The more unconventional among us have long scorned the idea of wedding lists with their mandatory inclusion of matching china dinner sets. But now these dinner services are becoming increasingly obsolete, partly due to the steady decline in marriages. According to the Office for National Statistics, weddings in the UK have declined from 480 285 in 1972 to 270 000 in 2007.
Another institution that has gone into decline, albeit more recently, is Stoke-on-Trent, Britain’s traditional ceramics centre – some of its oldest potteries have closed in the face of competition from mainly Far Eastern countries with lower labour costs and thousands of craftspeople have lost their jobs.
Yet we are witnessing a boom in contemporary ceramics with young designers busily creating a new aesthetic paradigm outside the cliches of the classic wedding-gift dinner service. Interestingly, however, they are not jettisoning tradition, but playing with it and giving it a modern spin. This is, in fact, consistent with the pedigree of Stoke, which was originally a hotbed of radicalism: Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous ceramics brand, was renowned for his experimental approach and progressive politics and was a prominent slave trade abolitionist.
Though not a concerted movement, there is a school of UK-based ceramicists – including Andrew Tanner, Bodo Sperlein, Robert Dawson, Dominic and Frances Bromley of Scabetti, and Peter Ting – who are challenging traditional crockery. But this trend is complex: it seeks to redefine Britishness – specifically by ridding it of the cliched souvenir-shop image of it – yet references the grannyish past of traditional china with gentle irony and is fired by a mildly patriotic (rather than rabidly chauvinistic) fascination with Britain’s heritage.
It’s not just a British phenomenon: Italy’s Paola Navone, working with Italian company Richard Ginori; the Netherlands’ Hella Jongerius; Sam Baron, design director of Fabrica in Italy; and Paris’s gallery Tools also fuse a bold contemporary aesthetic with almost sentimental nods to the past. As Baron sees it, ‘Even though old tableware manufacturers are having problems surviving since the wedding list concept is dying, young designers are nostalgic and want to draw from the history of ceramics.’
Ting, a consultant designer for Asprey, has just launched his Hachi collection for Royal Crown Derby, which collages portions of archive patterns and overlays these on to an elaborate dinner service. Sperlein’s new Yauatcha Atelier tea set, created for restaurateur Alan Yau, is inspired, says Sperlein, by ‘traditional ways of serving Chinese tea, such as tea ceremonies, brought into a contemporary setting’.
Tanner, who has been shortlisted for the 2010 UK Young Design Entrepreneur award, recently launched his collection Souvenirs Worth Giving, which evokes ‘Britishness’ in an oblique way. For example, it makes reference to Britain’s love of parks: shapes such as lovers entwined on park benches are literally cut out of some of its white bone china plates. ‘Walking into a tourist information shop I found myself surrounded by merchandise made in China with little relevance to our heritage and recreational activities,’ he says. ‘Red Routemaster buses are being sold hundreds of miles away from where you would actually find one. Is this all we have to shout about?’
Tanner works three days a week at Lifestyle Holdings in Stoke and is responsible for ‘design, concepts and reaching new audiences’ at venerable British brands Royal Stafford Ceramics and Poole Pottery. ‘My brief is to create collectables, tableware and interior accessories for the next generation,’ he says. ‘As people’s lifestyles develop, the days of matching tableware are numbered, but it takes a brave company to realise that we need to develop for the future, not stay in the past.’
This sentiment is echoed by Stoke-based entrepreneur Paul Bishop, co-founder with his wife Judith of the company New English. This manufactures the refined, yet edgy crockery of ceramics students at Staffordshire University, featuring arresting motifs such as crucified Christs and tattooed skulls. ‘Stoke suffers from insularity and a lack of confidence caused by the traumas of job losses and the demise of big-name companies, and this translates into a very conservative approach to product development,’ he says.
Striving to redress this, however, is the newly launched British Ceramics Biennial at Stoke, which runs until 13 December. According to co-director Barney Hare-Duke, ‘Stoke’s industries, local authority and creative individuals who have a vision for a productive future are working hard to keep alight the fire of the city’s original radicalism.’ The event includes an installation by Jaime Hayon, whose trademark large-scale ceramic pieces have taken the medium in another unexpected direction: gigantism.
Despite its obsession with reinterpreting history, the new ceramics movement embraces cutting-edge technology. ‘Designers are breaking the mould by using rapid prototyping, five-axis milling machines, water-jet cutting and computer 3D modelling,’ says Ting. He cites as key exponents Dawson, who helped pioneer it some years ago with his digital manipulations of the traditional willow pattern, and ceramicist CJ O’Neill, who carves words out of plates found in charity shops using water-jet cutting.
Hi-tech ceramics are also helping to break the mould. According to Baron, ‘Bitossi is using them to create a bulletproof jacket’, while the Bouroullec brothers have created a lamp for the company made of a material used in aerospace technologies which doesn’t conduct electricity. Called Lampada, it was launched recently in the UK by London gallery Vessel, which also champions cutting-edge ceramics.
Sperlein says of the ceramics boom, ‘It’s an accessible medium for new designers to start their careers. It’s also a versatile material.’ Indeed, its very malleability means that it lends itself to an infinite variety of forms.