The Psychic Power of Edith Heath's Ceramics
What always interested me about Heath, was their focus on the hands. Heath ceramics have always been produced by hand which almost seems to be a contradiction. Usually, production refers to mass production: assembly lines, inhuman working conditions, and the sterile uniformity of machine-made goods.
At Heath, an endeavor which started with Edith throwing all of her plates, bowls, and cups, on her homemade potters wheel, eventually became more efficient, but no less human. Once the orders became too big to handle by manually shaping every piece, Heath Ceramics eventually graduated to using molds and tools to shape clay with greater speed and accuracy.Edith Heath’s (1911-2005) most well known and lasting legacy is co-founding Sausalito, California ceramics company, Heath Ceramics, with her husband, Brian Heath, in 1948. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Heath has enjoyed renewed fame and interest, while outside our little bubble, the rugged, refined style of ceramics Edith helped develop, might be more well known as California Earthenware.
These tools still require skilled craftsmen to operate them, and each piece has to be touched and cared for by many hands. Using molds for clay is more akin to a woodworker using an electric saw or a jig rather than a robot assembling a car. It allows for speed, but tool-assisted accuracy can also lead to more refined craftsmanship. It’s sort of like making a pot from snakes of clay in elementary school and graduating to a potters wheel: hand made, but machine aided.
On my tour of the “factory,” it’s clear that everyone there really cares for what they’re making. Although, the work is production, I would never mistake it for mass production. Still, Edith was shunned by many of her peers for adopting molds and jiggers and eventually dropped out of the Association of San Francisco Potters of which she had been a founding member. To me, this is the point where Edith transitioned from craftswoman to designer.
Knowing that a machine was only programmed to reflect her intent, she said in her oral history, ‘Good design doesn’t depend on whether an object is made by hand.’
-Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity, Klausner 2008)
Today, under new ownership and direction by Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic who bought the company shortly before Edith’s death, almost all promotional photos for Heath (that aren’t product photos) show workers or their hands. I think it’s an important emphasis. Today, most products are so sterile and anonymous. I don’t know who made my computer (other than Apple) or if anyone has ever touched my Ikea dresser before me other than to put the box on the shelf. I certainly can’t feel the code of my Google maps app.
The price tag for a Heath plate is predictably higher than a plate from Ikea (~$2.50 – $4 vs ~$30 – $40 each), but the difference in care has a psychic power. Critics might say that you can’t tell the difference between stuff made by hand and the higher price tag isn’t worth it. To some extent, it’s true, you can’t put your finger on the precise differences, but your subconscious definitely knows. There are imperceptible variations from piece to piece, a quality that comes only through love, and a refinement that is earned by doing something over and over and getting better at it every time. I haven’t always been aware of this power. I used to own a whole stack of Ikea dishes and they were fine, but imagine if everything you owned wasn’t just fine, but actively made you happy. According to Marie Kondo, bestselling author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy, “A joy-filled home is like your own personal art museum.” If you only keep things that “spark joy,” how much happier you would be if every time you used any of them, or even washed a dish, you got a little bit of happiness from it?
After my tidying marathon, almost all the tableware I own is made by me or Heath (I got them as seconds from the factory store in Sausalito). Every time I eat off of one, I plate my food a little more lovingly, eat a little slower, and remember all the hands it took to make my ceramics. I don’t have very many, but how often do you really use more than a dish or two per person?
Advice from Catherine Bailey (the current co-owner of Heath):
“Acquire fewer things, and only things that you really love. You’ll spend more time enjoying your environment and less time searching for new stuff that ends up in the landfill anyway.”
Christopher Yamane is an industrial designer and Co-Founder of Super Duper Studio