A Master workshop, Enveloped in Clay

Heath Ceramics, an Enduring Mid-Century Modern Icon


Design By Photo by Matthew Ankeny
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When Edith Heath opened her Sausalito factory she lived in a houseboat down the street. She walked to work, shaped clay, walked home. That was life in 1948. Her focus for the company was stalwart: they were to make “simple, good things for good people”. The mantra worked, and Heath became synonymous with quality ceramic wares made with honest materials. Her Coupe line, the company’s first ever, continues on today as one of the most enduring examples of mid-century modern design, and the way things are done in Heath’s small, low-ceilinged factory in Sausalito has been just as enduring.

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Heath’s studio is set up as a square, with an open middle. The factory tour involves walking counter-clockwise through the process — starting with forming the clay, then drying and sanding edges, glazing, and finally firing. Every inch is caked with signs of long-term use: clay on the walls, glaze on the workbenches, dust everywhere. Pottery is a messy business, and clay is the toddler of the material world, always looking for a way to mess things up. But the factory reinforces that this process is one done by skilled hands with great care. At the peak of this is the Alabama Chanin line, whose patterns are hand carved into the pottery with nothing more than a miniature pick.

And so, when the tour ends and you’re ushered out into the gift shop and you begin to try to justify $35 espresso cups and $118 serving bowls, you’ll see there’s an argument to be made. This pottery has undergone metamorphosis by skilled artisans. It starts as the flat, gray mud of the earth, and ends in refined, simple, elemental ceramic ware. That small miracle is enough for table conversation. Or one can simply and silently enjoy good, handmade work coming from a hardworking factory six decades running.