Catherine Bailey of Heath Ceramics Is Giving Us Stove Envy
Catherine Bailey, the owner of cult-favorite Heath Ceramics, is not here to fool anyone with an elaborate morning routine. She does not pop out of bed at 4:30 a.m, whisk her own matcha, run a half marathon, and read a print newspaper, all before un-jarring the overnight oats that she prepared in bulk last Sunday. Instead, she’d much rather avoid getting out of bed for as long as possible, before getting sucked into whatever it is that she doesn’t want to get sucked into for the day.
She’s here to keep it real about creativity and productivity — and about how sometimes, instead of running her dearly beloved handmade ceramics company, all she wants to do is forage for wild Alaskan berries and make jam. Girl, same.
If you think about it, it’s actually not all that surprising that the owner of Heath Ceramics keeps it real. She’s devoted the past 15 years to helming the ship at the tabletop and tile business, making sure that her customers have beautiful pieces that they can physically hold onto and cherish for generations to come. The company is both Cathy’s escape and, sometimes, the one thing she needs an escape from.
We caught up with Cathy Bailey to find out what happens when you need a creative outlet from your creative outlet — and she dished on all.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
I like to avoid getting out of bed. The first thing I do is try to lie there and think about my day, what kinds of things I don’t want to get sucked into, and what I want to get done. I spend 20 minutes in that headspace of not jumping into the day. There are so many work projects going on and there are certain ones that I’m more frustrated with, so I don’t find that to be helpful first thing in the morning. I like to use my energy in ways that are useful and supportive; I do a little mental prep before I get up and in front of a screen.
What does the rest of your routine look like?
On a basic weekday I get up and need to make my 13-year-old son, Jasper, breakfast for school. (He’s in charge of his lunch.) Breakfast is important because I want him to eat something other than chips and bread. The interesting thing is that he likes consistency. Pretty much all year he will eat the same thing: an egg sandwich. I’ll make him scrambled eggs on a brioche bun, toasted with whatever kind of cheese we have, with fruit and a glass of milk on the side. If we have avocado, that makes it really good. We do that every single day.
Coffee or tea? And do you drink it out of the Heath collection?
I can’t have caffeine, I hate the way it makes me feel, so I’ll usually make a pot of herbal tea. Sometimes I have fresh mint that I dry or hibiscus. Of course the tea pot is Heath Ceramics! But I usually change it up depending on what’s clean.
What’s the best breakfast in the Bay Area?
I love pastries. When I get to the Heath building in San Francisco, I go to Tartine — it’s in the building. There’s also another incredible bakery around the corner that has the best croissant in the city, Ariscault Bakery.
You and Robin rescued Heath when its future was uncertain in 2003. How do you breathe new life into a company while also honoring its history?
We want people to understand the past, but we don’t want it to be an exclusively nostalgic company. When we took over, our most important goal was to make sure the business was self-supporting, because at the time it was not. For me, part of that was looking at why the business was started, what was really special about it, and why it deserved to stay in production all these years.
My role is to really focus on the product and to tell stories. It wasn’t about changing the shapes necessarily, but more about looking at the colors and rethinking a palate that would work today. I wanted to take what was classic from the past and make sure that it didn’t go away — I had to find that balance. The nicest stories that people tell us are about how they’re excited to register for Heath because their parents did. It’s so nice to see the love for this brand span generations and that people aren’t rebelling against what their parents like.
What is it about handcrafted pottery that people love so much — and seem to need right now?
You know what’s interesting? In 2003, hand-crafted pottery wasn’t nearly as important or interesting to people as it is now. It’s kind of a current appreciation that’s come about recently on a much larger scale. I feel like people have been trying to figure out how to combine craft and design to make a beautiful thing that is handmade, that you can tell comes from people and not just machines. There is so much love and labor that goes into the craft of it, and when you hold it in your hands it feels a bit different. It’s really apparent, but also tangible.
Do you have plans to expand your stores to the East Coast?
At this point we don’t! The part of the business that’s really important to us is that we make it ourselves. All of our dinnerware is made in Sausalito and the tile is made in San Francisco, so the factories limit what we can do — and we can only do so much. We are kind of maxed out, so doing what we do on the same scale as what we do in California is never going to be an option. The fact that it’s only produced in this community is also really special and think that it’s worth holding on to. The company would be different if it weren’t a California company, and associated with this place.
What podcasts are you listening to these days?
I don’t listen to a lot, but Design Matters with Debbie Milman is excellent. I also listen to Monocle Radio a lot. They have so much range in what they cover.
How do you get out of a creative rut — if you’re ever in one?
Ruts are hard! I think finding a good book is important and also having people to talk to and help you snap out of it. Traveling is another piece of it. Sometimes, once you find yourself immersed in another place, you realize you are in a rut or that you’re stagnant. Right now I’m almost done with this book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s just super fun — a good rut book!
Who are you inspired by right now?
Personally, my friend Natalie Chanin. She has a clothing company called Alabama Chanin and she’s inspiring on a lot of levels. She always remains creative and is the main designer — so it’s remarkable how she does all that. She has a lot of integrity. All of the clothing is hand-stitched in a very particular way and everything she does is amazing. Another person whose career path that I admire is Adam Silverman. He’s an old partner from when we opened our store, and an artist. The way he steers through things when he gets off path, and rights himself, is inspiring.
What’s your current favorite color-wave in the collection?
I love the dinnerware in my house — it’s older and isn’t available anymore, so I don’t see it every day in the store. It’s the Chez Panisse dinnerware from when we first launched the line. There are so many things I’m not tired of because they just launched: We added an indigo slate bowl with a deep, dark glossy inside. All of the indigo colors and grays are some of my favorites.
What’s something that you think people would be surprised to know about Heath?
People often don’t realize that it’s all made in one factory in Sausalito. They perceive it to be much bigger than it is, and they come into the store and can’t believe it. Also, people don’t know that it’s been around for 70 years and has only had two sets of owners spearheading it. It’s a good run of time.
What are the three kitchen tools you can’t live without?
I like manual things that don’t break and that you can have forever. My stove is from 1942, it’s called a Chamber’s Stove. It’s made of copper and it’s really cool, kind of like an O’Keefe-era stove. It has a bit of automotive design to it. I’m never going to get rid of it because it’s already so old, and it’s always going to be old, and I love it. The cutting boards that I’ve had for years are from Heath. They get better over time if you oil them, and I love keeping them up. The other thing that I love is my mother’s old Kenmore waffle maker. It’s nostalgic but it works really, really well. It’s so old and heavy, and I’ll never get rid of that either.
Do you like to cook?
My husband does most of the cooking. What I look forward to all year long is the summer, when we take two months off, drive up to southeast Alaska through Canada, and go camping. I spend hours every day cooking in the van. It’s a really interesting kind of cooking, because you’re either doing it over a campfire or a gas stove. There’s just something about baking in cast iron over the fire and foraging for berries and whatever we can find. I love baking, but fitting it into my daily life takes too much out of me. If you take me away from my job though, I love cooking.
What’s next for you?
Well, what I’d really love to be doing right now is foraging for wild Alaskan berries, baking, and making jams. It’s hard to come back to work after being away for so long but there are so many good, exciting projects that we are in the midst of. I’m really excited about our sewing studio where we’re producing our own bags. I love to design in different materials. On the side, I take a class in leather-working and hand-stitching, in the traditional way of making soft goods. It’s a good balance to get into the labor and craft. So we will see where the soft goods side of Heath will take us.
Interview edited for clarity.