Day trip: Heath Ceramics

This past Saturday, my husband and I decided – on a whim – to take advantage of the beautiful weather and go for a drive. We ended up at one of our favorite destinations: Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California.

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Founded in 1948 by Edith Heath (1911 – 2005), and purchased by Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey in 2003, Heath Ceramics continues to make all of their hand-glazed tableware and architectural tile – from start to finish – in the original Sausalito factory designed and built in 1959 by Marquis & Stoller. A talented ceramicist, Edith became a defining influence of 20th century design and was the first non-architect to win the American Institute of Architects Industrial Arts Medal for her distinctively beautiful tile. Known and respected for her drive to understand the science behind her craft, she not only mixed all of her own glazes, but also developed her own proprietary clay body (still mined in Ione, California) – one that only requires a single lower-than-normal-temperature firing. This specialized combination produces an extremely durable product while consuming less energy.

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These pieces are from my own collection. The “second quality” deep serving bowl is virtually indistinguishable from our other “first quality” pieces. The vase was a birthday gift from my husband (I am very blessed indeed). I purchased the vintage onyx stack mug and saucer – part of a complete set of eight – at an estate sale in Los Altos Hills.

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I’ve always loved handmade pottery and since moving to California, I’ve fallen hard for Heath. And yet, despite having made countless trips up to their Sausalito factory store over the years – choosing amongst the many beautiful glazes of their made-to-order tile for our bathroom, making weekly trips to comb through the overstock and second quality tile for future projects, gradually adding various pieces to our dinnerware collection and finding just the right birthday and anniversary gifts for friends and family – we had never actually been on their factory tour, until now.

DSC_0387 The employee lunchroom has multiple large windows that look out onto a lovely garden, as well as retractable doors that open the space up to an outside patio.

DSC_0388 Soft afternoon light and plaster pitcher molds.

DSC_0418 DSC_0424 The raw materials for mixing glazes.

DSC_0426Winnie Crittenden’s work area was a highlight of the tour. Winnie, a master glaze technician, has worked at the Heath Sausalito factory since 1974 and currently develops new glazes for the seasonal collections. Several one-of-a-kind pieces were on her desk.

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DSC_0427_2This simple tall white vase (with brown clay body visible through long winding cuts made with an Xacto knife blade) was even more beautiful in person.

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Above, more experimental pieces. After learning all about the production of dinnerware and vases, we then toured the portion of the factory devoted to architectural tile.

DSC_0452  This hydraulic press flattens and cuts the clay into the desired shape and size.

DSC_0454 DSC_0455 DSC_0458 It was fascinating to see exactly where and how our bathroom tile was made and gratifying to know that the process didn’t involve sweatshop labor or toxic runoff. I’m very proud to support small manufacturing companies such as Heath Ceramics; producing useful, durable, beautiful products in a responsible manner here in the United States, they comply with strict environmental standards and compensate their staff fairly, with full health and retirement benefits. It’s a business model I wish more manufacturers would adopt.

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The enormous “top hat” kilns, custom built by Edith’s husband, Brian Heath in the late 1950’s. Each kiln can hold approximately 400 pieces and fires for about eight hours, reaching a maximum temperature of 2100 degrees. Each firing cycle takes 24 hours to complete. During our tour, one kiln (not shown) was still cooling down, making the entire space around it pleasantly warm on this February afternoon. Large retractable doors allow for proper ventilation during the summer, keeping the factory comfortable year round.

DSC_0471 Besides getting a taste of the actual manufacturing process, we also learned the story behind the unique handle on Edith’s famed studio mug.

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As was common in the 1960’s, Edith Heath was a smoker, as well as a coffee drinker …
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 …the studio mug allowed her to do both at once!
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If you enjoy beautifully designed, hand-glazed dinnerware and tile, or have any interest in seeing one of the best examples of small scale manufacturing alive and well in the United States, I highly recommend visiting Heath Ceramics for this informative, free tour. Afterwards, you can do a bit of shopping in the factory store. I especially love the discounted “seconds” that are available – still beautiful, often very unique pieces that are perfect for those of us with tight budgets. For those unable to travel to northern California, the Heath Ceramics website has an excellent virtual tour.
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Heath Ceramics Factory Tour:  400 Gate Five Road, Sausalito, CA 94965
Fridays: 11:15 am
Saturdays & Sundays: 11:45 am & 2:30 pm
Please Note: tour sizes are limited; call ahead (415-332-3732 x13) for reservations. This is a working factory environment, Heath cannot accommodate families with children younger than five years of age. Obviously, children must be supervised at all times. Last (but not least), this is not a sponsored post, just me gushing.

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