In 2003, industrial designer Catherine Bailey and her husband, engineer Robin Petravic, had achieved a comfortable level of professional success. But there was one problem: they didn’t like their jobs.
For the couple, “success” had come to mean working with big-name companies on projects that had become increasingly abstract, soulless, and routine. As they share in their book Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity, “…the compromises we had to make in order to please those sales executives hungry for added-value bells and whistles left us tired, frustrated, and looking to rebuild not so much a design career as a design life.”
That new design life appeared unexpectedly with a move to Sausalito, California. While exploring the neighborhood, they discovered a funky mid-century pottery workshop – Heath Ceramics – tucked between the town’s shipyards and bohemian houseboat community. Founder and iconic mid-century designer Edith Heath was then in her nineties, and the couple learned that the business – which did not appear to be thriving – had recently lost a prospective buyer. Acting quickly, they took a chance on a dream and became the new owners of the historic California pottery.
But no legacy comes without its share of challenges. Built in 1959, the Marquis & Stoller-designed workshop flooded at high tide and leaked pitifully when it rained. “It was just really, really sad,” said Cathy. They used trashcans to catch water from the roof, and sandbags and extruded logs of clay to keep out the floodwaters. “It was manual labor, hard physical work, but when we got through that first flood we felt like we had really achieved something,” she said.
“What was pure and obvious was that everyone was still coming to work and making pottery. We never shut down for a day.” All 24 employees continued with Heath after the sale and every piece of Heath pottery is still made at the Sausalito location. (Later this year, a new facility dedicated to tile making will open in San Francisco.)
“We think about things in terms of a 100 year cycle,” said Robin, emphasizing quality above short-term profits. To that end, the couple sought to amplify sustainability practices built into Heath from its very beginning.
For example, Edith Heath – raised with Depression-era frugality and accustomed to post-war shortages – developed a revolutionary clay body that is still in use today, made from local materials. It requires only a single “low and slow” firing, resulting in great energy savings. The workshop now recycles every scrap of unused clay, and captures and reuses all the overspray from glazes.
Striving for what Robin calls “business decisions with community in mind,” the couple was determined to pay 100% of the health care costs for Heath’s employees, some of whom had been with the company for over 30 years. They realized they could not afford employee benefits – which also include profit-sharing and a retirement plan – unless they emphasized retail sales over wholesale. So they launched a catalog site and opened stores at the Sausalito location, in San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
The stores provided an opportunity to feature goods from independent artisans whose work they love, including collaborator Julie Cristello, and Etsy sellers Skinny laMinx, Papaver Vert, enormouschampion, Diana Fayt Ceramics, Bottlehood, and studio44eighty.
To complement Heath’s original three lines of dinnerware, Cathy and Robin revived forgotten tiles and glazes, launched seasonal collections, and developed new lines in collaboration with artisan businesses like Chez Panisse and Alabama Chanin.
These collaborations are not simple logo-ing deals, but deep, slow design explorations that create visible, thematic bonds between brands. For example, the Alabama Chanin line required special etching techniques that evoke the look of hand stitching. Since no one on staff had the skills to do this, Heath hired illustrator Kersey Barrett-Tormey to develop a visual vocabulary for the patterns and personally hand etches every dish herself. The work is so precise that Kersey only etches for four hours a day, taking on other tasks in the workshop the rest of the time.
To help customers understand the value of artisan work, Cathy and Robin open the workshop for five public tours a week. “Our stuff is not inexpensive, but when you see how it is made you understand what it’s worth. People treasure it more when they feel they know the maker,” said Cathy.
“We just want to have jobs we enjoy,” smiles Robin. And perhaps the strongest confirmation of the “new” Heath’s success occurred when Edith Heath toured the workshop for the last time. She turned to Cathy and Robin and the assembled crew and said, “This is really, really, really, really remarkable. Thank you.”