Behind the Scenes at Heath Ceramics

Feb 06, 2013 at 6am

It’s hard to imagine a diner in San Francisco who has not encountered the work of Heath Ceramics. Be it the slight grit of a textured plate, a glossy tile, or those unmistakable neutral colors, Heath pieces are both coveted and iconic. The company’s products are featured prominently in our collective restaurant tablescape and proudly displayed far beyond the Bay Area in design-savvy homes.

Initially founded in 1948 by Edith Heath, the Sausalito-based Heath Ceramics recently expanded to the Mission this past summer, transforming a shuttered commercial linen laundry space into a dreamy, multipurpose nexus of local artists, Heath products, and forward-thinking design.

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I often rode my bike past the immense, city-block-size factory when it was still Mission Linens, so I watched with curiosity as the windows were painstakingly restored. The transformation was seemingly quick and remarkable, resulting in a grand, cool, beauty of a space. The San Francisco campus is 60,000 sq. feet, vast and flooded with light, but smartly divided into cozy vignettes of manageable proportions. At the center of the operation is the on-site tile factory housing three industrial-sized kilns ready to be fired up next month. You can peek in at the glass-enclosed kilns from any of the rooms that surround them: the Blue Bottle Coffee counter and sitting area to the left, or the Heath showroom and retail space to the right. The company has managed to create a space that’s simultaneously cavernous and intimate.

Cathy Bailey, Heath's co-owner and creative director, met me in the store to chat and show me around.

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In the beginning of 2011, Heath Ceramics was looking to expand, she explained. Due to various limitations with its space in Sausalito, the owners began looking around the Bay Area. Amazingly, this Mission warehouse was the first place they saw, and by summer they had signed the lease.

In addition to the shops downstairs, the building boasts a second floor, some of which is set aside for a studio. Cathy is excited about the Heath studio, explaining that it’s an opportunity for the company to modify its design and creative process. The staff isn’t going to just sketch ceramics on a computer screen; they’re going to be able to physically make things by hand. Much like a regular pottery studio, Heath is putting in wheels and a kiln, which will allow the employees to experiment and make more one-of-a-kind pieces.

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There are currently three studios upstairs. The other two belong to textile artist Matt Dick of Small Trade Company and jewelry designer Julia Turner. Julia’s items are sold in the retail space downstairs, and the aprons worn by employees in the store are Matt’s design. As Cathy explained it, the idea is to share energy and goals with the people Heath shares space with, without the commitment to necessarily work together. Heath leases the two studios to Matt and to Julia, having selected them because the company admires their work, aesthetic, and philosophy.

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Matt Dick spent years as a consultant, designer, and creative director, doing brand development and interior concepts. Four years ago, a project for the Napa hotel Bardessono took him back to his textile and clothing roots. After designing Bardessono’s uniforms, he began working with Blue Bottle, Bar Agricole, and now Heath – creating the distinct orange aprons the staff wears in the store.

After six years in a tiny Tenderloin studio, Matt is still marveling at all the space he now has at what he calls the “Heath Campus.” He’s able to have a real showroom; his various projects and collaborations are beautifully displayed around his neat, Zen-like space. He’s also interested in moving toward in-house dyeing with botanicals, as well as hosting workshops and lectures in the future.

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Next door, Julia Turner’s space is still half in boxes. There’s a rustic wood table she built with scraps from the Heath build out, and a myriad of tools and materials line the walls. Trained as a smith, Julia slowly moved toward jewelry work, employing a range of materials from precious stones and metals for engagement rings to museum pieces utilizing wood and steel. Having moved studios an average of every two years, she is relieved to have found a home with Heath. She invited Liz Oppenheim, a former student-turned-assistant and now friend, to share the space with her.

There is still more raw studio and production space in the building – having room to grow seems a recurring theme with Heath – and Cathy says the company is still figuring out what to use the extra room for. There are plans for a restaurant on the corner, and there are three more spaces along Alabama Street that Heath will probably lease out, much like the current artist studios upstairs. These last additions are still about a year out from realization, but I’ll keep riding my bike past and eagerly await the results.

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You can visit Heath Ceramics at 2900 18th Street during its showroom hours.

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