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Friday, April 24, 2009


Ziggy, Swerve, and Heath Ceramics

Bit of Good News in a Plethora of Bad

Surfing the web, it was almost by accident I came across Tracey Taylor's article in New York Times. Reading A Label of Pride That Pays made me feel good. These days, logging on to the computer is fraught with risk. One can never be sure that some new unpleasant things have not surfaced during the night -- more job cuts, another Madoff-like scam, mounting damage from toxic assets of banks; and the never ending violence in some parts of the world. Shias killing Sunnis; Sunnis killing Shias; a bloodbath in the island of Sri Lanka as government forces mop up the Tamil Tigers' last stronghold and refugees seek safe havens; our drones killing a lot of civilians and some terrorists. Politicians blathering. It goes on and on.

Then there is the feeling that we are getting buried in an avalanche of shoddily manufactured imported goods -- from houseware to wearing apparel. They are cheap, yes. They look cheap and often don't last. Not all American manufacturers can claim credit for high quality products. For years, the automobile manufacturers produced ugly, gas hogging vehicles that required frequent repairs....and they were not cheap. It was competition from Japanese car makers that finally woke up Detroit. That, however, is not what this post is about.

Tracey Taylor wrote about the success of two small companies in Northern California -- one in Sausalito, and the other in Berkeley. The complete article can be accessed in New York Times.


In a timeworn factory in Sausalito, Calif., 67 workers turn out Heath ceramics, doing everything from mixing the clay to applying the finishing glazes. Twenty miles away, a Japanese robot called Ziggy works day and night in a converted brass foundry in Berkeley, making precision-cut office furniture.

Still, there still seems to be an appetite for products from high-end, craft-based manufacturers in America. That proved to be the major reason that Robin Petravic and his wife, Catherine Bailey, bought Heath Ceramics six years ago even though competition from abroad had forced most artisanal potteries across the country to shut down.

They said that when they first walked into Heath’s factory in one of Sausalito’s former shipyards, they decided that Heath’s idiosyncratic way of doing things and its geographical roots could prove to be its salvation. They said they were struck by the fact that every part of the manufacturing process was under one roof. “Many of the employees had worked there for decades and knew everything, including how to fix the machines if they broke down,” Ms. Bailey said.

The company was founded in the mid-1940s by Edith Heath, a ceramicist and creative spirit, and her husband, Brian, an inventor. The company quickly earned a reputation for durable, finely crafted tableware and tile whose clean, modernist lines signaled a break from the more fussy designs of the past.

Michael Goldin, an architect and industrial designer, has also tied his company’s fate to that trend. For the last 14 years, Mr. Goldin has been contributing to the rejuvenation of a light-industrial district in Berkeley. He transformed an abandoned model airplane motor factory into his office and has designed and outfitted streamlined, open-plan office spaces for lawyers, architects and dotcom start-ups in Berkeley and neighboring Emeryville.

Mr. Goldin’s company, Swerve, has also been making furniture, seeking out the technology required to produce precision-cut aluminum taper joints and machine-tooled, eco-friendly work surfaces for the desks, workstations and shelving systems.

For Mr. Goldin, outsourcing was never an option. “Ever since I was at grad school I have felt very strongly about having my hands in what I am making — actually feeling materials and how they work,” he said. “It all started with my desire to make things and to have a shop where I could do that.”



Found this wonderful story on Heath on another blog, check it out:

Dear R - I hadn't visited your blog or written to you in SO long. Sorry for the disappearance. School work and life in general get in the way of other things :) I dropped by your blog today and saw the picture of the flowers in the vase i sent you - it made my day! :) I'm glad you're putting it to good use.

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