Pooled Resources

Hannah Booth pays a visit to Poole Pottery and discovers how it is harnessing design to revive the fortunes of its once ‘courageous’ design heritage

Nestled on Poole’s rain-soaked quay alongside nautical-themed pubs, crabbing boats and braying seagulls, Poole Pottery is undergoing a quiet revolution. A year before its 130th birthday, it is seeking to revive its strong art and design tradition with the help of a team of contemporary designers that most company directors would give their right arm to work with.

It was ever thus, according to Poole’s spirited, and still twin-limbed, chief executive Chris Rhodes. ‘Poole has always called on the best artists and designers of the day. We must be as daring now as we once were,’ he says.

A ten-minute drive inland, Poole’s factory employees – all on first-name terms with the management – seem oblivious to the rumblings of change at HQ.

Rhodes, who trained as a graphic designer and specialised in typography, has set the pace since joining 10 months ago from Gillette, where he was product development manager.

He approached Frances Sorrell eight weeks later, and appointed her as external design director in January. It was a shrewd move. Sorrell’s ‘heavyweight’ status, vast network of industry contacts and personal passion for ceramics has set Poole’s full-time team alight.

She brought in ceramic design expert Robin Levien, founder of Studio Levien, early on to audit the pottery’s existing product forms, which revealed hitherto unnoticed gaps in the ranges. ‘We realised that we had no modern teapot,’ Rhodes says.

Sorrell also approached graphic specialist Vince Frost to revamp the Poole Pottery logo (DW 8 March), and has called on the services of versatile interior designer Ben Kelly to redesign the Poole Pottery shop on the quayside from a former warehouse. Both were unveiled earlier this month.

The graphic identity is inspired by a rounded 1930s typeface called Futura, and is resonant, in colour and form, of the round grey clay ‘plugs’ from which all the products are formed. A dolphin sub-identity has been revived from a 1950s realisation, but simplified.

‘Almost every company in Poole has a dolphin associated with it,’ says Frost, ‘so my initial thoughts were to get rid of it. But we found a neat version in the archives and adapted it, giving it a raised texture on paper and an etched look and feel.’

Most importantly, Frost has dropped the word ‘pottery’ from the name. Poole is synonymous with pottery and actually owns the brand name ‘Poole’, says Frost, so he was able to use it freely. ‘The word “pottery” is stating the obvious,’ he adds.

Frost is currently working on a product stamp, which Rhodes wants to introduce to the sides, rather than bottoms, of products ‘rather like a Levi’s tab’, says Frost, as well as signage, packaging, point-of-sale and identity guidelines.

The speed of change at the company would unnerve one with a less secure vision than Rhodes. But he acknowledges things must move fast to

generate excitement among consumers and try to shift perceptions of the brand. ‘We can turn ideas into products almost overnight,’ he says.

Sorrell agrees momentum must be seized. ‘Introducing new ranges early on can make an immediate difference,’ she says. Both admit, however, that altering perceptions of the brand will take longer, perhaps up to ten years.

Three new products are already waiting in the wings. The first is Trio, a group of three mis-sized vases designed to stand alone or together, with or without flower stems. The work of master potter Alan White, who has been with Poole since 1966, Trio is scheduled to launch in September.

Illustrator Quentin Blake has designed a range of children’s tableware products incorporating different sketches, called Feeding Time, which launches in January. And designer Philippa Richards has created the Freehand range, which features slim, random stripes in turquoise, blue, pink and green.

These are just the start. Sorrell intends to bring in many more new designers to complement well-established names such as Janice Tchalenko, Anita Harris and Sally Tuffin. She has approached graphic design legend and Pentagram founder partner Alan Fletcher with an idea for a range, and makes no secret of her desire to work with young guns like Thomas Heatherwick.

She wants to involve design students, too. Poole sponsored two awards at this month’s New Designers show in London, one for best ceramic shape, the other for most creative surface decoration (pictured above).

‘We must bring in new talents to shift [Poole’s] focus to contemporary design,’ Sorrell says. ‘It doesn’t collaborate enough at the moment. The modest size of the factory and its wide in-house capabilities means it can afford to take risks. Poole was very courageous in its time – we need to bring that spirit back,’ she adds, echoing Rhodes.

But potential collaborators must fit the Poole culture, insists Rhodes. ‘We’re not a big team so there’s no room for preciousness. We want people who are easy with themselves, relaxed and happy to give things a shot,’ he says.

Personnel changes are happening internally as well. Sorrell has appointed former Wedgwood designer Charlotte Whitfield as design manager to provide a much-needed link between external designers and in-house employees (DW 11 July).

Whitfield will perform an important role linking creative ideas to the manufacturing process, says Sorrell. This contrasts with her own role, which she describes as a providing a ‘bridge’ with the outside design world and an overview ‘unbogged down’ in the manufacturing side of things, she says.

It is this combination of experienced head and young blood that epitomises Poole’s new approach, says Rhodes. In this way, he likens the company to ‘a first division football team on its way to the Premiership’. The Wolverhampton Wanderers of ceramics, perhaps?

Rhodes’ first move is to establish a clear design direction, but developing a clear business vision is of equal importance, he says.

He is tackling distribution channels to precipitate a shift from gift and china shops, where Poole is historically sold but where it ‘doesn’t reach the masses’, to home interiorsand cookshops and department stores. It is here the much sought-after spontaneous purchases will be made, Rhodes says.

‘People are buying and using ceramics in different ways,’ Rhodes explains. ‘Our products are no longer just acquired at weddings, they are bought like cars or clothes and treated as such. They should be used every day rather than just stashed away for special occasions, and it shouldn’t be the end of the world if they break,’ he says.

The ceramics industry itself is partly to blame for its brands falling a little by the wayside, Rhodes suggests. ‘[The industry] has buried its head in the sand for too long and allowed itself to become irrelevant.’

It has not embraced new technology enough, agrees Sorrell. ‘The industry needs a balance between modern manufacturing techniques and traditional craftsmanship,’ she says.

Much of Poole’s future success depends on the brand values attached to it. They are, at the moment, a bit ‘fuzzy’, according to Rhodes. Poole pottery is high quality and enriches people’s lives, he says, but its image as a whole needs tightening.

A bit like Denby Pottery, which he admires ‘for elevating an everyday brand to something special with a powerful personality’. Rhodes also cites fashion brands Burberry and, surprisingly, Clarks Shoes as good business models.

‘Denby as a business had no raison d’être. But it has turned an old-fashioned pottery into a young, exciting brand,’ he says. Can Poole do the same, and become the Manchester United of ceramics?

A potted design history of Poole

1873: Carter & Company founded, producing decorative tiles and, later, hand-painted pottery

1920s: company expands into ornamental pottery; designer John Adams joins as managing director of re-named Carter, Stabler & Adams

1920s and 30s: pottery flourishes with designers such as Truda Carter

1950: Adams and Carter retire; Alfred Burgess Read becomes head of design; dolphin marque is re-introduced

1960s: designer Robert Jefferson oversees experimental work with abstract shapes, designs and glazes; successful Delphis collection launched; company becomes Poole Pottery

1970s and 80s: new ranges develop under designers including design director David Queensbury

1992: management buyout led by managing director Peter Mills

1999: Orb Estates purchases the company

2001: Chris Rhodes joins as chief executive from Gillette

2002: Rhodes appoints Frances Sorrell as external design director; dolphin logo revamped by Vince Frost

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