Preview an Exhibition on the Influential California Cool Designs of Edith Heath

  • July 06, 2020 17:26

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Colorful pottery for advertisement, n.d. Edith and Brian Heath Collection. Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley
Stoneware brochure sketches, n.d. Edith and Brian Heath Collection. Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley

“only the artist-potter, who puts respect for humane values above mechanical marvels, will be able to harness the machine to do Man’s highest esthetic biddings.”- Edith Heath

This summer, the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) planned to explore the legacy of Edith Heath, one of the most influential and enduring designers of the 20th century, in an original exhibition to be on view through January 3, 2021. Check online for the museum's reopening updates.

Edith Heath: A Life in Clay will introduce visitors to the designer, entrepreneur, and scientist behind the iconic brand Heath Ceramics, surveying the life and career of Edith Heath (1911-2005). Heath was revolutionary in her idea to reject traditional white clays in favor of earthy, locally-sourced California clays, designing a new style of everyday ceramics that was made to endure and is deeply expressive of California’s land and lifestyle.

Promotional card advertising Heath buffet service, n.d. Edith and Brian Heath Collection. Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley

Curated by OMCA Curator of Photography and Visual Culture Drew Johnson, guest curator Jennifer Volland, and OMCA Experience Developer Christine Lashaw, the exhibition includes more than 50 early hand-thrown and early production pieces, architectural tiles, clay and mineral materials, intimate photographs, documentary video, personal letters and memorabilia, a biographical and historical timeline, touchable objects, and more.

“Edith Heath transformed our notion of ‘good design,’ pioneering a new aesthetic of natural, stylish yet functional products made from local materials and designed to endure,” said OMCA curator Drew Johnson. “As an icon of quintessential California design who lived and worked in Sausalito and San Francisco, OMCA is excited to share the extraordinary story of Edith Heath’s life and legacy.”

Edith Heath portrait at the wheel, c. 1970. Edith and Brian Heath Collection. Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley

“What began as a rebellion against imported white clay more than fifty years ago is now a modern-day classic,” added guest curator Jennifer Volland, who has researched the life of Edith Heath since 2014, serving as an editorial contributor on Edith Heath: Philosophies and consulting producer on the award-winning documentary Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic (KCET Artbound, 2019). “Edith Heath has forever changed the cultural landscape of American design through Heath Ceramics. Countless people have brought Heath dinnerware and tile into their homes, and we are excited for OMCA visitors to get to know the fascinating and inspiring artist behind these ubiquitous designs.”

Edith Heath: A Life in Clay will examine Heath’s technical experimentations with native California clays and glaze formulas as she rebelled against imported white clays—what Heath referred to as “gutless”—embracing instead clays that were expressive of the region. Heath’s love of natural landscapes not only shaped the earthy quality of her designs but also inspired her to seek out California clays that were not traditionally used for fine dinnerware. A self-trained scientist, Heath continually experimented with clay glazes and firing techniques. Visitors will view Heath’s early hand-thrown pottery, clay and glaze tests, raw clay and mineral samples, and interactive features including touchable objects and the opportunity for visitors to design their own wall patterns with tile.

Another section will consider Heath’s rapid commercial success as the business owner of Heath Ceramics, driven by a desire to create stylish, affordable, and enduring products. As her ceramics practice grew from hand-made operations to large-scale commercial production, Heath remained committed to her fundamental goal of creating the best-designed, highest-quality products for the greatest number of people. This section will contain photographs and video of Heath’s production process, tools, early tile samples, a wall of architectural tiles, and touchable objects, including molds and comparisons of hand-thrown and mass produced ceramics.

The exhibition will also explore how Heath Ceramics came to embody and define a distinct California aesthetic as Heath tapped into the post-war California lifestyle. As many mid-century Americans become more eager to celebrate the pleasures of domestic life, Heath recognized how contemporary dinnerware—from oven-to-table-ware to large barbeque platters and casserole dishes—could embrace California’s relaxed, indoor/outdoor lifestyle. This novel approach resulted in new dinnerware lines that better reflected the regional attitude and became an instant classic.

Edith applying a handle to a mug, c. 1950. Edith and Brian Heath Collection. Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley.

A final section will reflect on Heath’s enduring legacy as her products and values continue to resonate with consumers and designers alike, as the company enters its 72nd year in business. Both a scientist and an artist, perfectionist and experimenter, rebel and visionary, Heath’s extraordinary accomplishments continue to inspire California lifestyle and design today.

See current designs from Heath Ceramics.


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