Edith Heath and Julia Morgan: Making Connections

Posted on by riddlek@berkeley.edu

By: Jennifer M. Volland

Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I visited the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection at UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives every few months for the past six years. This repository served as the foundation for three of my forthcoming collaborative projects—the publication Edith Heath: Philosophies (Berkeley Design Books and Information Office, 2020), the exhibition Edith Heath: A Life in Clay (Oakland Museum of California, 2021), and the exhibition Edith Heath and Emily Carr: From the Earth (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2021). Housed in a nondescript, sprawling Richmond warehouse fronted by a parking lot and a chain-link fence, the Heath archives are not in the most inspiring of locations. Still, upon arriving in the morning, I loved settling down at the large wood table to sift through box after box, folder after folder, and object after object, embarking on an all-day journey into someone else’s life and mind. I never had the pleasure of meeting Edith Heath in person, yet the archives, as they do for so many researchers, facilitated a unique type of intimate relationship.

I’ve missed these rituals. In lieu of my regular visits to the archives, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the evolution of my ideas. Most of them trace back to one document: the Heath File List. This 15-page Excel spreadsheet, consisting of four categories—Box, Folder, Title, Date—served as my guide to the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection. My copy is covered with pencil marks: asterisks indicating objects of particular interest (a small, handmade book, a candid photograph), questions (What is this? Were these for sale?), and lists (detailed breakdown of ceramic pieces). I still refer to it when I’m trying to locate or date an object, or simply looking for inspiration.

One of my earliest notations appears next to the words “Christmas Cards from Brian and Edith.” The folder associated with this note contains several versions of postcard-sized watercolors, each the same image but with slightly different coloring. Brian sits at a desk with a pile of paperwork, yet distracted by thoughts of travel. Edith, engrossed in her ceramics practice, kneels on the floor with her face in the open door of a kiln and her back to the viewer. This playful image became a central piece for the book and the exhibition in terms of its visual appeal and its informative content. It continues to pique my curiosity, as it represents a critical point in time that would go on to shape the rest of the Heaths’ life together.

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Edith Heath, watercolor, ca. 1945. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

We know the drawing represents the couple’s early years in San Francisco when Brian still worked for the American Red Cross and Edith had begun her forays into ceramics. We also know that at this time the couple lived in the lower flat of a Julia Morgan-designed house on one of the steepest sections of Filbert Street. The setting is quite dramatic, offering sweeping views of the city and the bay beyond. In her oral history, Edith recalled that the owner, a schoolteacher who lived upstairs with her mother, told her about how Morgan, when the house was being built in 1908, “climbed all around the scaffolding in her high button shoes and long skirts to oversee the building of it.” [1] Surely Edith could relate to Morgan’s hands-on approach; her formal education was steeped in the pedagogy of John Dewey, a proponent of learning by doing.

Edith also appreciated Morgan’s approach to architecture. She had learned about Morgan during her schooling in Chicago, connecting Morgan’s work with that of fellow Bay Area architect Bernard Maybeck. To relocate from the Midwest to San Francisco and to live in a Julia Morgan-designed house, one with deep regard to its surrounding environment, made quite the impression. “I loved it,” Edith recollected. “It was just really a San Francisco house.”[2] For the Filbert Street residence, Morgan incorporated elements of the First Bay Tradition, including the use of natural local materials (redwood shingle exterior); the tailoring of the interiors to fit the needs of her clients (built-in bookcases, seating, and kitchen cabinetry); an emphasis on the indoor-outdoor relationship (large bay windows, balconies, and a rear garden); and the blending of historic detailing with modern construction techniques.

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Julia Morgan, 1124-1126 Filbert St., San Francisco, as it appeared shortly after it was finished in 1909. Courtesy Suzanne Dumont.

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East elevation, Apartment for Mrs. I.C. Woodland & Miss J.H. Carruthers at 1124–26 Filbert Street, San Francisco, 1908. Julia Morgan/Forney Collection, 1907–1931, EDA, UCB.

These principles are uncannily familiar to the ones that guided Edith in her ceramics practice. I don’t want to overstate the connection; Edith never attributed her creative process to Morgan. However, I can’t help but think that Edith’s early exposure to this type of craftsmanship—grounded in honesty, simplicity, and an orientation to the surrounding landscape—must have had some effect. This flat, after all, was where she brought home the clays she sourced from her drives around California, where she performed her early experiments, and ultimately, where she launched her career. Edith kept glaze materials in the pantry, a small kiln on the sink counter, and a potter’s wheel in the basement. Later, when Edith got a gas-fired kiln, she and Brian lowered it down the hill by a rope into the laundry room.

Aside from the Christmas card, not many archival artifacts exist from the first few years the Heaths lived in the flat: a few pieces of correspondence addressed to 1124 Filbert Street; enrollment materials from the California College of Arts and Crafts; a short article from the San Francisco Examiner highlighting summer activities at Presidio Hill School, where Edith served as the art director; and a black and white photograph of Edith using the treadle sewing machine that Brian converted into a potter’s wheel.[3] The historical record is far from complete. Yet piecing together all existing materials, along with Edith’s descriptions in the oral history, we start to get an almost cinematic picture of Edith and Brian’s life during their first few years in San Francisco.

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Personal correspondence sent to the Heaths at Filbert St., 1945. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

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Edith Heath using the treadle sewing machine converted into a potter’s wheel, ca. 1943. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

This is a picture that comes in and out of focus. Generally, as Edith’s career progresses, so too does the accumulation of archival artifacts. Still much is left to the imagination and narratives can only be gleaned from piecing together bits of information. For example, Edith’s body of work for the San Francisco retailer Gump’s, created in 1945-1946, represents the physical manifestation of Edith’s design and material research up to this time. The archives include two boxes of hand-thrown dinnerware—a variety of plates, bowls, cups, and saucers in soft blues, pale greens, and warm beige tones, as well as one with a leaf motif. While these pieces are prototypes for what would become the Heath Ceramics Coupe line, they still stand apart from contemporary production ware. The Gump’s pieces are thinner, with a matte finish, more variations in color, and prominent speckling. The connection to the earth is evident, and highlighting this connection became a standard refrain in the marketing language for Heathware. Gump’s own brochure features a photograph of Edith throwing a pot on the wheel with text that emphasizes the materiality of the dinnerware, formed from “honest, unadulterated clay.[4]” Another brochure, this one from Bullock’s Wilshire, touts the dinnerware as having a distinct regional quality, made “for the modern home…for California living.”[5] Despite being a relatively new transplant to San Francisco, Edith had quickly absorbed the essence of her new home state and city and translated these qualities into her work.[6]

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Hand-thrown dinnerware for Gump’s, 1944–1947. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

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Gump’s brochure for Edith Heath’s Ceramics, 1945. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

At the start of 1947, Edith and Brian moved their operations to the top floor of Mason’s Garage in Sausalito, transitioning from solely hand-thrown ware to more industrialized production. A staff of ten turned out 400 pieces a day for national distribution. Museums across the country featured Heath Ceramics in ceramics and “everyday design” exhibitions, and dozens of articles on Edith Heath and the company appeared in newspapers, magazines, and trade journals. The food journalist Sheila Hibben wrote one of these pivotal articles. In July 1949, Hibben sent a telegram to Edith requesting technical data regarding her work in preparation for an article on contemporary household pottery. Edith responded with a letter and a two-page statement describing the origins and makeup of her clay body, her use of glaze in an insubordinate manner to the clay itself, her consideration of functionality in design, and her dinnerware’s suitability to indoor-outdoor living both in terms of color and durability, all before ending with a description of her setting:

“Most of the time we are too busy shaping clay and compounding glazes to be aware of our idyllic panorama, but somehow perhaps unconsciously its influence comes through the clay—in that the dinnerware is a simple, unassuming, earthy expression containing within it some of the inherent beauty of nature.”[7]

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Edith Heath and employees outside Heath Ceramics’ first Sausalito factory on Bridgeway, 1957. Heath Collection, EDA, UCB.

Edith’s acknowledgment of the power of her surrounding landscape in the process of artistic creation is worth noting.[8] Like Julia Morgan had with her architecture, Edith created an enduring style that would forever be associated with the Bay Area, but that also retained a universal and lasting appeal. In her published article in the New Yorker, Hibben puts this appeal in more general terms. She called Heath tableware one of two “laudable contributions to pleasant everyday living” (alongside Eva Zeisel’s Town & Country line)[9], undoubtedly helping position Heath Ceramics at the forefront of California dinnerware as the decade came to an end.

A few years ago while visiting San Francisco, I set out in search of Edith’s old residence. Many aspects of the city have changed—the cost of living, the traffic, the number of people. The panorama from the top of Filbert Street, however, is one constant. Aside from the revolving additions and subtractions to the city’s skyline, what I saw that day on my walk and what Edith saw nearly every day in the early to mid-1940s is the same awe-inspiring view. I’m happy to report that the house hadn’t changed much either. It is equally impressive to the view, a wonderful example of Julia Morgan’s craftsmanship. The property recently sold for close to five million dollars. Over the years, it has had several owners, including a couple who bought the multi-unit dwelling in 2002 and spent six years renovating it. The San Francisco Chronicle covered their story in 2008, and two things, in particular, caught my attention. First, the article focused on the couple’s restoration of the “downstairs kitchen”—the one in the flat where Edith and Brian lived and the location of Edith’s earliest experiments in ceramics. For this renovation, the couple referenced Morgan’s drawings, also housed at UC Berkeley’s Environmental Design Archives. The drawings revealed that the kitchen was still true to Morgan’s original designs “with its wooden plate racks, glass cabinets, and tile counter.”[10] The second thing that struck me is that the writer revealed that one of the owners is the grandson of Sheila Hibben, the very same writer that covered Edith’s work in 1949.

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Interior details, Apartment for Mrs. I.C. Woodland & Miss J.H. Carruthers at 1124–26 Filbert Street, San Francisco, 1908. Julia Morgan/Forney Collection, 1907–1931, EDA, UCB.

The writer of the article doesn’t mention the Heaths as former residents of the downstairs flat. The article’s featured couple wasn’t aware of that fact either; nor did the couple know of the connection between Edith Heath and Sheila Hibben.[11] It is these kinds of links between the past and the present and between seemingly disparate people and subjects that continue to motivate my research interests. I should likewise mention that neither the book or exhibition tease out the broader philosophical intersections between Julia Morgan and Edith Heath. It’s simply a thread I’ve chosen to follow after revisiting the Christmas card and trying to envision the Heaths’ life in the 1940s.

What I do hope to illustrate through this exploratory process is the infinite number of research opportunities that exist within an archive. No matter how many times I go to the EDA, and no matter how many times I review my photocopies and scans and images of the artifacts in the Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, new lines of inquiry always arise. Moreover, these archival artifacts work synergistically with other sources—oral histories, newspaper databases, and other collections at Berkeley and at outside institutions—to help reconstruct Edith’s life and situate her within the context of ceramics history, design history, and post-war social and cultural history. While I’m thrilled about the scholarly contributions and creative curatorial approaches to the forthcoming book and exhibition, these projects are in no way exhaustive resources on Edith Heath. Rather I hope they prompt new questions and encourage more people to use the rich repository at the EDA as a basis for future studies.

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Jennifer M. Volland is an independent curator and writer based in Southern California. Since 2014, she has been researching the life of ceramicist Edith Heath; in addition to her editorial role on Edith Heath: Philosophies, she served as the consulting producer on the award-winning documentary Heath Ceramics: The Making of a California Classic (KCET Artbound, 2019) and is the consulting curator on Edith Heath: A Life in Clay (Oakland Museum of California, 2021). Her past projects include Cabin Fever (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2018), Frank Bros.: The Store That Modernized Modern (University Art Museum at CSULB, 2017), and Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2013). She received her Master of Arts in Architecture from the University of California, Los Angeles. 


[1] Edith Heath, Tableware and Tile for the World: Heath Ceramics, 1944-1994, transcript of oral history interviews conducted by Rosalie Ross, 1990-1992, 1994, California Craft Artists Oral History Series, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1995, page 95.

[2] Ibid, 95.

[3] I would like to extend my appreciation to Rosa Novak for pointing out these materials. In the schedule of classes for fall term 1941, someone (presumably Edith) marked and filled out a schedule of studies for Landscape Composition, Advertising Art, Orientation, Costume Design/Pattern Drafting, and Advanced Design. However, it is unlikely Edith ever enrolled.

[4] “Edith Heath,” Gump’s brochure, 1945. The Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

[5] “Bullock’s Wilshire, Made by Hand,” brochure, 1945. The Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

[6] Gump’s recognized the appeal of this informal, yet elegant, dinnerware service. Edith became one of a stable of local designers and craftspeople that the retailer set up workshops for to supply goods to the store when it was unable to secure imports during and immediately following WWII. In her oral history, Edith recalled Gump’s as having approximately ten workshops; Rosinda and Rexford Holmes made greeting cards with scenes of San Francisco; Rhoda and John Pack made leather clothing and accessories; Niels Fredrickson and John Carlis made printed fabrics; among others. The collective force of these individuals helped shape post-war tastes in the Bay Area and beyond.

[7] Edith Heath, letter to Sheila Hibben, July 14, 1949. The Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

[8] Many years later, in the 1980s, such views of San Francisco and the bay would appear Edith’s photography experiments, which juxtaposed a Heath Ceramics salad plate and mug against various California landscapes.

[9] Sheila Hibben, “On and Off the Avenue,” New Yorker (September 17, 1949): 86.

[10] James Temple, “New life for S.F. house Julia Morgan designed,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 2008. Accessed online at https://www.sfgate.com/realestate/article/New-life-for-S-F-house-Julia-Morgan-designed-3198152.php.

[11] I tracked down the former owner while writing this blog post. Despite all of her amazing and extensive research on the property and familiarity with Heath Ceramics, she had not uncovered anything about Edith and Brian as tenants of the lower unit at Filbert Street. She was kind enough to share images of the restoration and wonderful stories about former residents and tenants, including airline crews who lived in both units during the swinging sixties, and more recently, in the 1990s, a couple of fraternity brothers that lived at the house and threw raging, disruptive parties.