All Fired Up! Modern Ceramic Tile

By David Jacknin

The kitchen at Heath's San Francisco showroom/studio demonstrates how tile can spice up a space. Inset at top right: latest glazes.

[Editor's Note: Heath Ceramics, which was founded in 1948 by ceramicist Edith Heath in Sausalito, California to make modern mid-century crafts, was sold in 2003 to a young husband-wife team of industrial designers who have expanded offerings while retaining the company's strong modern craft esthetic. Over the years they have opened additional showroom/factory studios in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Recently the Heath papers documenting the company's early years were donated (by the Heath family) to the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California at Berkeley, so we felt it was time for an update and asked David to report on Heath's latest products, and their advice on tile use. David spoke with Heath Tile Manager Eric Gaietto.]

Ceramic tile is a 4,000 year old building material and adds function and beauty to kitchens, baths, walls and floors. I visited Heath Ceramics to learn more about glazes, finishes and manufacturing techniques and to get advice on using tile in our homes.

What is the difference between earthenware, porcelain tile and Heath’s proprietary tile?
Unglazed clay tile, also called earthenware, is used for flooring (think Saltillo Tile), It expresses the natural beauty of the clay and expresses the colors and palette of the region it is sourced from. Porcelain, a strong, vitreous material, is glazed at high temperatures and is harder and more impervious to water than traditional earthenware. Heath tile is a Stoneware product and shares most of the benefits of porcelain but at a lower cost. Heath tile’s absorption rate is less than 3%. It is very durable and can be used in wet and cold applications.

Why is porosity such a big issue?
Keeping water infiltration to a minimum helps protect the grout as well as the substrate or shower pan. It is also less likely to stain.

Which tiles would you chose for the following applications?
Backsplashes: “The back splash is the jewelry of the kitchen." Any of our tiles can work here but if you want to add interest consider Heath’s layered, dual glaze or dimensional tiles.
Bathroom Floors. Matte glazes are suitable for residential flooring…they are more slip-resistant and more durable.
Entryways. Matte or Natural (unglazed) work here.  If you’re using unglazed tiles, make sure to seal the tile before and after grouting.
Countertops. Either gloss or matte is fine.  Avoid tiles that are too small as you will end up with an irregular surface.
Fireplace Surrounds. This is to the homeowner’s preference.  Remember to use darker colored grout to avoid discoloration.
Outdoors. You’ll want to use matte glaze for patios and glossy for the pool surround. Glossy is easier to clean. Heath has lots of beautiful blues for the pool.

I noticed that there are a range of tones for each of your tiles. How does this affect the installation? Heath tiles are finished and glazed by hand. As a result there is a range of tones within any specified color.  An artistic installer can arrange tiles to take advantage of the variation in tones to create an interesting composition with more depth and interest than uniform factory made tiles.

What is the difference between field tile, dual glaze and layered tiles? Field tile (shown below) is the basic tile. There are

over 100 glazes available and two tiles with no glaze (photo: Michelle Rose). Layered glaze is made by applying one glaze on top of another. The glazes interact in the kiln giving the tile unique depth and color. Dual Glazes are glazed with two

different colors but the colors are separated by a mask and the effect is two tone (shown above; shower photo: Mariko Reed).

What is the difference between your tiles and ones made in automated factories? All our tiles are hand made and hand glazed. Heath uses proprietary glazes developed by Edith Heath and a commitment to organic design and craftsmanship.

Where does one get good ideas for kitchen, bath and other household projects?
A lot of great ideas can be found in the book written by Heath’s current owners, Robin Petravic and Cathy Bailey. The book, Tile Makes The Room: Good Design from Heath Ceramics is available at Heath Ceramics.com. 

What is your recommendation on colors?
Heath tiles are available in over 100 colors and a range of textures, matte, glossy, layered and unglazed. Lighter colors make a space feel larger while darker colors are warmer and hide dirt well.

Can you explain the differences between your different lines?
Field Tiles (shown above). This is Heath’s Classic line and is available in 18 shapes and sizes and over 100 colors. Field tile is Heath’s mainstay and requires a 4 week lead time.
Tapestry. A collection of eight pattern combinations of shapes and glaze colors (shown below)

made up of smaller tiles with one, two or three glazes to achieve more variation (sink photo: Leslie Williamson).
Dimensional. These are three-dimensional tiles that add a sculptural quality to your installation (shown below).

Most are from the original 1950’s design (fireplace photo: Bruce Damonte).
Dwell Collection. Heath collaborated with Dwell Magazine to come up with three uniquely shaped tiles.

Inspired by Greek and Roman mosaics, shapes include: Little Diamond, ½ Hexagon and Wide Hexagon (kitchen photo: Mariko Reed).

How about your color palette?  What is the range of your available colors?
Heath offers over 100 different glazes in a range of textures from matte to glossy, layered, and even unglazed.

What advice on grout and grout colors?
Grout color can make or break an installation. Use a grout that either blends in with the tile or one with a contrasting color.  A color similar to the tile will tend to disappear and a contrasting color will tend to pop or stand out. Make sure to seal the grout so that it will not absorb stains.  Grout in a shower area should be resealed annually to prevent water infiltration.

Seconds are a lot cheaper – are there enough seconds in any one color to use?
Seconds and Overstocks are available and are much cheaper than Made to Order tiles.  $7 vs. $30 for Field Tiles. These are great if you live within driving distance of the factory in Sausalito, CA and can pick out tiles that fit your needs. There are often enough tiles of one color to tile a small kitchen or bathroom.  It takes a bit of creativity to match available colors to your project or space. The main drawback is that Heath will not ship from its Overstock inventory. You need to come in and select what you think you can use. 

For a collection of plans with photographs of great kitchens click here. For a collection of plans with photographs of great bathrooms click here.  

Thu Jun 08 00:00:00 PDT 2017