Made in Sausalito

By taking up Heath Ceramics, two designers find their way to tangible satisfaction.

May/June 2010

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Made in Sausalito

Jeffery Cross

One day in 2002, Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey came across a dusty, flat-roofed factory in a Sausalito tidal basin. The couple was going through a bit of a career crisis. In industrial and product design, they'd had plenty of experience making presentations. But they wanted to make things. "I worked on cellphones that were part cameras and cameras that were part phones," Petravic, MFA '97, recalls. "Ninety-eight percent of the time, it just turned into a presentation."

Bailey says, "There's something about being a human being and having hands. It's important to use them, and not just on a computer keyboard."

The Sausalito factory struck them as "a ghost building"—but it remained the home of Heath Ceramics. Since its 1947 founding by Edith and Brian Heath, the firm had focused on craftsmanship and personal relationships, an artisan version of manufacturing. Design pioneer Edith Heath had melded modernist Bauhaus principles (less is more; form follows function; truth to materials) with handcrafted simplicity to create Heath pottery. The firm's tableware and architectural tiles were prized by generations of Californians and had been championed by Frank Lloyd Wright and Eero Saarinen. But by the turn of the 21st century, the firm was being run by a family trust (Brian Heath died in 2001, Edith in 2005). "It was a time capsule. They were still using typewriters," Petravic says.

Petravic and Bailey did some research and tried to overcome their hesitation at even asking if they could take over this venerable pottery line. They did, and reached an agreement that included keeping all 24 employees. "There was tons and tons of good will. And we made a really good presentation."

As new owners, Petravic says, they "asked everyone to work really hard, and they did." In December 2008, Heath branched into Los Angeles, with a second studio/store. It was rotten in the state of American business—retail sales down 7 percent nationwide, manufacturing down 10 percent in 2009—but Heath added 15 employees, tripled the staff's profit-sharing, and increased sales 13 percent, to $7 million. In April, Heath opened a store in San Francisco's Ferry Building, nesting place of the local, sustainable, seasonal food community.

"Earthy looking, but not too earthy, great colors, local, and not pretentious," is how an Oakland devotee describes Heath dinnerware. Notably persnickety restaurateur Alice Waters wrote an essay for a 2006 coffee-table book, Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity. When the Limoges china and regular restaurant ware at Chez Panisse were chipping and cracking, Heath "developed a new line of dinnerware that had just the right weight and durability and was still elegant. It was the perfect frame for the restaurant's food."

On a tour of the Sausalito factory and store, employees readily show a visitor how they work. Clay (most of it from a pit outside Sacramento) is mixed in two 500-gallon vats and emerges in doormat-size slabs. Much of the equipment came from pottery manufacturers that went out of business elsewhere in America. It is lighter inside than most factories, with workstations set next to windows.

After clay pieces come out of their molds, they are hand-finished on potter's wheels: Edges are smoothed; cups get handles attached. The pieces are taken to a warm storage room before getting glazed and fired in 2,100-degree kilns. At a peephole, the very close-cropped Petravic warns a visitor, "Be careful. I've burned my hair."

In blue coveralls and a pink bandanna, Winnie Crittenden tests seasonal glazes and dips with names like "Petrified Wood." Crittenden has worked here 35 years, starting with a summer job while still in high school. Heath's workforce, now numbering 85, reflects California: white, black, Hispanic, Vietnamese and Mien (originally from southwest China). Petravic knows them all—and when we come upon an empty workstation, he knows why. "We have six people from the same family working here. They aren't here today because their grandma passed away."

At a tile-pressing machine, three workers move in concert, as if in a dance. In the tile quality-control room is a section labeled Overstock and Flawed. "On the weekends, this room is packed with homeowners doing bathroom and kitchen remodels. It's like a tile potluck. You never know what's going to be back here."

Born in England, Petravic grew up in New Jersey. He discovered design during his senior year at Tufts. After graduation he took a temp job in an investment bank while he built furniture for a portfolio to apply to design school. Accepted at several, he had trouble deciding. "Sometimes people just like to come to California," Stanford design professor Matt Kahn told him, presciently.

Petravic's joy was in learning the steps to build a product. His courses led to some nice toothbrush holders and a table lamp that turned on without a switch. In business classes, he learned the importance of finding the right people to ask for advice. One was Dave Beach, professor of engineering. "Most manufacturing takes irreplaceable resources and converts them to landfill," Beach says. "Robin takes Sierra foothills clay and the genius of Edith Heath, finds a balance between industrial activity and aesthetics, and is respectful of the community. The workforce has every right to be very proud of what they do."

"We make a plate—a simple thing, done well," Petravic says. A $30 dinner plate lasts, and becomes a family heirloom.

What next? "We'll be reaching capacity of the factory," Petravic says. "We may take this model (local, sustainable, balanced between hand-crafted and industrial) to other products. We believe in the craft of manufacturing, the close bond between design and manufacturing."

He thinks for a second and adds, "Right now there are no flatware manufacturers in the U.S."

SHEILA HIMMEL, a former restaurant critic for the San Jose Mercury News, is co-author of a memoir, Hungry.

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