Deborah Mulhearn meets some of the small, design-led companies that are putting the Potteries back on the map
As I type, a parade of stately elephants passes before my eyes. Yesterday it was dancing kittens. And the day before that, witty sayings (not my own, unfortunately). I haven’t gone mad: I’m just describing some of my favourite mugs. I have a whole shelf full. Chances are you do, too. Contemporary, classic, cute or quirky, there are styles to suit everyone. And chances also are that the stamp on the bottom says ‘Made in Stoke-on-Trent’. And the same goes for plates, bowls, cups and saucers and the full dinner service, especially if it’s a family heirloom.
Stoke-on-Trent is synonymous with the industry that gave the area its name: The Potteries. Spode, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton – the famous names still exist although many of the historic family firms and names may have been swallowed up by big multinationals, and their factories relocated to the Far East.
Now a growing band of designer-makers are putting the heart back, not only into Stoke and the pottery industry, but also into British ceramics. These small companies will never employ the tens of thousands that the big manufacturers did in the heyday of the Potteries, but they are producing high quality ware that discerning shoppers are snapping up, and bringing back pride to an area and industry that in many ways epitomises 'made in Britain.'
Demand for ‘designer’ mugs and tableware is on the increase. And designers and ceramicists in The Potteries are all fired up for that demand. In fact, the key to their success, they stress, is design – the loss of which played a big part in the sad decline of the industry. Some designers have even relocated to Stoke to be close to the manufacturing process, and the skills that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
Camila Prada is a ceramicist who moved from Canada to study for an MA in Ceramic Design at Staffordshire University in Stoke, and stayed on. “It was the best course in the world at the time,” she says, “and it made sense for me to stay here where all the creativity and skills are.” Camila set up her studio in the Potteries in Burslem, a place with a rich tradition of pottery design and manufacture going all the way back to the founding father of the industry, Josiah Wedgwood, who was born there in 1730.
Camila Prada: Gold Digga piggy bank
Camila’s colourful, cute tableware products are moulded, cast and printed by three different small companies in Stoke. They are made from a range of materials including bone china and earthenware. “My designs are not standard shapes, so I had to hunt around to find a manufacturer willing to make the small product runs I needed,” she explains. “But I found a company and they’ve been really helpful. I’m still closely involved in the production processes and being close to the manufacturer means I can troubleshoot any design issues quickly.”
As well as quirky cup and saucer sets she makes storage jars, piggy banks, salt and sugar shakers, butter dishes and honey pots, and ‘spiritual guides’, a set of funky desktop figurines – all with names and special powers, she claims – that are a world away from crinoline ladies and cocker spaniels.
“I’ve met amazing people and learnt a whole new culture being here,” she enthuses. “There’s such a lot of talent here and it’s enriching to be a designer in a place with such an incredible history. I believe Stoke’s future is positive and that the industry will continue to grow.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for British-Japanese designer Reiko Kaneko to relocate her east London studio to the rather less glamorous Stoke. Reiko set up her studio two years ago in an old potbank, complete with cobbled courtyard, to be close to the manufacturers making her elegant, upmarket designs. “I was travelling back and forth for three or four years before I decided to move,” she says. “It’s taken me a while to settle in, admittedly, but it’s been quite wonderful and it’s down to the people. There’s an amazing concentration of skills and talent here, which you wouldn’t find anywhere else, all stages of the process are here and everyone knows each other. It’s also much friendlier!”
Reiko studied design at St Martin’s College and spent ten years in London, but found she couldn’t develop her business any further. “Manufacturing and production are less prevalent in London compared to the expertise and knowledge here in Stoke. I can pop round to the model makers, experiment with colour in my kiln, and there’s a seamless service with suppliers.”
Reiko’s cool white bone china tableware, vases and bespoke pieces have a global customer base and are available in leading department stores such as Selfridges and Holt Renfrew in Canada, and also museum and boutique gift shops. She also makes bone china Christmas tree baubles and drinking bowls for pampered pets.
“My major aim,” she says, “is to be able to employ people as well as working with local factories,” and she has big plans for her Stoke studio. “Bone china has such an eminent history here and I’m hoping with my products that people will look at classic design in a different light.”
Repeat Repeat has been around for a bit longer. Designers Gillian Naylor and Mark Faulkner first met on a surface pattern design course at North Staffordshire Polytechnic in Stoke nearly 30 years ago and have been together ever since.
They make contemporary bone china tableware by traditional hand-casting methods, supplying large retailers such as John Lewis and Heal’s, and they also have a growing market in Japan and the USA. “The Japanese love British manufacturers and understand heritage”, explains Gillian. “Despite the difficulties facing manufacturers in the current economic climate, we are finding that people are willing to pay a higher price for quality bone china, with the added bonus that it has been made in England.”
Repeat Repeat: Backstamp mugs
One of Repeat Repeat’s most popular ranges is ‘Britannia’, most notably the ‘Backstamp’ design. Gillian explains how it came about. “Traditionally the backstamp on the base of ceramics state where the product is made. We decided to celebrate this by giving it pride of place as a decorative motif on the front, instead of being hidden away on the base. We always wanted to make our products here and now we’ve made our ‘Made in England’ tag an actual selling point.”
When Gillian and Mark established Repeat Repeat in 1984 they produced surface pattern designs for textiles and illustration for magazines, gift cards and wrap. “At that time Stoke-on-Trent was a hive of activity” Gillian recalls, “with factories of all types producing an amazing variety of ceramics, alongside mould makers, modelers, tool makers, transfer printers, colour and glaze manufacturers.”
The pair inevitably became involved with the home-grown pottery industry and started adapting their designs for bone china products. “We quickly realised that many potteries did not have any design input whatsoever. So we aimed to make design central.” As far as Gillian is concerned, it’s this ethos that has been crucial to their success, although it’s true that the picture hasn’t always been rosy for them. In the 1980s factories started to close and manufacturing was outsourced to China and Indonesia. At the same time, formal dinner services were becoming less popular, especially as traditional wedding gifts: people wanted cheaper and more disposable tableware. This had a disastrous effect not only on Repeat Repeat but on the whole of the potteries industry in Stoke.
“Ceramics made in Stoke-on-Trent, or anywhere in the UK, became more and more scarce and we wanted to shout from the rooftops that Repeat Repeat still produced bone china in England.”
Slowly but steadily the company has built on its strengths: contemporary designs that echo traditional patterns, and the ability to adapt to ever-changing market trends.
Part of the reason that more potters are setting up, not only in Stoke-on-Trent but around the country, is that prices and wages are starting to increase in China. “We can get a project up and running in four weeks whereas it could take four months including shipping from China,” says Gillian.
Add to this a welcome energy tax break for British ceramics manufacturers in this year’s budget, and the future for the Potteries is looking healthier than it has done in decades.
“Fashions come and go,” observes Gillian. “But bone china will always be elegant and lovely to drink out of, with the added bonus that it has been made in England.…”