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Apr 23, 2009

Heath Ceramics stands up to America’s throwaway culture.

By Donna Sapolin

“This is the best job we’ve ever had,” says Catherine Bailey about running Heath Ceramics, the Sausalito-based pottery firm she and her husband Robin Petravic purchased in 2003. In continuous production since 1948, the facility’s tabletop lines display a mid-century aesthetic of spare shapes and brilliant hues that have hooked American consumers for generations.
Before taking over the operation, Bailey and Petravic worked as industrial design consultants for large corporations, where they found themselves disconnected from both the products and the production processes.
Tracing the rounded unglazed edge of a dish as she speaks, Bailey says they were drawn to Heath Ceramics by “its small scale, the fact that it employs a local and diverse population and makes everyday things touched by a lot of hands.”
They are hands-on owners. “For us, it pressed the reset button on what success is,” says Bailey. “It was not so much about making gobs of money as loving what you do and forging strong bonds with the local community through the creation of timeless things and sound practices.”
Heath’s founder, artist Edith Heath, broke with the ranks of ceramists who produced one-of-a-kind vessels in order to create product lines relying on molds and hand craftsmanship. The materials and methods have remained largely unchanged: local clay, oxide-based speckle glazes and a single firing process that results in mild, but character-rich variations from piece to piece.
Bailey points to the absence of frill and decoration as one reason for the ceramics’ ongoing appeal. “This allows the material to show through in a truthful, honest way,” she says.
The line comprises four core collections. Three have passed the test of time: the best-selling Coupe, Heath’s original Bauhaus-inspired collection; Rim, a thick-edged, restaurant-friendly grouping launched in the 1960s; and Plaza, square and rectangular pieces originally designed in the 1980s.
The fourth collection, Chez Panisse, was produced more recently for Alice Water’s acclaimed Berkeley, Calif. restaurant  of the same name, and bears testimony to Heath Ceramics’s commitment to keep the output fresh and relevant without sacrificing its legacy. Though they safeguard durability, warmth and artisanship, this dinnerware’s forms are more refined and elegant than those of the other collections.
A critical dimension of the Health Ceramics enterprise has long been custom commissions, and they encompass both dinnerware and tiles that can be made in almost any color. Renowned interior designer Amy Lau and architects Tod Williams and Billy Tsien have turned to the pottery for tiles that become centerpieces of their built environments.
Bailey and Petravic recently opened a store and studio in Los Angeles, as part of Heath’s continuing evolution. There, ceramist partner, Adam Silverman, is creating new vases and candlesticks with bubbled volcanic surfaces that may end up in production at the Heath Ceramics factory. “These designs are totally compatible with the existing lines,” says Bailey. “We’re absolutely devoted to staying true to what Heath is.”
By supporting and promoting studio pottery, Bailey and Petrovic have moved beyond acquiring a business they deemed worth saving. Now, they’re trying to showcase a model they think works well for challenging times.
Bailey summarizes the Heath advantage: “We’ve lasted because we compete on the basis of design, rather than cost. People appreciate the history that comes with these products.”

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