Since moving to San Francisco almost 10 years ago I dreamed about having Heath Ceramics in my first home. I loved the classic lines, the aesthetic and most importantly, the fact that every single piece they create is made right here in the Bay Area. When I reached out to the Heath team about featuring their creative studio I was on pins and needles waiting to hear back. When I heard that Cathy Bailey – the owner of Heath was excited to meet, I was ecstatic. As I walked into the studio you could feel the creative energy. There were new designs being worked on, items that never went into production and shelves filled with pieces that dated back to when Heath was first born in 1948 by Edith Heath. I was in complete and total awe of my surroundings.
Today, I’m thrilled to bring you a tour of the Heath Ceramics studio where I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cathy Bailey to discuss the design process, how they look at trends and much more. Read on to get more of an inside look into their space.
1.) As a company that has been around for several years, do you find it difficult to keep up with the trends while also staying true to the company’s aesthetics that began over 60 years ago?
Since Robin and I bought the company in 2003, we’ve edited and expanded the Heath product line and brought it where it is today, but that’s been an organic process. It’s “on-trend” only in the sense that people today drink more coffee than they used to in 1947, so we designed a larger coffee mug while making sure that it still felt appropriate with the other shapes. What’s most important to us is that we honor the company’s roots and that we don’t change just for the sake of change. For example, in our core dinnerware line, I choose colors I believe will last for at least 10 years. That said, we also love exploring glaze colors and are excited to come out with some new colors that feel appropriate for the season twice a year. It’s a balance of using colors are feeling appropriate for the moment and keeping the core of what we do classic, not moving with short term trends.
2.) Speaking of aesthetics, you are considered to be among the most enduring examples of mid century design. As your company grows, do you find it difficult to maintain the high level of quality while keeping costs low and continuing to work within the US?
We try to be really smart and efficient about how we do things without compromising the end product, and ultimately it costs what it costs. We do strive to be as transparent as possible so customers can see the time and labor that goes into making something seemingly simple, like a plate. There’s a lot of hand work/ labor in everything we make, it’s expensive to have factories in Sf and Sausalito, and we feel strongly that we pay a fair wage and provide health care for our employees. These factors dictate the price, we don’t compromise and we feel fortunate that our customers want to support what we are trying to do.
All our new ideas usually come out of our clay studio here in San Francisco. Tung Chiang, our studio director, constantly experiments with creating objects that embody the Heath sensibility, that push us forward while staying true to our history. Our candle holders that we launched last year were a result of those experiments. He starts with sketches, makes prototypes, puts them into CAD, and from there we create molds and we go through the making process— we form the clay with molds, we trim and finish the shapes by hand, glaze the pieces by hand, wipe the edges and feet, and then fire them for 9 hours in our kilns. The result goes through another sanding process and then to QC to determine if the piece is first quality and can be sold at any of our shops, or if it is a 2nd quality piece (most of our 2nds are sold at our Sausalito shop).
4.) After the ceramics are complete and ready to go, what’s the next step? How do you get the word out about new collections? (assuming the have some recent collections right aside from their old ones?)
We’re lucky in the sense that a lot of people who “get” Heath really love it, and we reach out directly to them through our newsletter and our social media. That’s really our favorite way of going about it, since it’s nice to feel connected to people buying our products. We also host factory tours so people can see how we make everything, and once people understand what goes on behind the scenes, it’s a great story for them to share. A lot of our bigger product launches are paired with some fun events, which we post on our website, and that’s been a great way for our products to come to life.
Think about what you want your job to be. If you like throwing pots and you’re starting a ceramics business that you intend to grow, you’re probably not going to end up throwing pots because most of your time will need to be spent on things like human resources, marketing, accounting…and the list goes on. There is nothing worse than having to deal with accounts payable when your passion and skills lie in design. So make sure that you go into business doing what it is you enjoy doing, and partner with the right people to handle the other responsibilities (ideally the ones they want to focus on).
A huge thank you to the Heath Ceramics team for welcoming us into the creative workspace. It was incredibly inspiring!
Photos by Claire Giffen