Ask anybody who has held so much as a bud vase from Heath Ceramics about the pottery’s charms, and you’re likely to encounter the kind of adoration reserved for treasured family heirlooms. So great is the ubiquitous enthusiasm for Heath that one is left wondering if something more than pigment is baked into its signature glazes. Its popularity may stem from its timeless, unfussy quality—–a Heath piece looks equally at home alongside decor of any epoch. But more likely it is due to the fact that in an era dominated by the rise of machines, this small company has honed a homespun, handcrafted approach to stoneware that’s tangible in each tile, serving bowl, and pitcher that comes out of its Sausalito, California, kilns.
Iconoclast Edith Heath founded the company in 1948 and opened up shop in 1959, and her hands-on production line remains safely intact more than a half-century later. This is largely thanks to husband-and-wife team Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey who purchased Heath in 2003, saving the factory, production techniques, archives, and brand from inevitable extinction. They have since expanded the business to new shops in Los Angeles and most recently in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The formula for success, they say, is not complicated. “It’s about doing simple things well,” Petravic explains. “A dinner plate and a coffee mug will make you happy three times a day. Those are the things that make your life better.”
What’s at the heart of Heath’s appeal?Robin Petravic: People build a relationship with these products that have a simple purpose. Heath is like a farmers’ market for ceramics on the small scale of an artisan bakery—–it’s as if pieces come out of the kiln and go right into the hands of the customer. The whole process is very transparent.Why is that transparency important to convey?RP: Ultimately it’s about design intent. There’s a lot of care and skill that goes into these pieces.Cathy Bailey: Edith Heath wanted her products to look like there was craftsmanship involved. Every piece is not identical; the basic gesture and shape is the same, but very slight trim or glaze changes show up because there are hands making everything.What makes your workplace unique?RP: There are few places where you have this amazing studio and factory a couple hundred yards from the bay. Our workers can sit by the window—–feel the sunlight, hear when the seagulls fly by—–while they’re making pottery. It’s great.Where do you find the items you aren’t making yourselves?RP: Anywhere we can.CB: I’m a searcher, always hunting. Sometimes it’s just following a lead online; I met Andy [Cruz, owner and founder of type foundry House Industries] because he blogged about his trip to the factory, and now we’re doing a project together.Sounds like a perfect match. What can we expect from that collaboration?CB: We’re working on modular tile numbers in a new House typeface, which will be available in fall of this year.CB: We’re working on modular tile numbers in a new House typeface, which will be available in fall of this year.How does a piece go from conception to production?RP: And she understands technique, down to the mold-making.CB: We have one product designer, Christina Zamora, who is amazing. She really makes it all happen. I hired her as an intern, so she’s been here almost the whole time that we have, and she really gets that Heath items are really about materials.How do you update and modernize a classic collection?RP: We look at what was interesting about previous methods and see if we can push that somehow. Every year it gets better; we learn a little more each time we do it.CB: Every summer and every winter we introduce new things, but they don’t stay with us forever. So we’ll experiment—–play around with color, change the shape, or add a new item—–and then we move on.Who is your ideal customer?RP: We don’t focus on anyone in particular. Instead, we make sure we do things well, and that focus has widespread appeal. Often we’ll have three generations of people shopping together, which is something I’ve loved about Heath from the first day we had What’s next for Heath?CB: Our annual sale and open studios are both huge events now. We open up the whole factory, and the guys in production work on the weekends making stuff. It’s fun, but a complete madhouse.RP: We’re searching for really good-quality—–and hopefully American-made—–stemware, which is hard to find. If we can’t find it, we’d love to try to figure out how to make it ourselves. It’s a long-term goal.