I sound like a Bay Area cliché, but I love Heath Ceramics. I love the classic but still contemporary lines. The restrained yet cheerful color palette. The smooth, cool feel of the glaze. The thickness and heft of the ceramic in your hands. I am lucky to have a collection of Heath pieces, which my family and friends help grow year after year. But I had never taken a factory tour even though I grew up less than 5 miles away from where Edith Heath founded the company in 1948 (and my dad worked on the Whole Earth Review & the Well on the very same Gate 5 Road!). Until last week!
Being in the space brought the craftsmanship in each of my pieces to life. We walked through the lifecycle of a piece from mixing the clay (yes! they make their own clay!) to firing the kiln.
It felt so quaint especially as I tried to see it through the eyes of my two tour-mates who were former Apple Manufacturing Engineers (you call that a “production line”?!). They do not optimize for efficiency. It is not scalable. Heath’s bus factor (the total number of key people who would need to be incapacitated to prevent the production from proceeding) is dangerously low. They aren’t trying to 10x their velocity. There is only *one* person who mixes the colors of the glaze — and they can take up to 2 years to develop a new color! But that’s what I loved about it. Each piece is truly cared for by this small team of passionate designer-makers.
The process has its imperfections — just like a handmade ceramic piece. Only 2 out of 10 teapots will make it onto the showroom shelf. I’m sure this 80% failure rate is not ineluctable. Let our two Apple Manufacturing Engineer friends at it and I guarantee they would significantly increase output & decrease waste & costs. But that’s not what Heath is about.
I wonder if part of my attraction to Heath is that it provides balance to my 21st century technology-immersed existence. It is made from the earth and you grasp it in your hands.
And speaking of hands. My favorite fun fact from the tour: the Studio Mug’s handle is not just aesthetic. No “form over function.” It was designed so Edith could hold her coffee & cigarette in one hand and have the other hand free to work!
Below is a little photo journal of my tour.