Southern California, we stopped by the Norton Simon Museum — previously the Pasadena Art Museum — to check out its extensive art collections and sculpture garden and, of course, its unique Heath Tile exterior.
As we browsed and admired the volcanic-textured cladding of large, 5” x 15” custom Heath Tiles, we started to wonder about the backstory. A little digging through the Heath archives and oral history unearthed it.
The Norton Simon building – completed in 1969 – was designed by architects Ladd & Kelsey. The firm approached Edith with a request she’d rarely said yes to before: to design custom tile for the project. Fortunately, this time, Edith said yes.
The project was so successful that in 1971, Edith received the highly prestigious AIA Industrial Arts Medal award from the American Institute of Architects, marking the first time that a non-architect was the recipient of such an honor.
In an oral history from 1995, Edith explained that the large-sized tile was unique since its size meant that tile setters didn’t need to cut the tile onsite: “My idea was that tile should be designed to ‘fill a space’ as in filling a space with canvas...[I] designed the tile so it would fit the common dimensions that were used in architecture.” (This notion now seems a precursor to Edith’s later passion for modular building components, such as extruded clay forms, a construction medium Edith considered to be structurally sound, cost effective, and environmentally conscientious.)
The building’s design evoked Hadrian’s Tomb, an ancient curvilinear site in Rome. Edith was initially asked to create tile with a textured relief reminiscent of the stones, which she resisted. Instead, she suggested that working creatively with glaze would yield a more compelling effect.
Her expertise in glaze-making came into play. She began experimenting with layered glazes — a process we continually explore today — to produce a glazed tile inspired by the inherent variation of natural materials.
“As glazes melt, they boil. A lower melting glaze would boil up through a stiff glaze that is on the top, creating a volcanic bubbly eruption frozen in time.” After multiple layered glaze experiments, Edith honed in on Brick Red laid over Onyx — two glazes we still make today (for a similar effect in contemporary tile, we suggest our Layered Glaze Paprika-Gunmetal).
The effect was richly textured and pigmented, complementing the nearby Pasadena Mountains. The deep umber color varies from light to dark, which is one of our favorite things about working with handcrafted tile. That character and personality that comes through can’t be beat. Not in 1969, and not today, either.
The Norton Simon’s gorgeous exterior has not only stood the test of time, but weathered it well. The condition of the museum to this day is a testament to the durability and function of tile as an exterior cladding, a usage we here at Heath wish we saw more of.