When Edith Heath’s famed ceramics atelier was presumed dead, creative director Catherine Bailey felt a pulse.
CATHERINE BAILEY IS REMINISCING about the first time she set foot inside the Heath Ceramics factory and showroom in Sausalito, 17 years ago. She and her husband, Robin Petravic, were exploring their new hometown and stumbled on the 1950s building, which she describes as a “time capsule” of sorts. “It had that feeling of: nobody had come in and injected any new life,” she says. “It didn’t seem like it was thriving at all, but it was very interesting and beautiful in a way.”
Back then, Bailey was working as an industrial designer and Petravic as a product design engineer. They were looking to take their vocations jointly in an entrepreneurial direction. Having shared an office space and collaborated on projects before, they were already used to their personal and professional lives being intertwined. “We wanted to do something that we could control, that we could have a vision for,” Bailey recalls. “We didn’t feel like we were ready to start a product company, even though that was our love, that was where we came from. We didn’t really see any options — until we saw Heath.”
The company was founded in 1948 by husband and wife Brian and Edith Heath. He took care of the business side, she the ceramic designs. By the time Bailey and Petravic walked into the Sausalito headquarters, Brian had passed away and Edith was suffering from dementia. Seeing the potential in what the Heaths had established, Bailey initially thought, “They need what I’m good at, so maybe I can help. This is a project that I should jump onto. That’s why I started inquiring.”
Although Jay Stewart, a family friend and trustee of the Heath estate, had been in contact with parties interested in purchasing the enterprise, nothing had panned out. “Jay wanted to keep up the legacy, but for it to continue as a business,” Bailey says. “That was our dream, too. Not to just form a brand or re-form a brand that we could sell, but to keep the integrity of something that should be kept, that there should be more of in the world.” Over the decades, the founders’ vision seemed to have been sidelined, as the company was in reactive mode and simply trying to survive. “We wanted to bring back the values and design that made it great in its heyday,” Bailey says.
She and Petravic acquired Heath in 2003 and set into motion a “modest plan,” as she puts it. Their roles echo Brian and Edith Heath’s: Petravic is managing director and Bailey is creative director. Her responsibilities are wide-reaching; “I’m orchestrating the feel of everything that the customer experiences,” she says, “from the product to the physical and virtual retail, and events, communications and even factory tours.”
Early on, a write-up in Sunset magazine sparked renewed interest. Customers began popping into the Sausalito location, surprised and delighted it still existed. To increase margins, the couple revamped the pricing structure and focused more on direct sales to customers than on wholesale accounts. They streamlined inventory, dropping some styles and colors.
Reaching out to shopkeepers who carried Heath, Bailey learned one reason customers hesitated to buy the Coupe dinnerware line was the size of its Studio Mug, designed by Edith Heath in the 1940s. “It’s too small,” Bailey was told. “They want more coffee!” After studying all the Heath vessels without handles — “how they connected to the ground or the table” and having a good feel “when cupped in your hands” — she created a new piece that retained Heath’s clean-lined aesthetic. Today the Large Mug, taller, slightly wider and with a more substantial handle than the Studio Mug, is a top seller.
As Heath has steadily grown, it’s not just the dinnerware and tile collections that have expanded. The launch of small-batch Heath Clay Studio for ceramics and Heath Sews Studio for soft goods “keeps the real hands-on stuff happening,” Bailey says: even if technically they don’t accelerate the company’s growth, “it makes me happy because that’s kind of the soul of Heath.” Collaborations with simpatico creators like restaurateur Alice Waters, artist Alabama Chanin and furniture-maker Artek also feel rewarding.
“I have to make sure that what we’re crafting is worth crafting and worth having,” Bailey says. “I also make sure that we’re making decisions that ensure everything is made in a sustainable way and our community is better for these things being created. I need to help our creative team stay focused on choosing projects that push us forward and are honestly interesting.”
The ongoing challenge, as she sees it: “What’s going to keep Heath exciting and what’s going to make people really love the brand still and keep people attracted to it?” Product launches are carefully considered with that in mind: when a colleague noted that competitors were doing triangular tiles, Bailey was open to the idea but felt a new rendition had to offer something special. She and in-house designer Rosalie Wild came up with a Heath-worthy take: the company’s Dual Glaze Triangles, released earlier this year, layers two textures and finishes to create unique color variations and patterns.
For 2020, the Chez Panisse line will be available in an expanded palette; down the road there may be new outposts of Heath Newsstand, the two-year-old magazine, snack and sundry shop adjacent to the San Francisco flagship store. Even as the company continues to branch out, Bailey is adamant that Heath stays true to its design- and craft-driven purpose, relying on intuition more than data. “There are different ways of doing things,” she notes. “For us, it’s not all about the financials. It’s about enabling ourselves to do what we want to do.”
This article originally appeared in Spaces’s print edition under the headline: “Made to Last”.
Anh-Minh Le has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, C Magazine, California Home + Design, Cottages & Gardens and Interiors California, among other publications. She also served as the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Silicon Valley and co-founded the independent lifestyle magazine Anthology. Beyond her aesthetic interest in interiors, she enjoys exploring the narrative of a home. Anh-Minh’s background in design writing is proving especially useful as she and her husband initiate long-procrastinated renovations.