Diagramming the Archives: Contextualizing Clay in the Heath Collection

Posted on by riddlek@berkeley.edu

By: Rosa Novak

In 2018, through work with the Brian and Edith Heath Foundation, I began researching the contents of a box of clay tests recently unearthed from the ceramic designer and manufacturer Edith Heath’s estate. The cardboard box was labeled in handwritten text with, “Clay Tests and Eutectics.” It contained a jumble of small white, cream, grey, and brown clay test bricks marked in red pencil, matching tiles affixed to annotated cardboard panels, and a few scraps of paper with related notes. The process of working through the materials was an attempt to retrace Heath’s steps and re-form the series of tests as they’d once been organized, which required a wholly new understanding of her individual material testing methodology. I realized that the best place to gain this understanding would be the rich archives of Heath’s life—The Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection of the Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley (EDA).

Previously, I had visited the EDA as a student to look at unpublished writings from throughout Heath’s life in order to get a sense of her design ideology. I re-visited with the box in mind, specifically to look through materials related to clay body formulation and Heath’s time at the English porcelain factory, Wedgwood, for whom she developed a dinnerware line in the mid-1960s. The extensive documentation from this period includes letters to friends and employees, internal production records, and Heath’s notes about experimentation. Together, the documents not only formed a complete story surrounding the box of tests but also offered me a rich understanding of Heath’s process of material research and its importance to her.

Most significantly, what I discovered through this project was how documents in the collection could not only provide insight into the overriding belief system of Heath’s life but also into the specific objects she created. This new way of working with materials provided a relationship to parts of the archives that I would not have initially thought to look through. Further, the process of re-marrying the collection’s rich documentation of Heath’s life with ceramic objects left behind from the same life provided me with a far fuller picture of who she was as a designer than when I sought to research that identity in and of itself.

There is a poem by Heath in the archives in which she wrote about the process of clay body formulation as rejoining the minerals of the earth, “The potter gathers together - re-combines - recycles... Minerals long separated are one again - shaped for human use -.” It is this sentiment that brings excitement to my research process at the EDA. As a researcher, I am able to gather together the pieces of Heath’s life long separated and re-combine them to create new knowledge.

The ceramic objects I’ve used as starting points live in the Heath Foundation Historic Collection (like the box of clay tests), but also in the Heath Ceramics factory and in the built environment of the American West. Each of these contexts adds a further layer of meaning to how objects can both relay a history and continue to build history. The following text and diagram highlight an object from each of these environments, mapping how materials held in the collection of the EDA have worked with these objects to form stories, and how those stories come together to form a more complete, and more complex, picture of Edith Heath. When a document or object is mentioned in the text, a number one through fourteen is included in parentheses to denote its placement in the diagram.

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All images courtesy of The Brian and Edith Heath/Heath Ceramics Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California Berkeley, except for the following. Fig. 1: courtesy of the Brian and Edith Heath Foundation Collection. Fig. 8 (left): “Berkeley’s Brickish Look,” San Francisco Examiner, January 31, 1971. Fig. 8 (right): photograph by Betty Marvin, 1978, Ken Stein Collection, courtesy of the Berkeley Public Library. Figs. 9 and 10: photographs by the author. All illustrations by Brendan Page.

In the Heath Foundation Historic Collection, there is a salad plate with a dipped glaze combination that was never part of Heath Ceramics’ advertised line (1); its clay body sparkles like sand, the intense speckle apparent in a sliver of unglazed ceramic on its underside; and it is effortlessly and almost non-functionally lightweight. Through a letter Heath wrote to ceramics professor F. Carlton Ball (2) and exhibition photographs from the de Young’s 1947 exhibition, "Textiles for You and Your Home" (3), I gained an understanding of the specific time period in which the plate was made and its glaze pattern developed: early 1947. The plate appears untouched, and may never have been used after it was created and exhibited that spring. Following Heath’s death, it was catalogued and stored for future research, not to serve the use it was initially intended for again.

In part due to how well it was preserved, its qualities as an object that could not be read from the exhibition photographs or letter—its weight, its texture, and the minute speckle of its clay body—provide unique material knowledge. These characteristics, in combination with an unpublished writing by Heath titled “What is Clay?” (4) convey an ideology she applied to formulate her clay body. In the text, she questions standard practice and aesthetics in the industry and emphasizes the material efficiency of using a less-processed, less white, and coarser-grained clay body. Her choice to give her clay body the texture of sand was thus not just aesthetic or haptic, it was one driven by her strong moral compass.

Future work made from this same material later came to include a line of architectural tile. Heath tile, developed in the late 1950s, has since been woven into the fabric of the built environment of the American West, blending into buildings across the region over time through layers of dirt, smog, and paint. The tiles have continued to both physically build and lay witness to history up to the present day, taking a far more active role in the world around them than the Heath salad plate that was archived from its inception. The complexity that a Heath tile wall can lend to Edith Heath’s story is well-illustrated through Heath Ceramics’ relationship to Bank of America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as reflected in three tile commissions.

The projects are well-documented in the holdings of the EDA, through sheets of slides showing tile walls during installation (5), brochures with photographs and descriptions of tile in the bank’s offices (6), and invoices showing the specifics of tile orders for branches (7). The deep red textured Heath tile panels coating a branch in downtown Berkeley, California can be seen in a 1971 San Francisco Examiner article, titled “Berkeley’s Brickish Look,” and in a striking aerial photograph held in the collection of the Berkeley Public Library, taken by local photographer Betty Marvin in 1978 (8).

The project fit into the bank’s pattern of drastically altering its branches’ exteriors to permanently board up windows and doors in an attempt to shelter itself—as a corporation facing intense scrutiny for its role funding the Vietnam War and upholding capitalism—from protest, a brief but publicized wave of bank bombings, and the fear of arson spurred by the burning of a branch near the University of California, Santa Barbara. In Berkeley, Heath tile was the material of choice used to attempt to build walls (or board windows) between the bank and the public and became a tool and a symbol used to protect Bank of America’s political positioning in the process.

The corner at which the tiles were installed in Berkeley, and the place they’ve continued to occupy over the last fifty years, is one that lives on as a site of political protest. The tiles can be examined today as objects that have persisted in their role as a symbol of institutional power tamping this presence down, and outliving Edith Heath, herself. The intersection made famous by the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s—which prompted the tiles’ installation in the first place—has been host to demonstrations protesting policies of the Trump administration, police brutality, and capitalism’s strain on our society, while the bank’s tile walls stand idly by. Despite this role, the tiles have often been painted with the very same messages that broken windows (which the walls were meant to deter) are intended to convey. In 2014, a photographer captured the Heath tile walls used as a tool to exclaim, “No Justice No Peace” and “FTP.” Though these messages have since been scrubbed away, a wash of white paint remains in their stead, clinging to the texture of the deep red tiles and the grout surrounding them (9).

As an example of the potent history that designed objects adopt within the built environment, the tiles cladding the Berkeley Bank of America hold their own history that has continued to build, separate from the story of Edith Heath. However, the tiles also add complexity to the story of her life, as a designer who intended to embed a progressive belief system into her materials, yet sold the product she made from those materials to an institution representing “the establishment,” which used that product to shelter itself. This contradiction embodied in the bank’s tile walls suggests that new paths of inquiry into the other complexities of Edith Heath’s career could be drawn from other tile walls and other clay objects.

For example, a group of circular tiles made by Heath’s niece and Heath Ceramics glazer, Winnie Crittenden (10), conveys a similar tension between Heath’s personal belief system and her business practices. The tiles were pressed at the Heath Ceramics factory using a clay body that Heath formulated in the early 1990s, composed of 12% waste glaze. Although Heath personally adopted a strong identity as an environmentalist in the 1970s—represented in her writings in the archive (11)—decades later, new regulations intended to protect the San Francisco Bay from industrial waste highlighted her company’s lack of a sustainable waste disposal system.

Heath’s response, rather than sending the whole of the company’s glaze waste to a disposal site, was to try to incorporate the material back into production by creating the new clay body. The story of the tiles—as a matter that embodies the tension between Heath’s dual identity as a building material producer shedding heavy metals in a body of water and as an environmentalist—was once again constructed using documentation in the archives. The pieces that come together to show Heath’s creation of the waste glaze clay body include poetically written correspondence (12) and exhibition statements (13), and seemingly banal glaze mixing logs that, with a closer look, reveal extensive documentation of waste material testing (14).

The tile circles have lived in the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito at Crittenden’s glaze station since they were created in the 1990s. As opposed to the products made, finished, and shipped out of the factory soon afterward, they’ve become a lasting part of the history of the building. Specks of glaze splatter their surfaces, made of some of the very same waste glaze incorporated into the tiles’ fired bodies nearly thirty years ago. They are coated in a layer of dust that has settled on their surfaces ever since, its matter reflecting the change in materials used by the company as they’ve introduced new ingredients and substituted others. The tiles have thus existed in situ for three decades as a historical record, but they have also materially changed from their original state, displaying the last thirty years of matter used and discarded at Heath Ceramics.

When, as researchers, we remarry archival documents with objects living in varied environments in order to create stories about people, how much do we consider how an object builds a history independent of its manufacturer and changes materially over time? How does this affect the stories we tell and the way they are reconstructed?

Within these questions, it feels fitting to consider the ceramic objects held in the Heath Collection of the EDA. These objects are closer, or less divorced, from the materials that can contextualize them, and can easily be reunited with documents in the EDA's collections. Strings could be pulled taut between the boxes of plates and tiles, and the cartons of brochures, correspondence, and Heath's writings, to make physical webs of stories. Together, these webs composed of the objects of Heath's career create the story of Edith Heath—her philosophies, her complexities, her own existence amongst her objects.

Since the start of working on contributions to the upcoming book, Edith Heath: Philosophies, I have seen how each author’s essay or visual history is a composition of these webs. Each piece displays a chain of resources from the Heath Collection of the EDA drawn out in writing, to create distinct stories of Edith Heath and the objects she created throughout her life. I recently had the chance to read through the index for the book, created by Curator of the EDA, Chris Marino, which in its own right contains new threads that can be pulled from one essay to another. These threads create a path for readers looking to research a myriad of topics: experimentation or functionality as concepts in design; Heath’s unpublished writings usually only accessible as a researcher at the EDA; the clay and glaze materials her objects were made from; and the individual objects she produced, situated in exhibitions like Textiles for You and Your Home and on the walls and floors of buildings across the country. The index of the book and the myriad of archival materials pictured inside can thus be used to create webs of new stories, or as Edith Heath would put it: the reader “gathers together - recombines - recycles -.”

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Edith Heath, “Primordial Rock Fragmented,” 1971, The Brian and Edith Heath Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California Berkeley.

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Rosa Novak is a researcher for the Brian and Edith Heath Foundation and co-founder of the Oakland, California artist collective, Mutual Stores. She recently authored three essays and co-authored two visual histories for the upcoming publication, Edith Heath: Philosophies, the first in the Environmental Design Archives’ newly re-introduced Berkeley Design Books Series. Novak’s current research interests focus on the life and work of Edith Heath, the history of the ceramic materials of California, and the dichotomy between waste material and constructive material.