It’s a chilly January morning in Stoke-on-Trent, and British designer Paul Smith is standing in front of a kiln, learning first-hand why clay has a reputation for recalcitrance. ‘The element has blown in the firing and it’s crystallised the colours,’ explains Keith Dawson (known in the industry as Keith the Master Potter), pointing to a frosted effect on the surface of the glaze. Smith greets the news with a chuckle, charmed by the unplanned nature of the event. ‘That’s the reality of craft, and of doing things honestly,’ he concludes happily. ‘It’s just what happens sometimes.’

The designer is in the heartland of British ceramics to see prototypes of ‘Stack’, a series of vases made in partnership with 1882 Ltd. And detecting joy in the unexpected chimes with the spirit of the series. Each vessel functions as a trompe l’oeil, appearing at first glance as a pile of dishes, only to reveal, on closer inspection, a cavity inside. ‘The idea for the design came from observing a loaded kiln, with plates stacked on top of each other,’ explains Smith. ‘We loved that it looked like stripes.’ The result is a group of vases edged with a sense of delight, paying tribute to both the label’s hallmark playfulness and its unmistakable stripe.

Stacked plates, inspiration for the ’Stack’ vases by Paul Smith and 1882 Ltd
Plates stacked in a loaded kiln, a sight that inspired the shape of the ‘Stack’ vases

The collaboration debuts at Milan Design Week this April, announcing a broader partnership between the two British brands, including a more extensive collection of tableware and objects planned for September. ‘Paul has this wonderfully wayward, subversive mind,’ says 1882 Ltd’s co-founder Emily Johnson. ‘It’s what makes him a design icon. We’re thrilled to be working with him.’

Like Smith, Johnson is no stranger to doing things differently. Although a fifth-generation member of the renowned Johnson Brothers tableware dynasty, her route to ceramics proved winding. She spent time in Los Angeles working in advertising before studying design in London, where, spotting a gap for design-led, British-made ceramics, she decided to return to her home town of Stoke-on-Trent and haul her father – Christopher Johnson, Wedgwood’s former head of production – out of retirement. The pair formed 1882 Ltd in 2011, launching with the Crockery collection designed by Max Lamb. The brand has since singled itself out as Britain’s most progressive producer of ceramics, working with expert makers dotted around Stoke-on-Trent on designs by the likes of Faye Toogood, John Pawson and Snarkitecture, as well as making ceramics at scale for brands like Jo Malone.

’Stack’ vases by Paul Smith and 1882 Ltd
Each vase is made of a real stack of coloured plates, cut out at the centre and fried together to fuse them perfectly

As with previous collaborations, the partnership with Paul Smith aims to show off what Stoke-on-Trent can do. Each vase is unique, and the sum of a complex making process: each plate is fired individually before a water jet is used to cut out its centre. The plates are then hand-sprayed with one of 40 specially developed glazes (in Paul Smith’s signature ‘Multi-Stripe’ palette), fired a second time, and then carefully stacked to ensure the vase won’t lean or leak. The whole structure is fired a final time in order to fuse it together, before a burnished gold top is added.

‘The margin for error is enormous,’ says Johnson. ‘But if you think like that, you’d never do anything. The point of impossible projects is to show off the skill that exists here.’ As far as Smith is concerned, the ambition has paid off. ‘What they’ve achieved is magnificent,’ he says, admiringly. ‘The world can feel very homogeneous and mass-produced. Thank God for places like this.’ §

As originally featured in the May 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*242)