Touring the Heath Ceramics Factory

In the heart of that artsy part of The Mission, where you don't see quite so many people wandering the streets, but a ton of converted warehouses where you know there are people inside, quietly creating beautiful things, is the Heath Ceramics showroom, studio, and tile-production plant. The brand is mid-century ceramics at it's best, a huge collection of beautiful pieces created and inspired by the founder Edith Heath. There's even a line used by Alice Waters in Chez Panisse (you know how I love me some Alice Waters).

The space has got a lot to keep you entertained for longer than you expect to be on a beautiful Sunday afternoon when you should be outdoors. A Blue Bottle café, a floral pop-up shop, a collection of artist studios (including the one where they dream up with new products for Heath), a huge showroom, and best of all — a free factory tour.

The Heath Showroom and Factory in The Mission District, San Francisco

Edith Heath, a ceramist and frankly, scientist, is the founder of Heath Ceramics. She created a series of clay designs that are still sold today. From Iowa but of Danish descent and trained at the Art Institute of Chicago and the California School of Fine arts, she took the Scandinavian aesthetic into modern California.

She got her real start during the 1940s, taking advantage of the wartime lull in production of en-masse goods. A huge success for her was selling work in San Francisco's Gump's Department Store, which she parlayed into her own studio and shop in Sausalito. The housewares collections came first, and then tile in the 1960s. Heath's second shop in the Mission was opened in 2012 by the new owners, Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey, who took over from Heath in 2003. All of the tile production was moved to this space, a large converted laundry facility, while the pottery factory remained in Sausalito. Note: that factory is also supposed to be very cool, more dark and midcentury versus the bright and contemporary aesthetic of the SF space. It also offers free tours. Bucket list!

Heath was involved at all levels of the design process — she came up with the recipes for the clay and the glazes, designed the lines, everything. Now there are three different clay bodies, which are the types of clay that they use to produce goods. There's one red, one white, and one made from recycled materials left over by the processing of the other two. There's also over 80 glazes for the tiles. And with designers working constantly from Heath's inspiration to create new products, there are new products every year.

Here's how the pieces get made:

 It starts with extruding clay, which is basically taking the natural form of the clay and creating unified tile bodies out of it. The process involves some crazy machinery (called extruders, pug mills, and augers. Great names.) The tiles are then cut into the right shape and dried before being glazed.

It starts with extruding clay, which is basically taking the natural form of the clay and creating unified tile bodies out of it. The process involves some crazy machinery (called extruders, pug mills, and augers. Great names.) The tiles are then cut into the right shape and dried before being glazed.

 There is a press in the factory that can make dimensional tiles, but they can also be formed by artisans using the sponge belt to transform the shape of flat tile.

There is a press in the factory that can make dimensional tiles, but they can also be formed by artisans using the sponge belt to transform the shape of flat tile.

 Fancy glazing machines, run by craftsmen who have to train a year before they're allowed to work on something that goes out to the public. That actually sounds really dramatic and I'm not sure that I'm quoting the tour guides right, but you get the picture. Glazes are applied layer by layer. How many layers and thus how long it takes per piece depends on the type of glaze and clay being used, and generally each person has a couple of glazes that they specialize in rather than doing all 80.

Fancy glazing machines, run by craftsmen who have to train a year before they're allowed to work on something that goes out to the public. That actually sounds really dramatic and I'm not sure that I'm quoting the tour guides right, but you get the picture. Glazes are applied layer by layer. How many layers and thus how long it takes per piece depends on the type of glaze and clay being used, and generally each person has a couple of glazes that they specialize in rather than doing all 80.

 The fiery kilns, big gas burners where the tiles are heated for the last time.

The fiery kilns, big gas burners where the tiles are heated for the last time.

 The factory makes bulk and custom orders of tile. On the right, you can see the different kinds of variation that a each glaze can produce, which is rated by a numbered scale. The customer can choose whether they want tile that's pretty much all of the same color, or one that has more variety in it.

The factory makes bulk and custom orders of tile. On the right, you can see the different kinds of variation that a each glaze can produce, which is rated by a numbered scale. The customer can choose whether they want tile that's pretty much all of the same color, or one that has more variety in it.

 The showroom is full of an array ceramics (SMALL THINGS IN BIG NUMBERS AHHH), and always has some sort of exhibition going on— in this case, a Dashi Katachi pop-up shop.

The showroom is full of an array ceramics (SMALL THINGS IN BIG NUMBERS AHHH), and always has some sort of exhibition going on— in this case, a Dashi Katachi pop-up shop.

 A couple of different collections — my personal favorite is the double layered glaze technique that make those textured vases you see in the bottom picture.

A couple of different collections — my personal favorite is the double layered glaze technique that make those textured vases you see in the bottom picture.

Find out more about Heath Ceramics, and if you're in the area sign up for a tour! It's definitely worth it.