The rise and fall and rise again of Wedgwood and how it's reinventing pottery

Laura Ivill
Lee Broom’s Vase on Blue Rectangle, £7000

Some child actors go off the rails, some become stars, and a rare few, such as Lee Broom, Wedgwood’s new collaborator, become luminaries in an alternative firmament.

We know him these days as the wunderkind interior and product designer with showrooms in Shoreditch and New York’s SoHo, as British Designer of the Year, recipient of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, and as a collaborator with Boffi, The Savoy and Liberty.

But as a teenager Broom was working in television and with the Royal Shakespeare Company. “Theatre training instils a sense of drive and ambition,” he says. “If you don’t have that outlook then you’re not going anywhere. It’s an athlete’s mindset, and that suits the business world.”

It’s an attitude that suits his most recent collaborative partner, the venerable potters Wedgwood. If in Broom’s 41 years he seems never to have put a foot wrong (he won a fashion award at 17 and was interned with Vivienne Westwood), the much-longer track record of Wedgwood is somewhat more uneven in its 250-year-old history. Yet there’s a newfound drive and injection of ambition that’s making waves within the company.

This is the story of the rise and fall and rise again of one of our most celebrated heritage brands. With some careful handling, Wedgwood came back from the brink of disaster after the 2008 crash. It is stronger, better managed, clearer of focus and creatively bullish.

Yet it retains the integrity, authenticity and craftsmanship of the brand’s Staffordshire Potteries’ roots. The meeting of minds that has brought Lee Broom and Wedgwood together has resulted in a collection of four eye-popping pots’n’vases in limited editions of 15. They launch this month.

“We are working in an accelerated mode,” says Ulrik Garde Due, the principal of Fiskars’ Living division, which owns Wedgwood. He took the helm just over a year ago and has put pedal to the metal, leading Wedgwood to new partnerships. Next month, to coincide with Chelsea Flower Show, a collaboration between Wedgwood and the Royal Horticultural Society will launch a pop-up Tea Conservatory at Sloane Square department store Peter Jones. On display will be a new collection of Wedgwood fine bone china called Wonderlust.

Over at RHS Chatsworth, Sam Ovens is creating the first Wedgwood garden, and Lady Laura Burlington is launching the Wedgwood Burlington Pot, a contemporary twist on the traditional blue-and-white Jasperware. In addition, long-standing collaborators Jasper Conran and Vera Wang both add to their well-established Wedgwood collections.

This unbridled enthusiasm is something that founder Josiah Wedgwood would have recognised. Born in 1730, he was an entrepreneur and businessman, and a talented visionary in an age when Britain was rapidly modernising. Aged 29 he set up his own pottery in Burslem, Staffordshire, and quickly became Britain’s most successful ceramics pioneer, while developing a reputation for experimenting with new techniques.

Among his most successful creations was a groundbreaking new kind of cream-coloured earthenware. Creamware, as it came to be known, quickly drew the attention of Queen Charlotte of England, who requested a tea and coffee service entirely using this new ceramic style. Wedgwood could now call himself Potter to her Majesty and opened a London showroom. The world was smitten.

At a time when other industrialists were getting rich on slave labour, Josiah helped to establish the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He was a member of the Royal Society and moved in influential circles, and there can be no more idealised picture of gentility than the artist George Stubbs’ portrait of Josiah’s family at leisure on his estate. When the late 18th century experienced a blossoming passion for plants and gardens, it was Wedgwood who fulfilled the growing demand for garden pots and indoor planters.

When Josiah died in 1795, his second son Josiah II became proprietor, and his eldest son John Wedgwood rejoined the firm as a partner in 1800. John had an extensive interest in botany and horticulture, and founded the Royal Horticultural Society in 1804, hence the 2017 collaboration between Wedgwood and the RHS.

Potters making Lee Broom for Wedgwood products

The partnership’s 21st-century message of “celebrating nature, championing sustainability and creating healthier and happier communities” could easily have come from the pages of a 19th century manifesto. And the reunion is, Wedgwood hopes, a key step in growing the brand from “a British cultural icon of fine bone china into a premium British lifestyle brand”.

Descendants of the Wedgwood clan ran the firm until the 1960s with greater or lesser success, until, in 1987, Waterford Crystal bought Wedgwood. Yet financial stormclouds were gathering for the Irish owners and in 2009 the business went bust.

The 3,000 treasures of the Wedgwood Museum were to be sold off, but thanks to a vigorous fundraising campaign, the collection was saved by the Art Fund and given to the V&A. To the joy of Stoke, the collection has been loaned back to the Wedgwood Museum.

In 2009, Waterford Wedgwood was snapped up by the New York-based private equity firm KPS Capital Partners, along with Royal Doulton, Royal Albert and Rogaska to form the group WWRD. KPS invested £34m in integrating the museum into a new visitor experience, World of Wedgwood, on the 240 acre estate, with its hands-on 360-degree exploration of ceramics and British industrial society.

In 2015, WWRD found possibly the ideal surrogate family in Fiskars. The Finnish group of companies has an even longer pedigree than Wedgwood. It was founded in 1649 as an ironworks, one of the oldest businesses in the western world, producing cutlery, scissors, steam engines and agricultural equipment.

It now also owns Iittala kitchenware, Leborgne garden tools, and Royal Copenhagen porcelain, as well as Gerber knives and tools. In 2015 its cash sum of $437m bought WWRD. The same year Fiskars group recorded net sales of €1.105m.

“KPS cleaned up a lot from a factory supply chain point of view,” says Garde Due. “We now need to make sure that Wedgwood becomes relevant again to the target audience at a global scale. Wonderlust, for example, is a global launch.”

Garde Due is a specialist in reviving and rejuvenating heritage brands, having worked with Celine and Burberry. During his first year Fiskars put a new management team in place and restructured across the group, so that each of the individual brands share many of the same support departments – finance, IT, supply chain – as a backbone of the business. “A plug-and-play platform that each of the brands can use.”

Authenticity is important to Garde Due. The public can still visit the English potteries on the Wedgwood estate in Stoke, meet the team and even have a go at the wheel with a lump of Jasperware clay. By rooting the brand here in this heritage-steeped environment, Garde Due wants the team to live and breathe Wedgwood. “In the new structure we’re centralising the brand management here in Stoke-on-Trent,” he says.

But with a global launch such as Wonderlust, not all products are made in the UK. On this important point, how will the consumer know the difference? “In most cases we stamp the products that we make here with ‘Made in England’,” he says.

If Wonderlust is aimed at reintroducing the global consumer to Wedgwood’s finery, colour, pattern and on-trend love of plants and nature, the simultaneous Lee Broom collaboration marks its return to top-drawer collectors’ pieces. Only 60 have been made, costing from £7,500, which is astute marketing. It’s not hard to imagine a collector buying the set of four.

“The way [Broom] connected with our craftspeople in Stoke really said it all,” Garde Due says. “He has such a respect for the craftsmanship and was so intrigued, especially about the Jasperware. I like him being very English and respecting the British DNA, but he also works out of New York, so he has an international perspective.

“These initiatives are happening very organically, which is why I believe in their success,” he continues. “You can’t fool the consumer. Things have to be authentic. And this is more than a trend, the urge to find peace in this too-busy world, to connect with yourself and your environment, which I see in my own children, of 19 and 22. The same goes for your interior environment, the need for cocooning and feeling comfortable at home.”

Wedgwood by Lee Broom limited-edition collection, from £7,500 at Harrods; The three-week pop-up Wedgwood Tea Conservatory is at Peter Jones, from 23 May;

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