Design will help pottery industry in tough times

Cracks are showing in the glaze of the UK ceramics industry this week, with three of its biggest names – Poole Pottery, Portmeirion and Waterford Wedgwood – reporting financial difficulties. But insiders insist design can mend brand performance.

Poole Pottery, which made much of its recent involvement with designers including Frances Sorrell, Vince Frost and Ben Kelly, has gone into administration (DW 12 June), while Portmeirion has predicted sales and pre-tax profit will be ‘materially lower’ this year. Wedgwood has closed two factories in Stoke on Trent – with the loss of 1058 jobs – and moved production of its Johnson Brothers brand to China.

The effects of the US economic slowdown, Sars, low-cost competition in the UK and the fact that ceramics are not a necessity purchase are all cited as contributing to manufacturers’ woes.

But the companies are continuing to invest in design. Portmeirion has appointed its second full-time designer, Kathryn Partington, to work alongside its first director of design, Mike McGuire, who was appointed in January. Next month, the brand unveils a dinnerware range called Lilac Meadow, designed in-house by Jo Gorman. A major tableware collection with Queensberry Hunt is meanwhile planned for next year.

‘We decided last autumn to increase our design spend by around 40 per cent,’ says Julian Teed, Portmeirion product management director. ‘Attacking a difficult market through new product development is the only way to deal with a recession.’

The Queensberry Hunt range, led by partner Martin Hunt, has just entered the conceptual stage and should be completed by August. Portmeirion continues to work with as many external designers as possible, including Ella Doran and Rob Scotton, Teed adds.

The company is suffering because of its reliance on exports, but investment in design, rather than focusing on price or quick fixes like hiring celebrities to endorse ranges, is the best way to protect a ceramics producer in tough times, he believes.

Poole Pottery, despite its cashflow troubles, is similarly gung-ho. Administrator Leonard Curtis & Co says the company needs ‘an injection of funding’ to assure its future, but presents it as a going concern.

Production director Gary Hilton maintains it is ‘business as usual’ and says the brand is pushing ahead with a series of new ranges in September, all designed in-house. The strategy is to focus on more expensive, ‘occasional’ giftware over contemporary, everyday products.

‘We have actually done well this year, and are still looking longer-term at trialling new shapes [despite going into administration],’ he says.

Keeping design in-house is vital for a healthy business, says Dale Russell, who worked as an external consultant at Wedgwood in the early days of its design revival a few years ago.

Companies should be careful not to work with too many high-profile ‘guest’ designers, she says, as they risk diluting the company’s essence and name.

British potteries must produce both contemporary, everyday pieces as well as occasional products ‘you want to treasure’ in order to compete with mass-market producers such as Ikea and Habitat, Russell says.

The pattern for UK design-led firms switching production overseas has been set by vacuum magnate James Dyson. But it remains to be seen whether quintessentially British ceramics companies such as Wedgwood can manage this trick, without dropping consumer goodwill.

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