In the 1940s, trailblazing artist and entrepreneur Edith Heath upended ceramics with her simple, elegant dinnerware, helping define the California aesthetic. As the creative force behind the iconic brand Heath Ceramics, she became one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. Heath products continue to be handmade in Sausalito, as they have been since 1948, and the ceramics pioneer is now being celebrated at “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay,” on view at Oakland Museum of California through October 30. Curator Jennifer Volland sat down with Luxe to share her thoughts on the artist’s legacy.
What made Edith Heath a rebel in the ceramics world? She rebelled against white clay and formality in dinnerware. We start the exhibition with three pieces of Edith’s family’s Haviland china, which is more traditional, and then three similar pieces of Heathware. It shows the differences between what Edith was working toward and what was customary. She used California clays with more roughness and informality, which better suited the postwar American lifestyle.
How did Edith push the boundaries of clay? White clay was refined to the point where original elements were taken out of it. Edith had what our other curator, Drew Johnson, describes as a mystical connection to the natural landscape. She would go out into the environment—during the war, when clay pits were closed—and collect different samples. She was sort of an alchemist, experimenting with native California clays and glazes. Accordingly, her original line of dinnerware was finished in colors reminiscent of the landscape—soft blues, greens and tans. This Coupe line has been in production for close to 75 years. It’s hard to think of other products that have been around that long—Levi’s 501 jeans, Ray-Bans, the Chemex coffee maker. It’s a short list.
Why is “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” a must-see exhibit? It is not a traditional ceramics exhibition. We combine historic objects, photographs, documentary video, personal memorabilia and Edith’s early production pottery to illustrate Heath’s story.