Edith Heath: thoroughly modern.A RECENT EXHIBITION EDITH HEATH: TABLETOP MODERNIST, mounted by the Pasadena Museum of California Art, asks its audience to take a closer look at the designer's dinnerware and evaluate it not only as a functional commodity but as sculpture for the home. Heath and other designers associated with the Mid-Century Modern movement believed that mass production and quality were not mutually exclusive.
The retrospective captures the great span of her creativity from 1945 to 1992 with an impressive array of her ceramics. Heath, founder of Heath Ceramics in Sausalito, California, US and her contemporaries, Charles and Ray Eames, Eva Ziesel, Marguerite Wildenhain and Russel and Mary Wright worked to satisfy a growing need for American consumer goods after WWII had ravaged European factories and its export economy.
While Heath's work is arranged on tables and shelves in a gallery that is almost too large for the intimate nature of her work, it doesn't prevent the eye from appreciating her Bauhaus influences. There is a harmony between her objects and their function with minimal emphasis on decoration that began with her art studies in Chicago, Illinois, at the Normal School and later at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also took classes with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at his short-lived Chicago School of Design. Heath was not weighed down by the stylistic traits that have pigeonholed other designers in a particular era or decade.
As seen by the many tables and shelves of her product, Heath remained true to her material for the life of her career, in contrast to Eva Ziesel, who had a two-decade jump on Heath as a designer and also ventured into glassware and furniture. Ziesel's dinnerware was more delicate and sometimes included painted surfaces.
It is easy to trivialize Heath's work because of its domestic appeal but what can be observed grouping after grouping is that the work has a timeless aesthetic. It is as fresh and relevant now as it was when she began her first line, Coupe, in 1947. The pieces of the line such as soup bowls, salad and dinner plates were characterized by soft sensual curves that blended in to any setting.
Later she introduced Rim in the 1960s, a line that became very popular with restaurants. The glazed product possessed outer unglazed edges that served as a textural counterpoint in the overall design. It allowed servers to carry the plates without their thumbs getting in the way of the food. The pieces proved to be very functional, being easy to stack.
Plaza, a line that was launched in the 1990s, featured rectangular shapes owing to an Asian influence. Heath's awareness of changing eating patterns "was slightly ahead of its time, predating the rush of sushi restaurants to come," says Amos Klausner, an independent writer and researcher, formerly with the architecture and design department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He is the author of Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity.
Heath was never a household name in her lifetime although she was prolific. Nor did she have a particular talent for self-promotion, added Klausner. If her work looks familiar it is because more than a few of her place settings, salt and pepper shakers, sugar bowls and creamers, casseroles and teapots have graced American kitchen and dining room tables for five decades. As her company thrived, Heath was rewarded for her efforts in the 1950s by her inclusion in many museum exhibitions on Mid-Century Modernism and later her work was recognized in art books and magazines.
When Heath was first introduced in a pivotal moment to Gump's Department Store buyers, they bought her products on consignment and later carried her line. With Coupe, she tapped into the post-WWII California casual lifestyle that combined indoor/outdoor living. There was an egalitarian element to the work that made it accessible and available to everyone. Beyond her abilities as a designer, Heath's personality figured heavily in her success. "She was adventurous, fearless, driven, highly creative and a go-getter," says Klausner, rattling off a string of her attributes.
She developed a stoneware clay body that was durable and attractive. The exhibition conveys both a feeling of naturalness and reveals a colour palette in her work that tied her to the Arts and Crafts movement with its emphasis on nature as the inspiration for home decor. It ran the gamut: white, cream, beige, light gray, light, medium and dark brown, matte and glossy black, light mustard, light olive, orange or pumpkin, bright red, cyan, light and dark blue and turquoise.
One large table included a spread with so much product, representing such a wide range of colour, it could have been mistaken for wares at an estate sale. It also points out that Heath did not cater to the colour trends of the day.
Less attention is devoted to Heath's abilities as a chemist in this exhibition, given that this talent was responsible for a great portion of her success. A small section of the gallery is dedicated to large glaze test strips that only hints at her skill. She willingly devoted hundreds of hours to developing custom glazes that became a signature of her work. One of her most popular discoveries was her speckle pattern. When it was launched, it was considered "novel and innovative", says Klausner.
Her comfort level with trial and error and her willingness to experiment led to one of her greatest successes as a ceramist. In the 1960s, architects approached her looking for a company that could produce quantities of tile that were custom-designed. Heath quickly dismissed any doubts and developed a system of production with the help of her husband, Brian.
The walls at the far end of the gallery show sections of tiles from various commercial projects. Different textures, brighter colours, diamond, hourglass and honeycomb patterns with glossy finishes added another dimension to Heath's creativity. She collaborated with some of the best architects of the day: Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, William Pereira and Kevin Roche. Her brown tiles adorn the exterior walls of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, a product of her collaboration with the architectural firm of Ladd & Kelsey. These efforts were recognized in her lifetime when she received the prestigious Industrial Arts Medal for her tile work from the American Institute of Architects in 1971.
With all of her success as a designer, the exhibition does not shy away from some of her noble failures. Heath was always looking for kiln fillers. In the 1980s, she introduced a line of ceramic buttons made from plaster moulds. Although colourful, the buttons fell off or wore down the fibres of the clothes to which they were attached. They failed to become popular with the public.
Overall, the retrospective plays to Heath's strengths. It firmly establishes how she straddled the line between handmade studio ceramics and mass-produced product design. Her influence can be seen in the ceramic dinnerware sold today at Crate and Barrel, IKEA, Pottery Barn and signature products by Martha Stewart. It might have been interesting to see some of the work displayed in a variety of table settings but the organizers chose to go with a simpler presentation.
Edith Heath instinctively pushed the boundaries of household goods to an art and paved the way for ceramists and designers that followed in her footsteps, some of whom have been included in the exhibition. A new appreciation of Heath's work in the past five to 10 years has been accelerated by the passage of her company into the capable hands of new owners, Cathy Bailey and her husband Robin Petravic. If the American buying public is more sophisticated now in its buying patterns, it owes a debt to Edith Heath and her company.
Judy Seckler is a Los Angeles-based writer, specializing in art, design and architecture.
The exhibition, Edith Heath: Tabletop Modernist, was held at the Pasadena Museum of California Art from 31 May-20 September 2009. Photos by Jeffrey Cross.