1882 Ltd’s Emily Johnson has designs on keeping UK ceramics alive
Words Julia Jarvis
Photographs Martyn Thompson
As head of pottery brand 1882 Ltd, Emily Johnson is leading the drive to provide a modern setting for the most traditional of English crafts…
Unless you’re a middle-aged man with pattern baldness, having a grade-one haircut takes a certain amount of confidence. It’s perhaps not often that businesses and hairstyles get compared (and it’s certainly not the author’s intention to demean womankind by talking about their looks rather than their work), and yet, ‘confident and singular’ would be apt descriptors for both Emily Johnson’s business and appearance.
Johnson is the head of Stoke-on-Trent pottery brand 1882 Ltd, which since 2011 has been making both artworks
and tableware with the most innovative designers and artists, using the best industrial techniques and craftsmanship that Stoke-on-Trent has to offer – with the help of her father, Chris Johnson, who underwrites her ebullience and ambition with a lifetime of experience in the pottery industry.
As Johnson Senior explains, it was his great great grandfather – a farmer in Staffordshire – who married into the Meakin pottery family and had eight sons, who he set up into four distinct businesses of the industry: one of which was the earthenware company, Johnson Brothers.
Chris Johnson was the fourth generation of Johnsons and followed his father – ‘an outstanding potter of his generation’ – into the manufacturing side of the business.
Chris has seen enormous changes over the past 60 years, since starting as an apprentice in the trade, ‘from mainly family-run businesses in the Fifties and Sixties, there has been considerable consolidation and rationalisation under brands such as Wedgwood,’ he says. (Johnson Brothers became part of the Wedgwood group in 1968.) While it’s true that many of these changes have had a profound (and negative) effect on the Potteries – including considerable cost reductions, low cost manufacturing from the Far East and dramatic changes in lifestyle (who has formal dinnerware anymore?) – there are still a number of organisations who continue to survive and thrive, both nationally and globally, alongside a growing number of small, fledgling manufacturers in North Staffordshire.
‘What is so encouraging to me is the wealth of talent, expertise and skills that remains in the Potteries,’ says Chris. ‘History and the tradition of manufacturing in the local area have endured – and the skills pass seamlessly from one generation to the next: as though it comes from their mother’s milk,’ he says. ‘It is fascinating to see the abilities of young apprentices when they are recruited in a very short space of time.’ It seems that, contrary to popular belief, the British potteries still have much to offer – if you have the right business model and connections.
This is where Emily Johnson has so effectively joined the dots. After a somewhat unconventional start in the business (she spent eight years living in California selling TV advertising), she came back to Britain seeking work with more substance. She retrained, achieving a postgraduate diploma in architectural interior design – and it was during this time that she chose to study fine bone china in more depth.
With this material research came a growing realisation of where her career could take her next. But what was her motivation for returning to the pottery business? ‘Johnson Brothers is still owned and operated by Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton [now a single company] – but it’s not made in Stoke-on-Trent,’ says Johnson. ‘We have some of the best ceramic skills in the world in here. So… innovative design, industrial craft skills and five generations of potting.’
Discussing her own contribution to the formation of 1882 Ltd, Emily demurs; ‘I quickly realised that I was no designer,’ she says. However, after a discussion with designer Max Lamb about her ambitions for the company, Johnson asked if he would like to design a collection – an invitation to which he agreed. Since then, she has tempted contemporary design’s great and good to collaborate with her; including Snarkitecture, Philippe Malouin, Benchmark, Faye Toogood, Maria Jeglinska, Martyn Thompson and Pinch. Perhaps it’s the zeal of Johnson’s pitch – alongside the chance to work alongside the finest industrial ceramicists in the country, if not the world – that creates such an enticing opportunity for designers. ‘We always said we wanted to work with the most innovative designers – and my theory is that people can only say no,’ says Johnson. ‘When [legendary architect] John Pawson said yes, I nearly died! Luckily, it has all been very organic; there’s been a lot of serendipity – and most importantly, great collaborations with really lovely people.’
For Johnson, the key to a great partnership is the quality of the communication between the local potters, the designers (many of whom haven’t worked with ceramics before on an industrial scale) – and for both parties to be engaged in the true spirit of collaboration. ‘Relationships are as important as the design,’ says Johnson. ‘We’re launching a collection with Russell Pinch and Oona Bannon from Pinch (called Flare), and they have truly collaborated with the potters in order to realise their designs. The collection has been sandblasted at the suggestion of the maker, which was embraced by Pinch. ‘As far as I am concerned, collaboration is the only winning formula,’ Johnson adds.
1882 Ltd’s latest collaboration – with US-based, English-born designer Martyn Thompson – has revealed itself to be particularly serendipitous and resonant for Johnson. Having stalked him on Instagram (‘By which I mean I was a huge fan,’ she elucidates), they organised to meet in New York, where Thompson lives and works. He explained that he was the great nephew of the prolific English ceramic designer Susie Cooper, who worked in the Potteries from the 1920s to the 1980s. ‘That alone was enough to give me goosebumps,’ says Johnson. ‘But it turns out he is from the same village as me – his mother used to go to Girl Guides in my grandparents’ house. I mean, seriously, what are the chances of that?’
From all of these connections, Thompson’s Accidental Expressionist collection was born. Her cousin gave 1882 Ltd the rights to repurpose one of Susie Cooper’s iconic coffee pots (made in fine bone china in one factory and hand-decorated in another) – making each piece an original collectable. The project encapsulates the elemental ingredients that make up 1882 Ltd’s approach.
There are no shortcuts to the lengthy production process: each new collection takes at least 18 months to make, and usually consists of seven stages. With each part of the process there’s a different set of challenges. ‘I am always amazed at where we get challenged – and it’s never the same twice,’ says Johnson. ‘My learning curve is a vertical line.’
1882 Ltd prides itself in being part of an industry rather than an independent pottery studio. ‘Nothing is really different, except we do it en masse,’ says Johnson. ‘Where there is one lone craftsman, we are an industry of craftspeople.’ They currently work with different pottery companies – dependent on the expertise needed, type of material, shape or surface decoration.
And what of Johnson’s ambitions? ‘I would like to see a contemporary ceramics gallery in Stoke. I would like to have an artist in residency/thinktank connected with a factory in Stoke – and I would like to build a state-of-the-art factory,’ she states. ‘So not much!’
It’s clear that, underlying Johnson’s commercial ambitions, there is a desire to educate, share and be part of the evolution of the historic Potteries into a contemporary and successful manufacturing hub once more. But in the end, her favourite part of the whole process comes from making the customer happy. ‘I recently saw an Indigo Storm [by Faye Toogood] dinner plate on display in someone’s home,’ she says. ‘That was pretty special. Someone can design something fabulous, we can make it with all our heart and soul – but at the end of the day it has to speak to someone… and when it does, that’s lovely.’