IWC Schaffhausen Transformations: Heath Ceramics

Mr Robin Petravic and Ms Catherine Bailey: the husband-and-wife team who risked it all on an old California pottery

Mr Robin Petravic and Ms Catherine Bailey had recently moved to Sausalito, California – a picturesque, hippie-chic town just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco – when they came upon an old factory building. The blue paint was peeling, the windows were dusty, it was very hard to tell if it was active or out of commission. When they peeked in, they saw pottery – in varying states of the creation process – sitting on shelves. Though it was quiet, the business still seemed active. To say they were intrigued would be an understatement.

“We discovered that this was actually a company that continued to make ceramics, dinnerware and tiles right here in the town that we just moved to,” says Mr Petravic from the company’s San Francisco factory. “We were so excited about the idea that one could design and make product under one roof. This was the thing that we had been looking for.”

You see, Mr Petravic and Ms Bailey, partners both romantic and professional, were looking to make a change. Mr Petravic had been working as a product design engineer and Ms Bailey as an industrial designer (she had designed footwear at Nike before branching out with her own consultancy), but they were dissatisfied with the direction their careers had taken. “I wanted to be able to make a bigger impact, step away and think bigger, to see the whole picture and bring it all together,” says Ms Bailey. “The kind of work I was doing before, I didn’t have that opportunity.”

  • The Heath Ceramics team likes to experiment with new glazes, creating a colourful library of references for future designs

Neither Mr Petravic nor Ms Bailey had a background in, or even a special interest in, ceramics aside from appreciating the odd piece, or admiring a set of dinnerware. But they were interested in an older world of manufacturing, a slower pace and the sense of control that comes with it. “We were so intrigued by what was going on under this roof,” says Mr Petravic. “An active pottery [was] a real anachronism [back then]. So much manufacturing, at least in our lines of work, had gone overseas.” Here, essentially in their backyard, was a factory that had been founded in 1948 by a potter named Ms Edith Heath and her husband Mr Brian Heath. It had thrived in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s before steadily declining starting in the 1970s. And now, as luck would have it, the business was for sale.

That first visit sparked something in the couple. “There was something about it that really spoke to us: it was opportunity, it was inspiration, it was vision, dreams, all those things started happening really quickly,” says Ms Bailey. “But we didn’t know at first that would mean purchasing it.” As they looked into the business and researched the history, the reality of the situation became clear. “We realised it needed to change ownership or it wouldn’t exist, and we thought, ‘Yeah, that could be us.’”

So, they decided to do something that might sound crazy, but made absolute sense to them. “We went home and started hatching plans and making dreams, [figuring out] how can we make this happen.” In 2003, they completed the purchase ­– now they were the co-founders of a ceramics company. What next?

The first couple of years involved digging the company out of the red. The dips of the 1980s and 1990s meant that Heath hadn’t been solvent for a long time. Mr Petravic and Ms Bailey also had to adjust to the unique rhythms of pottery manufacturing. Many of the original employees came along with the sale of the company, and had to show their new bosses the ropes. Mr Petravic recalls a moment that shook them from the January of their first year of ownership: “A number of our employees came to us and said, ‘We’re leaving for the month because there’s never any work in January so we all just go away.’ We were like, ‘What?’ That’s when we realised it was so much more complex than making a product and building a business.”

  • The pottery’s signature Bud vase was designed in the 1940s by Ms Edith Heath

But hurdles quickly began to look like opportunities. Mr Petravic recalls the loss of a contract that would equal 30 per cent of their business as a turning point, but a positive one. They decided to take this loss as a sign that the business model needed to change: no more wholesaling, no more discounts. “After we got past that point, we realised: this is going to make us free to really start going for the goal.”

  • All of the brand’s wares are designed and created under the same roof

Now, Heath is best known for its collaborations with legendary restaurants – specifically Ms Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley – the covetable tiles and ubiquitous Bud vases (originally designed in the 1940s by Ms Heath herself). But they’ve expanded their range to include flatware and linens. Collaborations with brands such as Hygge & West and Artek have netted patterned wallpaper and furniture ranges respectively – and the hits keep on coming.

“The pottery started to become really big,” explains Mr Petravic. (Indeed, they now have two locations, the original factory in Sausalito and a new factory in San Francisco.) “But we weren’t interested in just getting big. We’re more interested in being great than we are in being big. And as we continue to grow, expanding to new materials, we have the same principles and integrity around design. We look to other mediums so that we can focus our creativity on creativity and not on getting bigger.”

  • The new Heath Ceramics factory in San Francisco’s Mission District

“We only make things that we love,” Ms Bailey says, to sum up.

Indeed, they make things that seemingly everyone loves – as the homeware pottery craze of the past few years can attest. But it wasn’t obvious that Ms Bailey and Mr Petravic would have such success when they bought a dusty old factory in Sausalito. What advice would they give to someone thinking of taking as daring a step as they did?

“When we made a big change, we had to take all the voices out of our head,” says Mr Petravic. “When we told people we were thinking about buying this old pottery, the responses we would get were like, ‘But everyone is doing tech nowadays,’ or, ‘That’s not what successful people are doing.’”

But thank goodness, they didn’t listen. “Remove those voices,” says Mr Petravic. “Think about what’s going to excite you.”