Interview: Pots of Style with Emma Bridgewater
Starting with a Covent Garden pottery stall 30 years ago, Emma Bridgewater’s eponymous homeware brand is now known and loved the world over. Ahead of her appearance at Bury’s MENTA Business Show, Emma shares her story with Alice Ryan
Remind us how and when the Emma Bridgewater brand began. You’d been hunting for the perfect cup and saucer to give to your mum, hadn’t you?
When I set out to make my first cup and saucer, now 30 years ago, it was against the backdrop of a low point in the potteries. The industry in Staffordshire had been chasing after the last shreds of the formal dinnerware business; dinner services for weddings to last you a lifetime and sets of harlequin coffee cups on one side, and everyday wares filled the shelves offering a cheap and cheerful counterpoint at the other end of the scale.
I knew that neither of these had any relevance in the relaxed multi-coloured chaos of my mother’s kitchen. I also knew that everyone, friends and family alike, loved this room and felt good in its disorderly embrace. As I had recently left university and was working out what to do with my life, the need for the present and for something to do coalesced and I started working from the very beginning within the traditional pottery industry to try to fill that gap in the market.
Your business is credited with reinvigorating Staffordshire’s pottery industry. How does it feel to have picked up that baton? We read that your factory is modelled on Josiah Wedgewood’s?
I am extremely proud of employing more than 300 people in Stoke-On-Trent, and bringing an old Victorian factory back to life - the building dates from 1883, and was built for the Meakin Brothers pottery. Our staff is a mix of experienced factory workers, as well as younger people that are part of a training scheme to learn about manufacturing. I think supporting British manufacturing and preserving traditional skills and techniques is extremely important.
Your brand has a huge fan following. What’s made it such a hit, do you think?
I hope people associate the business with comfort and warmth. We have an incredibly loyal and engaged family of customers. Over the years we have met thousands and talked about what it is they like best in the Emma Bridgewater range. Our business is about them, it’s about their kitchens and their lives. It’s rather terrifying to say but there are plenty of customers who have had my designs around them all their lives, what a responsibility. . . a bit scary to think how long I’ve been at this!
Of all your designs, is there a perennial customer favourite? And - we’re guessing this is an impossible choice! - do you have a personal favourite?
Our Toast & Marmalade pattern has turned into a true Emma Bridgewater classic. Inspired by a plate designed by Sylvia Pankhurst bearing the slogan ‘Votes for Women’ in bold black, the collection has had many iterations but the black letters on cream pottery is here to stay, and has expanded into tea towels, tin, shopping bags, cutlery and more.
The Polka Dot half-pint mug is our best-seller year on year. Polka Dot launched in 2002 and quickly became a classic. Polka Dot is a lovely, cheerful sponge pattern that works beautifully as a gift for anyone – it looks great in personalised too. The bright pops of colour insert some fun into the everyday cup of coffee or tea. They look a bit like smarties too, which I love.
My favourite pattern is constantly changing, but I have to say at the moment I tend to reach for our Sprouts mugs from our Vegetable Garden range. New for this autumn/winter, this mug covered in sprouts makes you smile and make your cup of tea just a bit more cheerful.
You release new designs every season: where do your ideas come from? Tell us what’s new for autumn/winter.
My energy for designing comes mainly from traveling: I do quite a lot of it and I think it stirs me up creatively. Being in a foreign environment has a galvanizing effect.
Our design team and I also tend to draw with direct reference to the garden and our home lives. I’m always thinking about the feeling of a really welcoming, cosy kitchen like those of my childhood.
Our hugely popular Tomatoes pasta bowls was directly inspired by the heaps of tomatoes we get from our garden each summer. And our Cities of Dreams collection features some of our favourite places to visit such as Florence, Amsterdam and Cambridge, in fact – they are very popular!
Did you always want to be a designer? If you could do another job for a day, what would you choose?
If I wasn’t a designer, I would work in a Parisian bakery. It would be so exciting to really understand the mysteries of patisserie and bread-making.
If you could give one piece to your young self, back when you were starting out, what would it be?
I suppose not to listen to advice too much; if I had listened to any of the sensible people I would have abandoned plans early on. However, if I was feeling strict, I would say make sure people want, really want, what you have to sell and listen to your customers.
Do you have any ambitions for the Emma Bridgewater brand yet to achieve?
It has been very exciting and rewarding to go beyond pottery and work with other British brands I admire. This year, we have worked with Russell Hobbs to create two collections of kettles and toasters, and Barbour for a lovely range of clothing and accessories for autumn. We also have an ongoing partnership with Chilly’s bottles, which we haven’t been able to keep in stock. I hope we can continue to work with lovely brands to create exciting products.
* For more information visit emmabridgewater.co.uk
A chance to network with more than 70 businesses exhibiting goods and services, plus take part in a varied programme of business seminars, MENTA Business Show 2019 will be held at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday, October 1, 9am-4.30pm. Tickets to hear headliner Emma Bridgewater speak, at 10am in the main auditorium, are £5. Sponsored by Atkins Thomson Solicitors and supported by Invest in Suffolk, both the exhibition and other seminar sessions are free, though seminar places should be reserved. For all the information and to book, go to menta.org.uk/business-show-2019
A multi-award-winning not-for-profit, MENTA provide business advice, business skills training, bespoke business courses and networking opportunities. Since 1984, it has helped more than 35,000 entrepreneurs launch and run thriving and profitable businesses. Say the team: “Our mission is to support people to start and grow their businesses, encourage expansion, growth and employment, to ensure the continued thriving prosperity of East Anglia.” For more details, see menta.org.uk
More by this authorAlice Ryan