At Heath, we often talk about our Sausalito factory as a treasured piece of history—and celebrate the fact that we have been making our ceramics in the same building, with the same philosophy and style, since the mid-20th century. But while the building is still our home, the world around it has changed drastically. Mass production and global shipping have transformed the way we think about buying and keeping consumer goods. At the same time, the movement to support small businesses and hand-made products is strong, and environmental crises are pushing us to reject disposability.
Through these pendulum swings of industry and craft, consumption and moderation, Heath Ceramics has been consistently grounded in values and design principles that Edith Heath established at the outset. Her story is a testament to entrepreneurial vision and determination. And her products are a living demonstration of design with integrity—meant to be used daily, lived with comfortably, and passed down through generations.
A new exhibition opening at the Oakland Museum of California on January 29 digs into those founding ideals, the woman who built a company upon them, and the products that emerged over half a century of her leadership. Edith Heath: A Life in Clay shows how and why Heath ceramics have become an iconic symbol of good design. Through photos, video, personal writing, and archival material—not to mention unique collections of ceramics from various eras—the show tells the story of this trailblazing woman whose sensibility came to define a long span of material culture.
There are unexpected stories, too—like the role the Heath ashtray played in social life during the days when smoking anchored business meetings and parties; the adventures she and her husband, Brian, took to rural California looking for the clay that would become Heath’s core ingredient; and the story of the barge the couple designed to be their home in Marin, not far from the original factory. Edith was a prolific writer, and her handwritten notes and essays offer a glimpse into her creative mind and voice.
If you’re in the Bay Area or coming through between now and October, 2022, visit the Oakland Museum of California to learn more about Edith’s life and legacy. If you can’t visit, check out the inspiring new book Edith Heath: Philosophies, which includes contributions from numerous curators and historians, including OMCA show curator Drew Heath Johnson, and guest curator Jennifer Volland. In an essay, Volland says, “There is a reason why Edith Heath’s work continues to resonate in the ceramics field and in the consumer market: it was born out of a determination to create products that reflect and maintain certain inherent values... She made products that broke with tradition yet became classics. She balanced her craft with mass production techniques. She committed herself to scientific knowledge and relentless experimentation to perfect her clay body and glaze formulas. She became a woman business owner and creative driver of a company that weathered half a century of ups and downs, only to emerge stronger in the shadow of her death in 2005.”
Q&A with Jennifer Volland and Drew Johnson, co-creators of Edith Heath: A Life in Clay
Heath Ceramics was founded during a tumultuous decade after the war. Were there particular conditions at the time that posed a challenge to Heath's early success? JV: Edith always said that the confluence of the times was just right for Heath Ceramics to emerge. Many things, like the dearth of imports during wartime, were in her favor. After the war, I think people were hungry for new ways of living. I think Edith tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of the time, offering consumers a product that aligned with more informal attitudes in the domestic sphere. DJ: Absolutely. We decided it was essential to give space to the way Edith's products perfectly expressed the postwar domestic zeitgeist and the idea that humble, everyday objects like dinnerware could contribute to a meaningful home life.
Heath has been featured in many museum exhibitions over the years. Is there one that was particularly influential or represented a turning point for Heath? JV: It would have to be her first solo exhibit of ceramics at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It was there a buyer from Gump's saw her work and offered her a studio to make hand-thrown dinnerware, which would be sold alongside the work of other local designers and makers. The pieces Edith created at this time were prototypes for what would ultimately become the Coupe line. DJ: The 1944 show at the Legion of Honor was the game-changing event that set her on her path as a manufacturer/designer. Some of the postwar design shows in which she was included were also important in establishing her as an important figure who could be spoken of in the same breath as designers like Charles and Ray Eames.
The Heath ashtray was a big part of the company's sales in the early years. What was the cultural significance of that piece? JV: For better or worse, the ashtray was a symbol of the times, reflecting the cultural landscape and lifestyle of postwar America. It was an ubiquitous object in homes, offices, and magazines (like Arts and Architecture) of the time. The design was so popular that at one point its sale made up 25% of Heath Ceramics' business. DJ: The cultural significance Jennifer mentions as a symbol of the times -- postwar America -- is why we felt it was essential to include an ashtray on the patio table in the "California Dream" vignette. It's hard for young people to imagine how ubiquitous smoking was just a few decades ago. If you look at the mural-sized photograph of Edith's waffle breakfast that forms the background to the vignette, you'll notice Edith is holding a cigarette. I find it fascinating the way it was embraced -- and marketed -- for its built-in safety feature to prevent accidental fires.
In your opinion, how did Brian Heath's aptitude for mechanical innovation help Heath Ceramics gain a unique footing as a business? JV: Brian played an integral role in the development of Heath Ceramics. As the de facto engineer of the company, his knowledge of machinery and the complex processes of production helped Heath Ceramics transition from solely hand-thrown ware to more industrialized production. Also, from the beginning, Brian built machinery that facilitated Edith's and Heath Ceramics' creative output—from Edith's first pottery wheel that Brian converted from a treadle-powered sewing machine to the ashtray notcher to a ribbon tile machine that allowed the company to make architectural tiles in modular sizes (1960).
Manufacturers today are having to consider the environment more than they were decades ago, but it's clear Edith always cared. What current environmental efforts would have aligned with Edith's business values? JV: The idea of energy efficiency. In Edith's own words: "lower the temperature of the kiln through finding materials that help each other to melt at the lowest possible temperature" DJ: Edith also hated waste and was determined to recycle materials as much as possible, whether it was using combinations of leftover glazes to transform "seconds" into art plates, or making clay scraps into buttons.
Women-led businesses were a rarity when Heath started. What could a women-led business (or aspiring female entrepreneur) today learn from her? JV: Edith never stopped experimenting, right up until the end of her life. She embodies the definition of lifelong learner. I think any entrepreneur could learn from her the importance of curiosity and passion in creating a successful and meaningful business.
What are your personal takeaways from working this closely with Edith’s history? What will you carry with you moving forward? JV: As a cultural historian, I'm interested in what Edith's life and work reveals about what was happening in the world around her and how she in turn left her imprint on the world. Edith is not only a part of the history of ceramics and design, but of California in general. DJ: I'm the half of the curatorial team that knew next to nothing about Edith Heath when we began the project, so my learning curve was pretty steep. While this meant I had to do a lot of catching up, it also made me something of a surrogate for a large part of the audience that would be coming to see the show. My hope is these visitors will be just as excited as I have been to learn about an extraordinary Californian whose work has been a part of so many lives, even if they've been unaware of the person responsible.
What do you hope visitors to the exhibition learn or take away? JV: I think the exhibition has something for everyone. For those new to Heath Ceramics, it provides a great history. And for those familiar with Heath Ceramics, it offers an intimate look inside the mind and life of the creator, Edith Heath. DJ: I would hope the exhibition encourages visitors to think about the way everyday objects can tell us something about our history and changing values over time -- what historians call "material culture."
We’ll be sharing stories and images from the show and from Edith’s life throughout the year while the exhibition is up. If you go and would like to share reflections, we’d love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.