By Regina Connell and Chloe Dalby.
Craft is often tied to tradition. Places become indelibly linked to their traditional crafts, and vice versa. So when places steeped in history fall on hard times, it seems impossible that they won’t somehow pull through as they have all these years.
But sometimes they don’t. Then what?
This is the question in the city of Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England, or “the Potteries” as the area is more commonly known. The production of clayware reaches back at least to the 17th century, and the Potteries were particularly rich in clay, salt, lead, and coal, and more recently the ingredients for fine bone china. You could say that pottery is in the very soil.
Despite that, much of the industry has declined in the past few decades, and the iconic “bottle kilns” stand smokeless. So is it all over for the Potteries?
Not if Emily Johnson, and a similarly-minded band of entrepreneurial types (like Emma Bridgewater) have their way. They’re seeking not only to help their traditional craft endure, but also to coax it into taking fresh, new, and exciting forms.
Let’s go back a bit: in 1882, the Johnson family tradition of creating clayware was established with the opening of Johnson Brothers Pottery. Emily’s father Christopher has been in the pottery business since 1958. And Emily grew up in the Potteries – though, as we’ll see, she had a few formative adventures before coming back to her roots.
Now fast forward. We ran into Emily at ICFF in New York and were immediately smitten with the hauntingly lovely display at her booth: a massing of lights arranged in a George’s Cross.
But then we fell in love with Emily, her story, and her idea. Her goal is nothing less than to completely re-energize the pottery business by designing new products and exploring collaborations, starting with designers Max Lamb and Suzanne Trocme, and now with Philippe Malouin and Benjamin Graindorge. Through these collaborations, and working under the name, 1882 Ltd., Emily “brings together talent and tradition.”
But Emily has something more than a good idea: it’s a refined ability to tell a story. And when that story becomes an integral part of the object, that object is not just about beauty and exquisite craftsmanship. It becomes about heart and soul and life.
Was this something you were destined to do? Did you spend a lot of time in the factory as a child? My father was a bit of a workaholic, and he’d always go to the factories on weekends. I remember spending Saturday mornings with my father, going around and checking on things in the factories. It’s a very dear old memory.
Were you expected to go into the family business? There was never any pressure to go into the family business. In fact I lived in Southern California for 8 years, selling TV advertising. Then, to be honest, I got burned out with the advertising industry and took a break for 3 months. And then 3 months turned into a year.
I asked myself what I’d do if I had no fears. So I went back to England and I enrolled in an interior design course at Inchbald. One of the materials I looked at was bone china, and during that process I realized that I knew a lot about bone china that others didn’t know: the delicate translucency, the compression strength, its sheer beauty.
Then one day I started having a conversation with my dad about producing these lights I had in mind, and he was sure that they were technically impossible. We progressed things from there, and in the process I realized that bone china does go through my veins a bit. Working with my father, who’s a manufacturing technical genius, and working with people who’ve been in the pottery industry for generations, has been fascinating. That’s why there’s something tragic – absolutely tragic – about the demise of the industry in Stoke-on-Trent.
There’s this argument between craft and mass production. Even if you look at the bigger pottery factories which are technically mass producers, they still use an amazing amount of craft and skill.
But then there’s a way to move forward that feels organic, like collaborating with artists like the brilliantly talented Max Lamb, who is known for his love of process and material. I asked him if he would be interested in doing an interpretation of fine bone china and took him up to the Potteries, where he fell in love. (As soon as you take anyone up to the Potteries they fall madly in love with the place and the people.)
He’s developed this line with 1882 called Crockery which I’m incredibly excited and which was very well received at ICFF. So, to me it’s all about this wonderful design together with this wonderful place called the Potteries.
What is this project all about for you? I think that one of the biggest problems for the Potteries was a lack of new design. The more successful potters have kept up with market trends … they express new shape, they very much keep up with what the market needs.
Times have changed. In the past, people would get married and would buy bone china but then keep it in a cupboard for special occasions. It’s not like that any more. In my family dining is casual; we still use bone china but every day. It’s not the way it used to be.
It’s not easy to make change like this. How has this been received? It’s been really well received. I am very fortunate to have my debut series of Bone lights stocked in the Conran store in London. It’s very exciting to have the support of the Conran store. (In the US, the Bone lights will be sold by ABC Carpet and Home, as of October 2012.)
What’s been the response of people in the Potteries? The lights proved to be a technical nightmare. Because they’re so tall [they range in height from 27 - 52 cm], they have a propensity to twist. That has definitely been a challenge for them, but they’ve enjoyed doing something different from a typical teacup and a saucer.
And Max’s pieces have been received so well by everyone, including the potters themselves. The pieces can be a bit polarizing but people can see what he’s trying to do.
Are you bringing new people into the profession, or is it that you’re employing some of the older potters who’ve lost their jobs? I use different factories to produce my products. If you go around any of the factories, the potters are all very skilled in a variety of different things (some have been there for 35-45 years) and that’s amazing, and they bring so much expertise. At the same time, I would love to see an injection of younger people coming into it. There are some, but it would be great if there were more – because that would mean that we’re growing and thriving.
Are you actually changing the way the potters are working? Has the different approach to design changed the way they see their roles? It’s very early days. The designs are all challenging in different ways. This gives them the opportunity to show their skill and craft.
A number of the English producers are having the maker putting a personalized stamp on what they make… you can go online and find the personal profile of that person. When something is handmade, I wonder if people truly grasp what hand made is. It is touched by hand at every stage of the making.
Do you do that yet? Not quite. But when you pick up one of Max’s mugs, you can feel a story. And you can find out more of that story by visiting our website, which has lots of pictures of the potters themselves. We wanted our site to focus on the process.
When you have a new design, who do you take it to and who do you work with to see if it can be made? I work with my father. While I have grown up with it, my knowledge is still sparse. It’s probably a good thing, I’m not prohibited by my knowledge, but I always have a dialog with my father. He usually says, “Good Heavens girl, what are you thinking about now?” From there we go to the modelers (and we work with some great talents there) and then we go to the factories to see if it can actually be made.
What’s the hardest thing about what you do? The hardest thing is making sure you are keeping true to what you want to do while producing inventively designed pieces that are commercially viable.
This sounds simple but it takes more hours than there are in a day, constant leaps of faith and it is hard work.
What are the tradeoffs about what you’re doing? To be honest we have been lucky and people are very supportive. It’s the people who’ve made it so much fun. Having the support of Pentagram (who has done our graphic design) and Andrew Wood with his incredible photography, and getting wonderful advice from people within the industry has just been incredible. When you’re having a dark day and you wonder what on earth you’re doing, you realize that people wouldn’t be supporting you if they didn’t think what you were doing was a good thing.
What excites you the most? It’s got to be the material itself. There’s such an ethereal quality to it, yet it’s so strong. That juxtaposition is so fantastic. There’s something about holding a biscuit piece. From the smell of the clay to the touch of it when it’s fired, it’s just exquisite.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do? Working with my father, the designers and the potters. Basically, I love it all.
What’s the biggest challenge for your father? Working with any family member is always tough! He’d like me to be a little bit quieter and easier! In all seriousness, though, I think that devoting your entire career to an industry and then seeing its (near) demise in a space of a few years has got to be devastating. It’s been fast and nasty, and it’s been painful. I think for him it was devastating. But now, perhaps despite having to work with his daughter, he’s happy!
Is your mum around? Is she involved? Regardless of whether she has a formal role, she’s definitely involved, as is my brother. They are incredibly supportive.
Does she ever intervene? She does a little translating, editing, and keeping the peace: “What you meant to say was…,” and that kind of thing.
If you’re lucky enough to be in London, see the work of 1882 (including new work by Max Lamb) at the London Design Festival 2012. 14th – 22nd September at Bamford. 169 Draycott Avenue, London, SW3 3AJ
Unless noted, all photography by Andrew F. Wood.