There is a shade of yellow-green that is instantly recognizable to Heath Ceramics fans.
Called ‘yuzu’ by the company, after the East Asian citrus fruit, the hue has been used for much of Heath Ceramics’ 74 years on items such as candlesticks, plates and bowls . In the new exhibition “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” at the Museum of Oakland in California, exploring the legacy of the company founder, color is also represented in spectacular tiles and art plates – and even on a gallery wall (the painting is Spice Market by Benjamin Moore).
The color transported me to the company’s sunny factory outlet in Sausalito, where my husband and I purchased pieces for our own table. It also gave the exhibition a dynamism that suited its subject matter.
When Edith Heath opened her Sausalito company in 1948, her work was groundbreaking. Prior to Heath, everyday china and fine china were made mostly of delicate white clay and generally nodded to the European past in its design. It wasn’t until Heath’s experiments with native California clays and handmade shapes in the 1940s that the state had something for its tables that was as organic and innovative as its ethos.
The exhibit showcases the business from Heath’s first exhibition of his Legion of Honor work in 1944 and its discovery by a buyer at San Francisco home decor retailer Gump’s to the popularity of ceramics in mid-century homes and their current status as elements of sustainable design. . In a favorite display, we see a complete recreation of the type of table she and her husband Brian Heath would have had in their own Sausalito home, outfitted with gorgeous, slightly imperfect factory seconds like the ones I’m looking for.
“The concept of endurance is a dominant theme in the exhibition,” said guest curator Jennifer Volland. “We open the living room with a display case containing three pieces of Haviland porcelain from Edith’s family. She rejected this idea of porcelain which would only be used on special occasions. She thought it was a superfluous household object, so she looked for something different and one that could be used, as she said, both every day and the best of Sunday.
“There’s a lot about his ideology and approach that has to do with a love of the California landscape,” added OMCA staff curator Drew Johnson. “It connects with the post-war Californian lifestyle and emphasizes a rich domestic life that could be expressed with humble household objects like tableware.”
For many Heath fans, his “everyday” pieces carry important emotional connections. Hannah Bruegmann de Lafayette inherited part of the 200-piece collection that her grandmother began buying in the 1960s. Her grandmother also bought seconds, a tradition that Bruegmann continues. One of the first pieces in her cabinet that catches her eye is a 1960s dinner plate with the company’s redwood glaze, one of the pieces she uses in her daily rotation.
“It’s a bit wonky,” Bruegmann said. “It has a quirky shape and a few marks, but it’s a classic.”
San Francisco’s Amira Atallah built a collection with her husband after discovering Heath at a neighborhood restaurant.
“We consider it an affordable luxury,” Atallah said. “It’s nice to have a few little things like that in your life.”
What stood out to me the most about “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay” was the idea that Heath wanted to make lasting beauty accessible to ordinary Californians in their day-to-day lives. Especially with so much time at home during the pandemic, I’ve come to appreciate how those little moments of design reflection have had such a positive impact on me. It can be as simple as grabbing a bowl in the morning and feeling a touch of joy when I see the vivid yuzu glaze inside.
“Edith Heath: A Life in Clay”: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Until October 30. $7 to $16, with children 8 and under free year-round. Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. 510-318-8400. www.museumca.org