When Emily Johnson established her ceramics company, 1882 Ltd, in Stoke-on-Trent, she spotted an opportunity to reboot the local industry. Stoke is the capital of British pottery and home to big brands like Wedgwood and Emma Bridgewater. But many makers were still turning out old-fashioned dinner services with twee decorations. To attract younger customers, Stoke needed an injection of contemporary style.
For that Johnson turned to some of the world’s most forward-thinking designers, and prioritised those who had limited experience with clay. They were not hard to find. Unlike wood, metal and plastic, which are taught together in most art schools, ceramics is highly specialised and taught separately. This means that designers often begin their careers without being trained in the handling of clay, and never acquire the habit. Johnson commissioned Max Lamb, known for making tables out of springs and chairs out of metal piping, who created a range of ceramic tableware that looked like it had been hewn from rock. She also worked with Snarkitecture, a studio in Brooklyn that designed a cylindrical vase whose pure white surface is interrupted by a patch of corrosion, as though it has been chipped or eaten away. There’s an advantage in employing novices. “They come to it with a fresh pair of eyes,” Johnson says.
This attitude has led to a boom in ceramics in recent years as pottery goes from the fringes of the design world to the centre. The hunger for novelty extends to the most august names in the business. In 2017 Wedgwood launched a limited-edition collection of black-and-white-striped vessels topped with coloured baubles, inspired by 1980s post-modernism and designed by Lee Broom, normally known for his lighting. And in October, Doshi Levien unveiled a ceramic cabinet for Sèvres, with a surreal porcelain tapestry of ovoid shapes and wild colours decorating the doors. These designers were jump-starting tradition despite their lack of technical skill.
This helps the companies, but it also refreshes the designers. Bethan Laura Wood, a young designer who recently created a range of vessels for Bitossi, an Italian brand, relishes the surprise factor in pottery. “It is living,” she says. “That is the great appeal, although it can be frustrating. No matter how many mathematical calculations you make, there will always be the possibility that the kiln will do something a little bit disco.”