It’s no secret that we at Alabama Chanin have long been admirers of Heath Ceramics – their work, their approach to responsible manufacturing, and their embrace of beautiful, sustainable design sets them apart from so many companies today. We have also been honored (and excited) to collaborate with them on several projects, including a line of dinnerware, the MAKESHIFT conversations, and most recently, two clocks designed to celebrate the 10 year ownership of the company by friends Cathy Bailey and Robin Petrovic.
Edith Heath originally founded Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, in 1948. She was an accomplished ceramist who cared deeply for the craft and believed in the importance of using quality materials. She grew up in rural Iowa during the Great Depression, which made her a natural conservator. In the late 1930s she worked with Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, which influenced her design aesthetic. Heath searched constantly to source the right materials and experimented for years to find the best techniques and glazes; she was once quoted as saying that she wanted to use clay that had “character” and “guts”.
Edith’s attempts to adapt her hand-thrown techniques using industrial production methods were met with controversy. She was told that machine-produced items didn’t qualify as “craft,” which prompted her to respond, “The machine doesn’t decide what the shape is going to be; a human being has to decide that… Just because you make it by hand doesn’t make it good, or a work of art.”
Edith Heath owned and ran Heath Ceramics well into her 80s; she sold the company to Cathy and Robin in 2004. They share Edith Heath’s desire to make beautiful, functional products that can be used every day, and want to ensure that craft is respected and advanced, that classic skills and techniques are not lost. Cathy and Robin believe, as we do at Alabama Chanin, that customers want to know how, where, and by whom their products are made. They want to create a relationship between product and consumer that discourages planned obsolescence, which means focusing on good design, durability, and quality that lasts.
Heath Ceramics and Alabama Chanin share a commitment to community. Just as we have determined that our products will be created in our local community by skilled artisans, Heath believes that a community focus is an integral part of their mission for building a strong workforce and a healthy environment. The most efficient way to know that products are healthy and produced in a sustainable and environmentally sound manner is to oversee manufacturing yourself.
Cathy and Robin continue to look for ways to increase sustainability and reduce negative environmental impact in their work. They have implemented extensive reuse and recycling programs – establishing a gray-water system to reclaim water used in their production processes, and salvaging glaze and scrap, unfired clay, meaning that all of their products contain recycled materials.
Alabama Chanin’s collaboration with Heath Ceramics was an intensive design process that integrated our techniques and values with theirs. Each piece in our dinnerware collaboration is made by hand. Designs are etched into clay by a talented artisan; for each piece, a white glaze is applied on top of a base coat of blue, gray, or red and an artist then scratches the design through that top layer, which exposes the base color. They do not use stencils; rather, the individual artist recreates the original design, freehand. Like with our hand-stitched garments, each maker leaves their own mark on the finished product.
Over 60 years after its founding, Heath Ceramics continues to produce classic, design-based products in an ethical and responsible environment. Their products are a lasting example of classic, mid-century design. Heath’s philosophies and production methods are an example of healthy, sustainable design at work in a modern world.
Look for Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity here. This book explores the people behind the company and the history of Heath Ceramics, the company’s present day goals, with an eye to the future.