I left London for Stoke-on-Trent in 2012. Six years ago I had ambitions of building up a factory producing contemporary ceramics on a large scale. Inspired by the industrial architecture of Stoke and seduced by art school dreams of transforming a derelict factory building, I set off and moved my life to Stoke. I had no personal connections other than ones I connected with from work but the few people I knew had a network of similarly kind and friendly people.
The more immediate focus was to get a kiln (up the stairs, a terrifying and hairy experience) and understand ceramics. This is probably where I should confess I’m not a traditionally trained ceramicist. I went to art college to design and shape my conceptual ideas in 3D. I’d always admired ceramics but most of my ceramic knowledge is through the guidance of specialists in Stoke, endless testing, many mistakes, books and the internet.
The once empty and (relatively) vast studio space quickly filled up with tests and helped expand my knowledge and experience of the material. I was particularly taken with glazing ceramics and soon dedicated my time to focusing on this particular area. It took two years to achieve a palette of colours and reactions that I was happy with and it’s an ongoing learning curve. My initial inspiration was the reactive glazes on Japanese stonewares and porcelain – the kind that moves and reacts in the kiln in unpredictable ways.
Six years on, the studio is established in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent. I came very close to realising my dream of taking on a stunning modernist building in the heart of the old Spode site but it became clear through protracted negotiations with the council that our dreams and visions were not aligned. There was also a sense of risk aversion and lack of trust on both sides that eventually derailed the conversation.
So it was time to take stock of the path travelled so far and reassess my purpose. I don’t have all the answers yet but there are specific areas I want to focus on. One question I was asked recently was “How do you reconcile design with consumerism?” It’s such a difficult one. I find it hard walking around trade shows and seeing the sheer amount of product in one space. I believe that as a business, you have more responsibility because of the volume of things that you produce. I’ve always felt that pressure since witnessing my first trade show and I am currently working on that problem. But I think we all have to battle with this, individually as well as a collectively, as it’s so out of control.
Looking around the studio now, it’s busy – there are samples, tests, work in progress and everything in between. The first thing to do is to reduce, and create only what is needed, to align with my current dream which is about considered consuming and a slower pace of life. We’ve decided to change the way we offer products online. My main focus creatively for the last six years has been to understand glazes and as a result I’d like to offer small batch production of glazed wares updating the website as they come out of the kiln. There will be regular Instagram postsand newsletters as the kilns are cracked open. This idea is not new – when some potters in Japan traditionally open their kilns, or kama they put aside their best ceramics for exhibitions and galleries, smash what is deemed substandard, and offer the rest to the general public in an event which is much anticipated.
And so, after living and learning in Stoke-on-Trent, after growing to understand my own and other businesses, a different fire is stoking my belly. Understanding this change has given me renewed vigour as I try also to align my balance of work and family. Personal circumstances have changed and I’m back in London, about to build a small workshop here but still making frequent trips to Stoke. As I’ve already mentioned, the studio is well established and will carry on as there are many lines of work that need face to face contact with the factories which produce fine china, with the mould makers and other key producers. Physically producing ceramics is a tricky business and it’s important for my current work to have a studio local to this important ceramic cluster. My development work, bespoke commissions, and online offerings will be pushed through in my London studio.
I will be working on further refining my purpose and I’ll let you know soon how it’s going. For the moment, we are reducing – as we say in Kyudo, Japanese archery, muda ga nai – no excess.
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