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.
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.
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.
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.
Winnie 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.
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.
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.
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.