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Edith Heath, 94; Ceramicist Was Noted for Tiles and Tableware

Times Staff Writer

Edith Heath, a leading ceramicist of midcentury modern designs known for her tableware and architectural tiles, including the mottled tiles that cover the exterior of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, has died. She was 94.

Heath, whose work is included in major museum collections and sold in specialty stores around the country, died of natural causes Tuesday at her home in Tiburon, Calif., said Jay Stewart, a longtime family friend.

She was known for creating simple shapes inspired by Japanese tableware. Through most of her career she worked on a commercial scale, but achieved a level of artistry generally associated with handcrafted work.

“Edith was at the forefront of the move to modernist design that influenced architecture and furniture as well as ceramics,” said Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design in Los Angeles, this week. The movement took root in the early 1930s and grew stronger in the ‘40s.

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In California, architects Richard Neutra and R.M. Schindler and furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames were leaders of the new aesthetic. As a result of their work, demand increased for compatible tableware, decorative bowls and other items.

Heath’s spare and tactile design sensibility, which Stern attributes in part to her Danish heritage, set a standard for the clean line aesthetic.

“Edith’s work is all about shape and texture,” he said. “Her glazes are her only ornamentation.”

Heath was born Edith Kiertzner in Ida Grove, Iowa, one of seven children. She graduated from Chicago Normal School (now Chicago State University) and continued her studies at the Art Institute of Chicago.

She married Brian Heath in 1938. The couple moved to San Francisco when he accepted a job at the American Red Cross in 1941.

Heath began her design career making handcrafted pottery. She had her first museum exhibit at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1944. Her designs were sold at Gump’s, a specialty store in the city. She moved to large-scale production and moved her business to Sausalito in 1946 with her husband as business partner. Gradually she expanded her line to include a variety of shapes in warm colors, crafting some with unglazed or “exposed” rims, often combining glossy and matte glazes.

Several popular restaurants, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, have used Heath’s restaurant-strength tableware in their dining rooms.

Visitors to the Heath home in Tiburon noted the warm-colored tiles that covered every floor surface, from the entry patio through the hallways into the living room. Most of the tiles were leftovers from large production orders.

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In 1967, the architectural firm of Ladd & Kelsey, which designed the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum), asked Heath to create architectural tiles for the building’s exterior. She used a mahogany color that suggested to her the Pasadena landscape. The tiles are still in place.

Heath was recognized for her work on the museum by the American Institute of Architects, which presented her the Industrial Arts Design Medal in 1971. She was the first ceramicist to receive the medal. She remained active in her business through her 80s and sold it in 2003. The new owners continue to produce her original designs.

Her husband died in 2001. She is survived by a sister and several nieces and nephews.

A memorial service is planned for April. For details, contact the Neptune Society of Northern California in Novato.

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