Unless you are a particular type of bride, you will know that the formal dinner service, with side plates matched to sauce boats, has gone the way of the antimacassar. Bad luck for unimaginative wedding guests, and terrible news for the manufacturing firms that used to occupy the part of Staffordshire known as the Potteries. Not only are we buying less “best” china, volume production of tableware has moved to the Far East. Which is why, six years ago, after decades of decline, Stoke-on-Trent was on the receiving end of regeneration grants.
Now Stoke in particular, and ceramics in general, have been reinvented. In tableware, we have developed a taste for mixing and matching plain basics with handmade or batch-produced decorative pieces. Age-old patterns have been remixed and shapes sharpened up by a new generation of designers. And trad materials such as bone china have found fresh applications. For example, Charlie Bowles, co-owner of Original BTC, took over a failing factory and put a series of china lights into production. “It made perfect sense to use bone china. It is translucent and gives a warm soft glow — very flattering.”
Another boost has been the British Ceramics Biennial, which returns to Stoke this month for the third time, showcasing 150 artists (Sept 28-Nov 10;britishceramicsbiennial.com). “When we first came here, six years ago, around the time when Spode went down the chute, it was pretty gloomy,” says Jeremy Theophilus, BCB’s director. “Now we get an inquiry a week from artists keen to work in Stoke.”
There are 231 ceramics-related firms working in Stoke today — more than there ever have been, though they are not as big as in the past. They include Emma Bridgewater and Portmeirion Group (incorporating the resuscitated Spode and Royal Worcester), as well as smaller concerns such as Burleigh, famous for its Blue Calico floral pattern and for being saved by the Prince of Wales, when it was acquired by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust in 2011.
Now Stoke is cool. Young designers rush to explain that their wares are produced in the city. Reiko Kaneko, a British-Japanese creator of quirky bone china tableware, moved her workshop from London to a converted brick factory in Stoke last year (reikokaneko.co.uk). Richard Brendon’s contemporary spin on traditional willow pattern is made there, as are Gary Birks’s cheery china mugs, decorated with motifs from keys to writhing snakes (garybirks.com). Room 9, a London design studio, has launched a range of ceramic pendant lights made in the town.
The ceramics success story isn’t all about Stoke. This autumn, two shows in London celebrate the creativity of contemporary china. The Geffrye Museum hosts Ceramics in the City, featuring 50 potters (Sept 19-22; geffrye-museum.org.uk). At the Southbank Centre Shop, Design Nation curates a collection of works by stars such as Billy Lloyd and Sue Pryke (Sept 30-Oct 31; southbankcentre.co.uk). And from overseas come enticing artisan products such as the Portuguese Da Terra collection, a striking black range of stoneware made by Tunisian craftsmen (from £9), and two-tone French stoneware produced in a family workshop in Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye (from £10.50 for a milk jug; both at shopfolklore.com). All perfect for the modern wedding list.