Friday, April 24, 2009
Ziggy, Swerve, and Heath Ceramics
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.”