MY NEW favourite book is ‘Potbank: A social enquiry into Life in the Potteries,’ by Mervyn Jones.
Written in 1961, it is a glancing account of Stoke-on-Trent as it stood at the apex of industrial production. And what it had to say about our ceramics businesses is fascinating.
‘Patterns which date from a century ago, and represent the same kind of taste as Highland cattle pictures and fringed bedspreads, are still in production and still selling,’ Jones comments.
‘As I interviewed one managing director after another, I was struck by the hatred with which they spoke of the “long-haired intellectuals” who were trying to get them to change their ways. Their main enemies, it seemed, were not foreign competitors but the Council of Industrial Design .’
The pottery workers had their own views about the patterns.
‘When a paintress really considered that a design was pretty ghastly and could not imagine anyone she knew buying it, she would say: “The Americans like that kind of thing.”‘
Well, this Friday, Stoke-on-Trent stands ready to welcome in as many designers , artists and “long-haired intellectuals” as possible for the opening of the 2013 British Ceramics Biennial.
If we want to keep our pottery industry competitive, we need to produce things of beauty. And hosting this Biennial is an important sign of the industry’s new confidence.
Because, as Jones suggested, trading off old designs only takes you so far.
To grow into new markets, to grab that elusive élan of fashion and style, and to appeal to a younger clientele, our ceramic companies need always to innovate with styles, designs and product.
And whilst it makes great sense to bring in Vera Wang or Cath Kidston or Sophie Conran to brand a tableware range, how much more exciting to generate inhouse design talent.
This is why companies like the University of Staffordshire’s Flux, or the younger designers down in Longton, are so important to the sector.
It is also essential that the industry ensures it is providing an exciting career path for young people.
As the factories and studios slowly start to put on new jobs again, we have to ensure that young apprentices, designers, and workers all have opportunities in the business.
The very presence of youth – sometimes truculent, often questioning, alternatively iconoclastic and idealistic – is exactly what is needed in design studios and potbanks with an often aged demographic.
Beyond the ceramics industry, just by holding the Biennial – together with our museums, galleries, art schools, and colleges – we are making an important statement for potential investors and talent to come into the city. An exciting urban environment, with artists and entrepreneurs, is an essential prerequisite for long-term regeneration.
If we gain the reputation of a city that cares about its culture, invests in design, and encourages artistic innovation , it helps to promote an attractive vision of a city proud of its past, but focused on the future.
I only hope that Staffordshire University will soon be an even bigger part of that mix by bringing its Stafford campus into Stoke.
A crucial component of building a culture of innovation and risk is by being proudly internationalist.
In its most productive decades, Stoke-on-Trent was a global city with production heading up the Trent & Mersey to send its pots across the Empire and beyond.
The Biennial is a celebration of that cosmopolitanism as it brings together 150 international artists – with a particular Norwegian and Russian focus – to show their wares in the heart of The Potteries.
And it is only right that the China Hall at Spode is hosting the major exhibitions.
This summer’s remarkable auction of Ida Copeland’s 2,500 Spode collection at Trelissick House in Cornwall showed the continuing allure of the design.
But, just as important for Stoke town, the Biennial will show the possible future uses of the Spode estate, now that the supermarket chains are thankfully showing less interest in acquiring the site.
The exhibitions, workshops, catering, and retail is exactly the kind of creative and exciting use of the space we want to see more of.
Mervyn Jones’s account of 1961 Stoke-on-Trent was a snapshot of an industry about to fall off a cliff.
This autumn’s Biennial has to be part of the story of our regeneration as the greatest ceramic city in the world.