How Edith Heath’s simple ceramic dishes became an American design mainstay.

By Caroline Schnapp
May 22, 2019
Heath Ceramics

When I got engaged five years ago, one of the things I was most excited for (besides the actual wedding) was finally trading in my slightly chipped, glossy white IKEA dishes for a proper set of dinnerware. Now don’t get me wrong, those IKEA bowls and plates served me well for five long years, and I’m grateful for their service. Their simple design withstood daily meals in two different New York City apartments without dishwashers (both electric and human). They accepted their fate piled up in the sink until I absolutely couldn’t take the mess anymore, and my now-husband would frequently ask why we couldn’t just “throw them away and start over?” while we scrubbed and scrubbed.

And so when the time finally came for me to upgrade my dishes, it was equally important to me to find a beautiful set that deserved to be cherished and cared for (read: carefully washed after every meal), while also being durable enough to use everyday. As a Southerner, I bucked registry tradition by foregoing formal wedding china, and instead went with the Coupe Line from Heath Ceramics—clean and simple in design, and glazed in dreamy colors with names like moonstone, mist and linen.

Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Founded in the 1940s by ceramicist Edith Heath and her husband, Brian, Heath Ceramics has evolved from a small-scale pottery business to a well-known California company known for thoughtful designs and powerful ties to their community. Edith Heath sought to make pieces for the American way of life: items that could be used both for entertaining and on a daily basis. Her Coupe Line launched in 1947 as an ode to simplicity, with no decoration apart from a gentle edge and an even layer of glaze. The line is distinct because of its indistinctness, and almost 70 years after it launched, I was drawn to it for the very same reasons Heath designed it in the first place.

Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Heath is the subject of Wednesday night's episode of ARTBOUND—KCET’s Emmy award-winning arts and culture series that examines the lives, works, and creative processes of arts and culture innovators making an impact on Southern California and beyond, currently in its tenth season. Through the fairly extensive writings of Edith Heath (voiced by renowned chef and Heath mega-fan Nancy Silverton, who uses the brand at home), the episode explores the pioneering career of a woman who created a lasting classic American design—from sourcing the specific clay body that would become quintessential storeware, to sharing her unique creative perspective on what makes a good, everyday design.

Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

Current owners Cathy Bailey and Robin Petravic purchased Heath in 2003 when Edith was 93 years old, and have worked hard to maintain her legacy.

“We wanted to make a positive impact and be a part of something bigger, and we wanted whatever we did to have a stronger connection between design and making,” says Bailey. Under Bailey and Petravic’s tutelage, Heath has continued to evolve, from Edith’s iconic pieces, to beautiful homegoods and a dinnerware line designed with chef Alice Waters for use at Chez Panisse, all the while proving, as Edith hoped, that “good design can be affordable to anybody.”

Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley

“Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic” airs on Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET in Southern California, and is available for streaming on PBS and YouTube.

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