Formed in 2011 by Emily Johnson with her father Christopher, the design-led ceramics brand 1882 Ltd takes its name from the year that four of their ancestors (Alfred, Frederick, Henry and Robert) formed the pottery firm Johnson Brothers in Stoke-on-Trent. (‘Long heritage, short history!’ remarks Emily)
Johnson Brothers was acquired by the Wedgwood Group in 1968, and manufacture ceased in the UK in 2003. Despite Christopher being made Head of Production at Wedgewood, there was always a sense of what might have been. That is, until his daughter returned from America, where she had been working in advertising, with a bright idea to revive the family business…
‘To be honest, Dad said, “You’re absolutely bonkers!”. By that stage the industry had taken a complete nosedive. Wedgewood had gone into bankruptcy, Stoke-on-Trent was incredibly depressed – the writing was on the wall. But Emily’s idea – to champion innovatively designed ceramic products that showcased the manufacturing expertise of Stoke-on-Trent – proved a winning one. As did the father-and daughter combination, combining Christopher’s production expertise with Emily’s nose for marketing.
Now approaching their tenth anniversary, 1882 Ltd can be credited with giving the British ceramics industry – let alone the Johnson family business, a much needed re-boot. ‘The skill set is there,’ says Emily. ‘It’s about trying to show what that skill set can do. That’s the joy of working with designers who don’t have a background in ceramics; it means they come to each collection with such an incredibly innovative new way of working – a new set of eyes.’
‘That is absolutely true,’ agrees Christopher. ‘And that is where it has been dramatically interesting. The last thing you want is a designer who doesn’t want to do anything different and who is aware of – or is guided by – the restrictions.’
As a case in point: in 2015, 1882 Ltd worked with the artist Barnaby Barford to produce Tower of Babel – a six-metre sculpture consisting of 3,000 individual miniature bone china buildings, each representing a real London shop, installed at the V&A as part of the London Design Festival.
‘That was a really special project,’ says Emily. ‘We got everyone involved in the project down from Stoke to see it at the V&A. And for them to see members of the public react to it – it was awesome!’
Asked if Emily’s approach throws up production challenges for him, Christopher’s answer is an uproarious, hacking laugh. ‘In abundance! But it’s been a fascinating ride and I thoroughly enjoy the challenges,’ he says. ‘It’s a wonderful advert for Stoke. It’s rejuvenating for these potters. Undoubtedly they find it a challenge, but I think they recognise that unless they are prepared to push themselves – what is the future?’