Edith Heath (1911–2005) was an American painter, sculptor, and ceramicist. She transitioned from being a studio potter to an industrial designer while maintaining a studio sensibility.
Early Years / Education
She was born in Iowa and had Danish ancestry. Heath’s artistic skills didn’t fully flourish until she arrived in Chicago, where she pursued her studies with Bauhaus master László Moholy Nagy at the School of Design.
In 1938, she married Brian Heath and relocated to San Francisco to support him in his American Red Cross job in 1941. While travelling in New Mexico, she discovered the works of Maria Martinez, which inspired her to start making pots in her apartment. However, wheels for throwing were not commonly available then, so she and her husband converted a sewing machine, a popular home accessory in the 1940s, into a wheel. (Lynn, 2015)
She opened a pottery workshop at her residence in California and, with the help of numerous assistants, produced a range of hand-thrown dinnerware sold in a San Francisco department store. She abandoned hand-throwing for mass production (with her husband) and established a small factory in 1947, which produced the 1947 Coupe ovenproof range of stoneware (produced from 1949). Even though most of Coupe’s pieces were mass-produced, some parts were handmade to lend a crafts flavour.
Heath convinced the University of California at Berkeley to host a yearlong intensive course on the complicated science of ceramic chemistry, attacking the subject matter with a scientific zeal rarely seen outside the lab. (Klausner, 2006)
In 1960, Heath Ceramics began producing tiles used for the sheathing of the Pasadena Art Museum in Pasadena, California.
At first, the establishment didn’t appreciate her work. Despite gaining support from the upmarket store Gump’s in San Francisco, traditional “art potters” found fault in the commercial appeal of her creations. Additionally, Heath remained ‘agnostic’ on the debate between mechanical and handmade production, maintaining that manufactured pieces created from a handmade prototype could be just as visually stunning as entirely handmade pieces. This perspective sparked such animosity that she was eventually asked to leave the San Francisco Potters’ Association. (Kane, 2022)
Heath’s work gained popularity in California as it epitomised the casual lifestyle of the postwar generation. Her modernist designs complemented their modernist furniture. She received significant commissions, including requests to create floor tiles for LACMA and exterior tiles for the Pasadena Art Museum. Over time, she established a successful business supplying restaurants with sturdy, rustic-looking wares for professional kitchens. Garth Clark described her blending of stoneware aesthetics from different sources like Scandinavian, Bauhaus, Song, and Native American as “Bauhaus over Sung,” while Bill Stern praised her as the “artist of the every day.” (Lynn, 2015)
Heath’s career progressed to working with tile and building materials, where she was recognized with industrial-design awards for her innovative ideas. After a devastating fire in Oakland in 1991, she focused on developing fire-resistant construction methods. By the time of her passing in 2005, her simple yet elegant aesthetic had once again gained popularity among tastemakers. (Kane, 2022)
Kane, P. A. (2022, February 1). Edith Heath, the Rebel Ceramist and ‘Alchemist’ Who Redefined the Modern Home. the Guardian. Retrieved April 25, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2022/jan/31/edith-heath-california-ceramist-exhibition-oakland
Klausner. (2006, June). Breaking the Mold. Dwell, 131–146. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=hcYDAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PA131#v=onepage&q=heath&f=false
Lynn, M. D. (2015). American Studio Ceramics: Innovation and Identity, 1940 to 1979. Norway: Yale University Press.