Words by Catie Nienaber
Photos by Simone Anne
Radiant swathes of sunlight slice through the skylights and factory windows, illuminating the cement floors. A symphony of sound wafting from machinery builds and arcs in the air around us, and trays of pottery gently rattle as they are wheeled across the floor. We’re here at the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, California, ten minutes north of San Francisco via the Golden Gate Bridge. Constructed in the late 1950s by the architecture firm Marquis & Stoller, the building’s open floor plan is resplendent with all the hallmarks of mid-century architecture: troughed beam ceilings, a central courtyard, and plenty of natural light. But while chic greenery and minimalist outdoor furniture are a feast for the eyes, it’s the pottery that takes center stage at this legendary landmark.
Founded by Sausalito residents Edith Heath and her husband Brian in 1948, Heath Ceramics is perhaps best known for its lines of dinnerware and tile. A self-taught ceramicist, Edith’s work was nationally renowned, especially her glazing experiments, and Brian oversaw engineering and equipment, as well as managing the business. Many of Edith’s earliest produced pieces of pottery (like the Coupe dinnerware collection and the famous Studio Mug) remain in production, and Brian’s uniquely-designed pieces of equipment are still in use today.
A sense of ownership and experimentation is alive and well at the company. Beginning in 2015, Heath clawed back their wholesale portion of the business and is now fully focused on making and selling everything themselves, preferring to do things their way. The factory here in Sausalito used to produce both tile and dinnerware but now focuses just on the latter, with the newer Heath building San Francisco’s Mission District owning tile production.
Heath obtains their white clay from a company in Sacramento. The clay arrives in powder form, and at 600 pounds per bag, mixing it with gray water in the enormous blender is no easy feat. After this mixing comes a filter press, where excess water is squeezed from the clay.
Once the clay comes out of the presses, it goes into the pug mill, which forms the clay into pugs, thick cylindrical shapes that are about the size of a foam roller. The pugs will later be cut down to the appropriate size for molds for everything in Heath’s various dinnerware lines.
The ghostly white plaster molds in varying sizes line the cabinets and high shelves along the wall like a portrait gallery. Molds for plates, mug handles, and platters tell the story of the company through the years. All clay that gets trimmed away from these dinnerware molds is eventually reused. According to Lee Jakobs, Heath’s Creative Communications Director, the company is at a point where they produce almost zero actual waste. One way this is achieved by mixing old clay with new clay and gray water, squeezing out of the pug mill and being reborn as useable clay once again, among other ways to make production lean and nearly zero-waste.