In the busiest week on the design calendar in NYC, we "Metup" with Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey — the couple behind the revitalization of Sausalito-based Heath Ceramics. Jump below for the transcript and all the images integrated from the Heath Ceramics presentation…
MAXWELL: This is a big week in the design world, as it is book-ended by two big events here in New York — BKLYN Designs, which is in its 9th year, took place last weekend in DUMBO, and this weekend we have the 22nd annual International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) at the Javits Center. To add to this, we are very excited at Apartment Therapy to have released our 3rd book this week, Big Book of Small, Cool Spaces! As our website continues to grow (4.5 million monthly readers, up 100% from one year ago), we welcome our monthly Meetup as a great way to connect with our online readers offline.
MAXWELL: This month we welcome Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey, the husband and wife team behind Heath Ceramics. It’s been seven years since they took over the company from the original Founder, Edith Heath (1911-2005), who, after meeting Robin and Cathy in 2003, was wise enough to know that she had finally found the right people to entrust with her legacy.
Just a little bit about Edith Heath’s background — she grew up in Iowa and moved to Chicago for college, where she did very well in her art classes and eventually enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute becoming both a student and teacher.
It was in Chicago that she was invited to work at a Federal Art Project (FAP) training school, which led to Heath's acquaintance with the ideas of leading artists, including Bauhaus designer László Moholy-Nagy, who had recently arrived from Europe. Those modernist artists and architects who came to the States from Europe - driven out by the war - brought with them a very powerful and sophisticated influence that was to resonate throughout American art and design in the later half of the century. Edith's art work at the time reflected this Modernist influence.
She got married in Chicago but moved with her husband to San Francisco shortly after. They decided to drive across country when they moved, and found themselves in New Mexico during the trip. This is where Edith first saw Native American pottery, another big influence that would find itself into her work. There were few potters wheels in San Francisco, so Edith asked her husband to build her one. She made her pottery, started teaching, and, in 1944, found herself in a one-woman show at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. A buyer from Gump’s saw her work and eventually bought every one of her pieces. And thus, Heath Ceramics was born. Robin and Cathy got to know Edith in 2003, and, at some point during their meeting, Edith started talking about selling them her company.
MAXWELL: So, let's get a little more of the back story. First, welcome Robin and Cathy. It sounds as if the whole purchase and transfer of the company was so seamless, but tell us more about how you met Edith and how this all took place?
CATHY: We met Edith in 2003, and at the time she already had dementia (she was 93 at the time). Earlier in her life, she just couldn’t part with the business, but given her health, she knew it was time, and we were lucky enough to meet her at that time. She really wanted to find someone who followed her philosophy, and held out to find that person. This was her life’s work — she never had children, so her business was really her baby. She couldn’t imagine others doing it.
ROBIN: Many others had approached Edith and she always said no. She strung a few people along for quite a while. She sensed people's motives, and if they weren't right she pulled the deal. We developed a strong bond with her as well as her trustee, who watched after Edith as her health failed. So that relationship helped her feel comfortable with making her decision.
MAXWELL: So you both have design backgrounds, is that right?
ROBIN: Yes, we both came from design, working as consultants and product designers. Cathy had her own company for eight years by the time we approached Edith in 2003. I had worked at Nike before as well, so we both had strong backgrounds for this type of creative business venture.
MAXWELL: So you’re living in San Francisco with a successful consultancy. Why Heath? Why were you looking for a challenge and a change to your current situation?
ROBIN: These types of changes are not always planned.
CATHY: Exactly. It was the perfect moment for us. We were totally open and ready for something like this. We were familiar with the building, which is in Sausalito (Marin County) and is truly amazing. In 2003 it was still covered in old mosaics — quirky and fascinating. There was a store on the premises so we visited, and we could tell immediately upon entering that there was a story there.
MAXWELL: I heard that for most of Heath's career they lived above it? And that the roof of the building had a bar?
CATHY: Actually, when we bought it, there was an employee living upstairs. I’m not sure Edith and her husband ever lived on premises. The building was built in 1959, and at that time the Heaths lived in Tiburon, not far from the store. They actually lived in a barge on the water at first — they lived there for a while, and eventually beached the barge in Tiburon and lived there. At the time you were allowed to do stuff like that! People thought we were crazy to purchase the company. It was a lot of money, and manufacturing is all done in the US.
ROBIN: It was actually a good lesson in decision-making, as we didn't think too much about it, we just did it. We now have a store in the Ferry Building, and it's funny because old customers don’t recognize the store at all, but they see our pottery and goods and know that it's Heath.
MAXWELL: I think of Heath as having a bright, polished image, probably in part because of my familiarity with your website. What was the image in the 40's when Edith started the company? What was in its heyday at the time and what was her contribution?
CATHY: Well, she was in MoMA in the 50's with her Coupe line, so she was definitely in the right place at the right time. The line was created in 1948 and has been in constant production ever since. It reflects the Modernist aesthetic of clean, simple lines, and represents her influences of Modernism and Native American pottery all in one. It was, and continues to be, timely and "accessible" to all people, once again following the principles of her major influencers. There was a new line in the 60's, which was great. In the 70's, Edith got a new restaurant contract which spawned more lines. Then she introduced tiles in the late 60's / early 70's. Another big item which people aren't familiar with is the Rose Bowl Parade backdrop, which is all Heath tile.
MAXWELL: So she started by making timely pieces and continued to push and define trends throughout each decade. Was the business considered a family affair?
CATHY: It's an interesting business story, actually. Edith hated marketing — she expected that people would see and feel her work and buy it and that would be that.
ROBIN: There are stores all over the country that carry Heath.
CATHY: Yes, department stores were a very strong outlet — Marshall Fields, for example. And then the company started doing restaurant work, so that opened up the commercial market.
MAXWELL: Was there a time when Heath wasn’t popular?
CATHY: Well, in 2003 some of the items looked as if they had been there (in the store) for a while.
ROBIN: There was not a lot going on that year. The production team just kept glazing saucers because they didn't have a lot of other things to do.
MAXWELL: So what did you do to bring it back?
CATHY: First, we felt the story of Heath had to be told. There was some bad design mixed in with Edith's work (she had other lines in her store as well) so we felt we should get rid of that.
ROBIN: Edith was very talented. Her husband passed away in 2001, but they both built a great company. It just needed some reviving — as they got older, they just needed help in keeping things up to the same standards, so that was a lot of what we focused on in the beginning.
MAXWELL: So tell us about the design itself. You brought in some new designs and kept some others. How did that process work?
CATHY: Edith designed the Coupe line in 1948, which, as I mentioned before, has been in constant production and continues to be one of our best sellers. It didn't need to be redesigned, but we did create some new glazes in order to keep it fresh. After that, we looked at other classic pieces, chose what worked, and also made a ton of new glazes to make these classic pieces fresh again.
ROBIN: We whittled down lines that weren’t selling well anymore and simply took them out of production.
MAXWELL: Let’s take a look at your slides to see some of the lines and more about what you’ve been telling us about.
MAXWELL: How often do you launch new product and colors?
CATHY: We tried a new line when we first purchased the company and hoped it would last ten years. We are now doing seasonal colors (launching every six months) which allows for a new story to be told twice a year.
Q: Are these made in a specific pattern?
CATHY: No, and in fact, random install works wonderfully with these.
Q: I just heard about you six months ago. I was in LA on business and I took a bunch of my co-workers to your new store. It is fabulous and we all loved it — just wanted to pass on the accolades.
CATHY & ROBIN: Thank you!
MAXWELL: You’re doing a great job of getting the name out there. Do you advertise?
ROBIN: We advertise a bit in Dwell magazine, but that’s about it.
Q: I'd love to hear more about collaborating and how that works for you.
CATHY: Back and forth communication and sharing is the key. If we are sensitive to each other's aesthetic, that works best. For example, sometimes people ask if we'll do porcelain goods, make them finer, etc. That is just not our thing, so that would not be a good collaboration.
Q: Can you elaborate on your work with Chez Panisse?
CATHY: Sure, well Heath had done with Alice (Waters) back in the 80's. We created a white, simple line for her — it was fine, but it just didn’t seem to reflect the Chez Panisse aesthetic. Her plates are now in other restaurants as well, but under other glazes.
ROBIN: We did three different glazes for her, all earth colors. All of the plates are stacked randomly over the stove. They are plated randomly, depending on which dish they grab from the stack, but they all work beautifully together.
Q: It's been seven years since you took over Heath, how do you feel about the business now?
ROBIN: It's definitely the best job we've both ever had. We wanted a business that was about creating a job that we like, about a product we like, and we've found it.
CATHY: Heath is still here, and people are still buying, so it's working. It's not inexpensive, so people really need to love and believe in the product, and they do. Some people also believe in building their collection over time, which is great.
ROBIN: Some customers have had their Heath products for over forty years, which is a great testament to the product.
Q: Where can we find Heath in New York?
ROBIN: We are in Barney’s, Moss — not a lot of our product is in those stores, though.
MAXWELL: Are you thinking of opening a New York store?
CATHY: Yes, but we aren’t sure where, and when.
MAXWELL: I think what you’ve done with your retail stores would work well in New York. Also, you need a down-to-earth, "accessible" location here that represents who you are, versus the high-end design locations that currently carry your product.
Q: How did you fund your venture?
CATHY: We found investors, although we do own the majority of the business. We also found people who believe in us and wanted to invest. We told them that this would not be a quick-return venture, so we looked for long-term investors whom we knew would be comfortable having their money invested with us for an extended amount of time.
Q: Do you have an international presence? And where is your strongest response?
CATHY: We are still very local. Domestically, we aren't even that well-known. We do have a store opening in Tokyo, along with a few restaurants, but that's about it. Although actually, we have product in Palaces in Jordan, due to a long-standing relationship, but we've never been allowed to see the finished result!
MAXWELL: So are you mostly known through your website?
CATHY: Yes, it's very successful. E-Commerce is a savior. We also do bridal registries and compete fairly well with them. Most of our online purchases actually come from New York.
MAXWELL: Another great reason to have a retail presence here! Do you have issue with people knocking off your product?
CATHY: We don't really put any thought into that. If someone knocks off our work and sells it for $5, it's not our work. And our clients wouldn’t be fooled by it either.
MAXWELL: Agreed. Thanks, Cathy and Robin, it was a great pleasure to have you here.
CATHY & ROBIN: Thank you. Congrats to attendees Tom and Mimi, who each one a Heath seasonal summerware bowl!
GOOD HEATH LINKS
• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to Knoll for welcoming our Meetup to their showroom!
• Special thanks to our wine sponsor, September Wine & Spirits!
Images: Maria Moyer/Bureau of Friends, Jeffrey Cross, Heath Ceramics, Heath Trust, Mark Allen Johnson, Corey Walter, Mariko Reed, Rene Zellweger, Michael Moran, Meredith Baird, Annie Schlechter, Melissa Kaseman, Cesar Rubio