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Cooper Hewitt Honors Colorful California Ceramics Company

Stacks of bowls in the company's signature colors, like "sand" and "light grey whale."
Stacks of bowls in the company's signature colors, like "sand" and "light grey whale."

For more than 60 years, Heath Ceramics has been making handcrafted pottery and tiles, in muted neutral colors with names like "light grey whale" and "sand." The company's products are a favorite with fans of midcentury design — and Thursday night, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is honoring the company with a National Design Award.

"To see what they do and the care that they take was truly spectacular," says design industry veteran Doreen Lorenzo, who was on the Cooper Hewitt jury that awarded Heath its prize. "There's something about the craftsmanship that just speaks to design."

The company continues to create ceramics the way it always has, in a small factory in Sausalito, a hamlet just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The process starts with brown and white clay powder mixed in vats, says co-owner Robin Petrovic. "The clay comes out of Lincoln, Calif., so there's a clay pit in Lincoln. It's the runoff of the Sierras, runoff of the granite. So this is truly made of California soil."

Heath Ceramics pieces are a favorite with midcentury-design enthusiasts.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
Heath Ceramics pieces are a favorite with midcentury-design enthusiasts.

The liquid clay gets poured into molds for pitchers and vases. A team of artisans also fine-tunes each bowl, dish and platter by hand. Those pieces that don't make the cut get recycled. "All the scrap comes back and we throw it back in the vat. Add water, and we make clay all over again," Petrovic says. "Zero waste in that process."

Each piece is then glazed by hand, giving Heath Ceramics its trademark look, what Petrovic calls a "rough elegance." This look does not come cheap: a dinner plate for $35, a $94 vase. But co-owner Catherine Bailey says every piece is unique: "Heath's stuff always feels like it still has the touch of the hand, in a way, or it's really the essence of the material coming through."

"There are more precise ways to glaze, more precise clay bodies that will behave themselves, so to speak, where our clay body has a little bit of a mind of its own," adds Petrovic. "There's always a little bit of a surprise, therefore there's a little bit more personality and a little bit more soul in how things come out. It's perfectly imperfect."

Before they bought the company 12 years ago, Petrovic was an industrial engineer. Bailey designed for Nike. They revived a faltering business started in 1948 by another couple, Brian and Edith Heath.

In 1980, Edith told TV's Martha Stewart that she designed her ceramics to be used indoors and outdoors, to match her California lifestyle. She died at 94, shortly after handing the company over to its new owners. Her original designs are still made by some of the same employees.

Glazer Winnie Crittendon can recall times the factory floors flooded and the day a disgruntled employee showed up with a samurai sword. She says Brian and Edith also used to fight a lot. "It was a kind of tough place to work here, but they created this amazing thing," she says, adding, "But it's just been magnificent since Robin and Cathy came in, and they've really moved us to a new level."

Three years ago, Petrovic and Bailey expanded, opening a tile factory in San Francisco's Mission District. Here, in an airy space that was once an industrial laundry, workers stack up tiles that will be used in kitchens and bathrooms. To inspire more uses, Heath recently published a book called Tile Makes the Room.

Tiles on display in the company's showroom.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR
Tiles on display in the company's showroom.

In a studio upstairs, a designer experiments with ceramic table lamps. At the San Francisco factory, there's an art gallery, a coffee shop and a tile showroom. There's another in S.F. Ferry Building and a shop in Los Angeles. The company has collaborated with artists, the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse and designers with Dwell magazine, House Industries and Commune Design.

Bailey says the goal is to stay small and remain true to Edith Heath's vision. "I think because we are at this smaller scale, the people who are our customers truly understand what we're doing and they appreciate it." She says they want Heath Ceramics to last as long as its pottery — for generations to come.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 14, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
In previous audio and Web versions of this story, we incorrectly gave Brian Heath's first name as Bill.
As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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