A few weeks ago, along with Rita of The American Edit, I was thrilled to be a guest of the Heath Ceramics team at their new San Francisco Tile Factory and Heath Clay Studio. So, on a perfectly warm January morning, we met Donna Suh, Social Media Manager, and Tung Chiang, San Francisco Studio Director, for a tour of what Tung phrased as "a space to discover what the new Heath is".
A SPACE TO DISCOVER WHAT THE NEW HEATH IS.
Located on Florida street in the fringes of the Mission District, the factory is housed in a 60,000 square foot, day lit industrial space, the former Mission Linen factory. As part of a larger development initiative, the building is being envisioned by Heath as a "creative campus", with more brand offices going in upstairs, alongside studio spaces for local makers, all of course with a Heath edit- artists and potential collaborators that share the brand spirit.
The concept is to cross-pollinate the space with the Heath eye, creating the potential for collaborations and new brand storylines to emerge. Already, Matt Dick of Small Trade Company has moved into the upstairs space, along the streetfront, letterpress shop The Aesthetic Union is one of the initial tenants, and in true San Francisco style, Blue Bottle Coffee shares the entrance with Heath.
Walking into the retail space, it is clear that this spirit of collaboration is imbued at all touch points within the brand. A lovely shopping experience in its own right, the Heath store features handmade and artisan-made products from the likes of Edward Wohl, Galbraith and Paul, and Matteo Linens, along with classic brands such as Weck, Duralex, and Faribault Woolen Mill. One of their most interesting lines, a dinnerware collection in collaboration with textile designer Natalie Chanin, is featured prominently, as are breathtaking vases from their Los Angeles Studio Director, Adam Silverman (one of which Rita now has displayed back home in Minnesota).
In the store, it is clear they source from similarly-minded makers with a shared sense of integrity. The products feel honest. Donna tells us that Heath is driven by a different sense of values, and this is clear. They lead with feel, and then make things work operationally. Sometimes, projects fall away. Nothing feels forced. Relationships are built naturally, and the product and collection evolve over time.
A view of the Heath retail space and tile showroom, the largest of their studio stores. Designed by Commune Design, the space is gorgeous, warmly lit by original factory windows throughout.
An original set of Heath dinnerware, thrown by Edith in the 1940s. These felt fine to the hand, and had the most perfect matte, speckled glaze. The small bowl was the most incredible shade of periwinkle.
Inspiration in the Heath Clay Studio- dogs, Ruth Asawa, and Japanese botanicals, along with the Heath employee ping-pong tournament trophy, proudly made by Tung (and, most fittingly, in the shape of a plate).
"WHEN I DON'T SET A DESIGN GOAL, THE OBJECTS THAT COME OUT RELATE TO THE PAST, AND THE THINGS I LOVE."
- tung chiang, heath studio director
Tung's workspace in the Heath Clay Studio. From here, one of his favorite things is to out the window to a perfectly framed view of San Francisco's Twin Peaks. And a challenge? Working on a small scale with the brown California clay body, from the same Sacramento-area bed that Edith Heath discovered. A true production clay, he prefers to work with it in the factory setting.
Just a few of the innumerable experiments in glaze layering- one of the most fascinating things we encountered. With over 100 glazes available in the factory, there is no need to develop more. Rather, Tung is passionate about exploring the possibilities of layering existing glazes, to create the unexpected. His process is rigorous, iterative, and thoughtful- documenting each potential outcome, and then trying to reproduce those which he loves.
THE FACTORY IS A PLAYGROUND.
Tung readily related the Heath factory to us as a "playground", a space for creative trials, experiments, and learning. Central to the Heath design ethos is the interplay of processes, the merging of manufacturing technique with the artistic touch of the hand. Within one, brightly day lit space, the start-to-finish constraints and opportunities of the production process are visible. By working in such proximity with the factory floor, Tung, along with Robin and Cathy, owners of Heath, can explore this relationship and bring out of it, new ideas.
The San Francisco manufacturing space is beautiful, built as part of an initiative to grow the architectural tile business, and allow room for the dinnerware production at the original Sausalito facility to flourish. However- this is not large-scale production. At every point- cutting, shaping, glazing, packing- there is a hand involved. There are smiles on the factory floor. Each tile is hand-cut and slightly different, handmade in the spirit of Edith Heath, who hated an even glaze, and found beauty in the marks of the maker.
This constrained scale and human factor in turn inform the design, forcing clever decisions and deliberate product line growth. Very carefully, with much thought and conversation, Heath added a single major product category (candleholders) last year. This spring, marking a brand anniversary, a line of timeless clocks, in partnership with favorite designers and friends. And so the brand continues, carefully, thoughtfully, organically- creating new products for a modern customer based on a deep heritage built over 60 years ago.
For those of you who know me well, you know that I have been an (almost) lifelong fan of Heath, introduced to the brand by my mom's best friend, a San Francisco girl herself, who served us blueberry pancakes on plates from the Rim collection when I was a little girl. I still remember how they felt in my hand. Twenty-five years later, we use the Coupe dinnerware as everyday dishes in our own home.
To visit this light-filled space, and see first-hand the beauty, care, and integrity that goes into creating even the smallest piece of tile, was truly inspiring. Many thanks to Donna, Tung, and the Heath team for their insights, time, and shared spirit.
This is the way things should be made.
I had the great experience of touring Heath with my friend and manufacturing guru, Rita of The American Edit. Please check out her corresponding post for her perspective and photos. I'm excited to tell you that the Heath San Francisco Factory is now open for public tours! For more information, visit the Heath website. And, extra thanks to Donna for allowing this trained architect to geek out over the building details.