The interview does not begin well. My iPhone battery is low, so I use my landline, usually strictly reserved for friends and family. When I call her, she doesn’t pick up, but calls me straight back, just as I am at the door signing for a delivery. ‘HEY, HOW YA DOIN’? SORRY YOU CAN’T GET THROUGH. PLEASE LEAVE YOUR NAME, AND YOUR NUMBER, THEN ELLIE AND ROB WILL GET BACK TO YOU…’
Our De La Soul answer phone ‘rap’ echoes through the house. And Emma Bridgewater is listening to it. CRINGE, as they say.
Luckily, after the tone, I hear a chuckle and am relieved to discover that she has a great sense of humour. Or perhaps she is laughing at, not with. Anyway. After the apologies, and the interview, I ask her what the secret of her success is. Her business is now worth £14 million and her early pottery designs are highly collectable, fetching huge sums at auction. Does she ever peep at her own work on eBay?
‘Oh, God, yes!’ she confesses. ‘I’m only human. It’s so exciting and I’m immensely flattered that people collect the early stuff, but it’s not that surprising to me, because we do something of which there is not an awful lot left. We design and make in the UK.’
Emma despairs of the mass-produced homewares that fill the shelves of British high street shops today. ‘When you look at our products in the shops – they look very different from everything else there, because the way most things are designed now is by a highly-evolved buying team. They put together a moodboard of things they want their products to look a bit like. They flick through the mags and Google images – come up with some asinine ideas such as: ‘let’s go for a Chinese look’, or ‘let’s do blue’, then they take it off to a factory somewhere abroad where somebody – who has no connection to their customers – comes up with some stuff for them. And so, surprise, surprise, our products have a different effect on people.’
Emma is quick to point out that not all homewares that are made abroad are essentially bad. ‘The collections are often very beautifully thought through and the store buyers can be very rigorous about what they buy and all that. But they’ve absolutely ironed out the personal – all the idiosyncrasies.’
It’s the tableware offering that worries Emma the most. ‘When I go around the china departments in big shops now, I think to myself that it’s sad and curious we don’t have that rich diversity of Staffordshire tableware that we’ve had for 200 years.’ She’s right. Even blue and white Cornishware – so traditionally British – is actually ‘Made-In-China-ware’ these days. ‘There are discussions about bringing production back to the UK in the future,’ assures the PR. But still, of course, it’s much cheaper not to.
Just as Emma arrived in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1980s, she tells me, most of the other potteries were ‘chucking in the dish cloth’. Today, she is drawn to 1960s pottery that, when she was younger, she thought she’d never like. ‘We’re talking the soapware stuff,’ she says. ‘Marvellously crazy 1960s shapes, decorated with bright turquoise patterns and sunflowers and so on – I used to hate things like that but now, I love them so much.’ Why the change of heart? ‘They have a kind of charm. Largely because they represent a phenomenon that has gone. This country made tableware for the world – in loads and loads of independent factories. But, sadly, it’s almost all stopped. Bang.’