Susie Cooper - The pottery designer who changed the look of Wedgwood and whose work is even more valuable today. Find out about her early career, her first business and why she's become known as an icon of design...
Susie Cooper was born in the Stanfields area of Stoke-on-Trent on 29th October 1902. As one of seven children, Susie was born into a family with business and property interests, including a farm.
During her childhood, the farm gave her plenty of inspiration from the natural world, which she channeled into her favourite pastime - drawing.
This gave Susie a keen eye for detail. Susie’s upbringing and her family background gave her an understanding of how business worked, and this would prove very useful to her later in life when she set up her own company.
Burslem School of Art
In 1919, Susie enrolled at the Burslem School of Art. There, she initially studied typing but quickly transferred to a subject she truly loved - drawing classes. After a year, and because of the quality of her work, Susie was offered a scholarship on a full-time basis in September 1920.
It was at the start of the course that Susie met Gordon Forsyth, the superintendent for art in Stoke-on-Trent, who had recently been appointed to the position. Forsyth was to be a great influence on the young Susie Cooper.
At the end of the course, Susie applied for a place at the Royal College of Art but was turned down reportedly because she had no industrial experience. On the advice of Forsyth, she took up a place in industry at Grey & Co., which was a pottery company in Burslem.
Her work at Gray's was one of a paintress, this essentially meant she was paid for amount of ceramic pieces she had decorated by the end of the day. Her role was hard work and she was unhappy that her creative abilities were not being used to the full.
Earthenware Coffee cup & saucer, c. 1928
Eventually, she approached the managing director, Edward Grey, with a view to becoming more involved with the design process. Her move was timely and she was appointed as assistant to the then designer, Miss Samuels. After few weeks, however, Miss Samuels left Gray's and Susie was elevated to designer.
It was at Gray's where Susie first introduced her geometric and banded pattern designs that were a hallmark art deco design throughout the 1920s. She worked at Gray's for eight years.
Her first company
In 1929, she set up her own company to satisfy her desire to explore her own ideas regarding ceramic design. Initially, problems with the supply of whiteware (undecorated pottery), led to a merger in 1932 with Wood & Sons. This partnership provided Susie with the whiteware of the quality she wanted.
By the late 30s, Susie’s company so so successful that it was supplying famous London stores like Harrods, Peter Jones, Selfridges, Heals and Waring & Gillow. Not only was her tableware cost effect but it was modern, functional and used innovative, experimental design.
Susie utilised a range of techniques to bring her ideas to life, including new ways of applying patterns to the whiteware. She also maximised her staff’s potential, often assigning tasks that people could do to their best abilities. This approach ensured her business was highly successful.
Susie gets married and war comes
In 1938, Susie married architect Cecil Barker. Their home was at The Parsonage, Dilhorne which is just outside Stoke-on-Trent. Susie was honoured with the Royal Society of Arts Designer for Industry Award in 1940 – she was the first woman to receive the award, and the only one from the Potteries to have been honoured in such a way.
Teapot, Susie Cooper China Ltd, 1956
The second world war proved to be an obstacle to the production of Susie’s wares, as natural demands on both resources and labour as well as a fire in 1942 conspired to close her factory. However, things were not all gloomy as Susie’s only son, Tim, was born in 1943.
In 1945, Susie reopened the Crown Works (her factory), but supplies of natural resource were still difficult to obtain in the post-war years. Nevertheless, Susie began producing some her most popular designs from before the war – Patricia Rose and Dresden Spray.
Susie recognised the lack of resources, and turn to more innovative production methods such as aerographed techniques (air spraying coloured glazes onto ware). She used nature as a design source, and ‘The Tree of Life’ was one of her personal favourites.
1950s and 1960s
The 50s and 60s saw Susie Cooper go from strength to strength, always as experimental as ever. She designed her ware to suit the changing fashions of the decades, ensuring her pottery always had both relevant style and appeal. Fine china took centre stage from the 1950s with her acquisition of the Jason China Company Ltd., which then became known as Susie Cooper China Ltd. Her aim was to turn the china produced into a more prestigious brand of ware with style and quality.
However, another fire in 1957 at the Crown Works. Susie described the fire as ‘dreadful’ and it put the production of pottery out for a year. This disaster led Susie to work hard to rebuild her production, merging with R.H and S.L Plant to form The Tuscan Holdings Group – their aim was to produce quality china dinnerware as well as tea and coffee ware.
During this time, Susie was responsible for introducing the ‘can shape’ design of cup, which is still used by pottery firms today.
Susie and Wedgwood
Circumstances in 1966 led to an approach from Wedgwood to take over The Tuscan Holdings Group, which was accepted. Though Susie would have probably preferred independence, she felt the involvement of a strong company would only be a benefit to her continued work. Sir Arthur Bryan, the managing director of Wedgwood at the time, commented that Susie was seen as very much the bonus in the deal. The partnership lasted until 1972 and resulted in popular designs such as Corn Poppy.
After her husband died in 1972, Susie resigned her directorship of Wedgwood but continued working for them as a designer. The changing nature of the pottery industry throughout the second half of the twentieth century led to inevitable restructuring, and her beloved Crown Works was closed in 1980. Susie was very upset and angry at this, as the factory had been the creative centre of Susie’s life for over fifty years.
In 1982, she left the Potteries to live on the Isle of Man. There, she continued to work on a variety of projects including the restoration of her Victorian house as well as some textile work. Susie received an honoury doctorate by the Royal College of Art and was also awarded the Order of the British Empire – this she received from Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who was a keen admirer of her work.
Susie died on 28th July 1995, and her legacy to the world of pottery was immense. She was known as an icon of design, and her work has endured over the years to become some of the most sought after ware in the modern era. Susie was, above all, a true example of determination and creative talent – the Potteries should be very proud to have Susie as one of it’s daughters.
What do you think about Staffordshire's heroes and heroines?
If you've got something to say about any local heroes, check out our message board by clicking on the link below.
last updated: 26/07/2008 at 14:07