As part of the fifth generation of Johnson Brothers, one of the most recognisable names in the history of British pottery, it’s no surprise that Stoke-on-Trent-born Emily Johnson is championing the British ceramics industry.
But by her own admission, if you’d told her 20 years ago she’d go on to set up the design-led ceramics brand 1882 Ltd in 2011 (in partnership with her dad Chris, a Stoke pottery veteran), she would have said ‘no way’.
‘I spent a lot of time with him in the factory,’ Emily says of the year she was working for Wedgwood until his retirement in 2002, following the company’s purchase of Johnson Brothers in the Sixties, ‘but there was never a pull to go into the family business’. Instead, she travelled before arriving in LA and working in TV advertising.
It wasn’t until she returned to the UK in 2008 and enrolled in a master’s degree in architectural interior design at London’s Inchbald School of Design that the ‘magic of ceramics’ sucked her back in.‘ We were asked to explore a material in more detail and I chose bone china,’ she says of creating a collection of tube-like lights, which she naturally called on her dad for help with.
Immediately she appreciated better the ‘beautiful translucency’ of bone china, a material first developed by Josiah Spode in the early 1790s in lieu of access to clay-based porcelain.‘It’s strong, too,’Emily enthuses. ‘One of my party tricks is to stand on a teacup turned upside down to prove it won’t break.’
In 2011, Emily founded 1882 Ltd and a year later she debuted during London Design Festival with Max Lamb’s Crockery jugs, mugs and bowls, modelled from the designer’s own chunky, organic shapes hand-carved in plaster.
Innovation has always been core: the shape and texture of Philippe Malouin’s Dunes plates and bowls modelled on 3D-modelled piles of sugar; John Pawson’s Cast bowl – ‘a feat of engineering because the support helping it hold its shape while firing was as complicated to make as the bowl itself,’ says Emily.
She has created collections with furniture designers Pinch and Faye Toogood, artists Bruce McLean, Barnaby Barford and Grayson Perry, and fashion design duo Peter Pilotto, whose painterly, swirly floral plates are inspired by one of their fabric designs.
At this year’s Salone del Mobile, she launched Stack with fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, a limited- edition collection of vases that ‘play a visual trick with a stack of plates turned into a vessel’, she enthuses.‘The first one we made looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa but miraculously it readjusted itself in the kiln.’
During September’s London Design Festival, Emily added new pieces to Lustre, the 22-carat gold and black reinterpretation of designer Bethan Gray’s Dhow pattern, and debuted hand-painted pieces by Martyn Thompson, a former fashion and interiors photographer turned designer, at a pop-up held in Jo Malone London’s townhouse HQ.
She has also created the vessels for Martyn’s candles and fragrance diffusers with the brand, due out in April.
See more collections from Bethan Gray.
With no two collections the same – each piece is largely handmade so even a simple mug goes through at least 11 sets of hands during production – 1882 Ltd’s aesthetic brings an imaginative edge to ‘everyday pieces, made well’, says Emily.
It will continue to champion the skills of Stoke’s talented craftspeople for generations to come. ‘To me, Stoke stands for the best heritage industrial craft skills in the country, if not the world.’
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