You’ve all seen it. Cream cookware with black delicate writing around the rim: Sugar, Tea Coffee, Porridge, Marmalade. Pink hearts dot her teapots, blue stars decorate her plates, polka dots splash her mugs, and birds fly all over her biscuit tins. Your mum wears one of her aprons. Your little sister has the pencil case, and you’ve got a personalised mug.
Emma Bridgewater walks over with a warm smile and orders a cappuccino, before we plunge into an effortless conversation about books before focusing on the interview. Earnest, direct and eager to chat, her mannerisms are that of an affable professional, so there is no surprise that she set up her own pottery business after leaving university.
“The five years after you graduate is the most significant time of your life. You haven’t got time to stall on things,” she warns me. “You’ve got to make something happen. I was always sure I wanted to have lots of children, so I needed to get something done; I was actively looking for an idea for a business.”
That idea came to her whilst shopping for a present for her mum. Disappointed by the copious shelves of fine bone china, she realised there was a real gap in the market. “Mum’s kitchen was a big cosy mess that everyone wanted to be in,” she recalls fondly. “I come from a big family, and I was always bringing lots of friends back from school, so it was a friendly, noisy, hospitable place. That was the spirit of it; I could see the pottery that didn’t exist in the shop.”
With that epiphany, Emma got the name of a model maker, got off the train at Stoke to meet him and walked into a whole new life. “That was it,” she says simply. “I had never made a pot in my life! I was totally drawn to the industrial tradition. I read English at university, and I come from a creative family, so I approached the thing in a project way. I could just about draw what I wanted, and I went in search of a manufacturer.”
Emma remembers being completely unprepared for what she found in Stoke. A city in post-industrial decline, she says it was “a big unmanaged scandal” where the working class had been abandoned. “Making something nice there was something I vowed I would do the first time I went there.”
“People should be making things here,” she continues. “We shouldn’t make commodity products like teapots on the other side of the world. When you buy a cheap plate in Ikea, someone else is paying the fifteen pound difference. When you buy it from us you’re paying the real cost, the living wage, you’re paying for us to conform with all the developed legislation which is rightly in place to protect the environment and the workers. Shopping should be the most political thing you do”.
Emma’s business was launched in 1985, and she now has a factory, warehouse, office, shops and studios that together employ two hundred people. Each product is hand painted and handled over 100 times. “It’s important that it has integrity,” Emma explains. “It’s made in a traditional way with a lot of intensive manual handling. There’s a team, with a series of processes, and things get passed down the line, but there are no conveyer belts – they’re a way of speeding people up, and we try and do all that by hand. I’m quite happy for people to chat while they’re working.”
Whilst it is named after her, Emma’s business is jointly run by her husband Matthew. I ask if they find themselves discussing the company too much, and she smiles with a yes. “The children get immensely bored and cross!” she laughs, referring to their four children. “But it’s good, because then you make strenuous efforts to go and see a play, or go to dinner and talk about something different.”
She refers frequently to her father’s publishing business. “My dad sold his business, and when I started that’s what I thought I was going to do. But it dawned on me, with my name over the door and with the passionate involvement that my husband and I both feel about Stoke, we’re much more interested in handing it over to one of the kids.”
She tells me about all the benefits of family run businesses, and the loss of them in British culture, before saying that whilst her children are involved in her business, she doesn’t expect them to take over. “I want them to do their own thing and find their own strengths and skills,” she clarifies.
Her favourite design is the blue Great Britain pattern. “It looks abstract, but the blobs are the British Isles.” She tells me they have a lot of designs coming up for the jubilee, and what she calls ‘the London carry on’. “I can’t be bothered to say the O word!” she jokes. “I think it’ll be a really interesting summer. The effect of the Royal Wedding on national morale and trade – particularly pottery – was incredibly positive.”
When I ask what sparks her ideas for designs, she replies honestly, “It’s to do with intensity of feeling. When you’re digging to find out what matters, the best thing to do is have an intense experience. Our best family holiday has been driving across America, and from that you have brilliant ideas. It’s just to do with thinking, I really want to do something lovely.”
She mentions the illuminated manuscripts currently on show at the British Library. “It’s not that you then do medieval calligraphy, it just makes you want to do something that’s one tiny particle as wonderful,” she decides. “Pottery lasts forever, potentially.” She is animated, inspired, talking about finding shards of pottery at Port Meadow or on the beach – her love of the craft is clear: she truly believes in her products.
After almost an hour of easy talking, I ask her what she plans to do next. “We are short on textiles. We’ve just done some bed linen which has been really good fun. We have deep expertise in terms of developing pottery, but I want to build a studio with a variety of specialisations, one that is particularly good with textiles.”
She really is an inspiring and practical woman. I leave the café thinking it really is possible to just head out there, find a design I love, a place I’m interested in, and make it happen. It seems a little rose-tinted, but it worked for Emma, and she really deserves it – passionate and articulate, you can tell she’s worked hard for her success. And one thing’s for sure; I’ll never shop in Ikea again.