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How a beloved design institution came back from the brink

Heath Ceramics designed the pottery used at Chez Panisse. In the midst of COVID-19, the owners struggled to stay creative while facing an existential threat.

How a beloved design institution came back from the brink
[Photo: Heath Ceramics]

When the Bay Area locked down in response to COVID-19, the owners of iconic pottery studio Heath Ceramics found themselves utterly drained of creative energy. It was hard to set the company’s artistic direction or go into the studio to create a new glaze when faced with a looming existential threat. “The question became: How do you be creative, when you’re really worried about whether you can survive?” says co-owner Robin Petravic.

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Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic [Photo: Heath Ceramics]
The coronavirus is the biggest business challenge that Petravic and Catherine Bailey have experienced since they bought Heath Ceramics in 2003. When California’s stay-at-home orders went into effect in March, Heath had to close its factory in Sausalito, California. That meant that once the company sold its existing inventory, there wasn’t any way to restock it. “We’re a small company without deep pockets,” Bailey says. “We had enough money in the bank to survive for six weeks without revenue.”

Heath Ceramics was founded in 1948 by potters Edith and Brian Heath. In the decades since, it’s become a beloved institution, especially in San Francisco. It collaborated with legendary chef Alice Waters to create the dinnerware for her restaurant Chez Panisse; customers can buy the iconic Chez Panisse line from Heath’s website. “The business doesn’t really belong to us,” Petravic says. “It is part of the creative identity and history of the Bay Area. Feeling that responsibility has sometimes been exhausting.”

When the coronavirus hit, Bailey says the issue wasn’t a lack of demand: Consumers seemed willing to invest in pieces for their home, since they’re spending so much time there. The problem was supply. Since the company makes all of its pottery locally, the lockdown made it nearly impossible to create new pieces.

[Photo: Heath Ceramics]
Petravic recalls a critical moment about three months into lockdown. He went to the warehouse, which is usually packed with products, only to find empty shelves as far as the eye could see. For a moment, it seemed like a real possibility that the company might not make it. But Petravic and Bailey doubled down. They made a few painful layoffs. They applied for the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which provided a much-needed infusion of cash. Tung Chiang, the artist who heads Heath’s experimental Clay Studio, tried to singlehandedly manufacture as many pieces as possible, alone at the pottery wheel. “It was a bridge,” Petravic says. “If the factory had been closed a few more months, we wouldn’t be here.”

[Photo: Heath Ceramics]
In late May, the factory was able to reopen with social distancing protocols in place, allowing workers to make hundreds of pieces a day and start restocking the shelves. They’ve rehired some of those laid off and expect to continue doing so as business picks up. Four of its California retail locations are now open, and the company has created a curbside pickup option that’s been very popular. While revenue is down 30%, Bailey and Petravic say the company’s online sales are strong, thanks in part to the marketing team’s more frequent newsletters and blogs that go into intimate detail about how the pottery is made. “We never had the time to invest in e-commerce before, but that has been a fun, creative thing that has come out of this,” says Bailey. “We’re trying to capture what people feel about Heath in our stores, only digitally.”

[Photo: Heath Ceramics]
But Bailey and Petravic keep coming back to the importance of creativity. They say it’s been hard for them and their team to express themselves through pottery when there are so many other things that require emotional energy. “We knew our job was to create, but there was such an instinct to curl up and protect ourselves,” Petravic says.

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[Photo: Heath Ceramics]
The owners tried to give their team the freedom to create, and the potters took the message to heart. As they sheltered in place at home, and took turns going into the studio to throw clay on the wheel, they began to create a new line of pieces for the winter that centers around the themes of hope and renewal. A series of bud vases are glazed with a bright yellow. A slim sprout vase is designed to look like a bamboo shoot tenaciously bending towards the sun. A large gray teapot is a reminder of how small comforts help in dark times.

“This need to create became our driving force,” says Bailey. “But we couldn’t just create beautiful objects. We had to make things that embody the moment we’re in and that communicate hope.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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