Old pots, new tricks

In the first of a series, Dominic Lutyens looks at the way Wedgwood has brought its Jasperware into the 21st century
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Certain time-honoured brands are inextricably linked in our minds with jowly dowagers, beshawled grandmothers or Hyacinth Buckett types: Wedgwood, Waterford, Dartington, to name a few. The knick-knacks they produce are often so nightmarishly ornamental or plain fuddy-duddy that most of us ignore them in department stores. Yet many hide-bound brands are rushing to embrace a more pared-down 21st-century aesthetic in an effort to woo a younger market. Increasingly, they're commissioning work by contemporary designers to update their image.

According to Karen Turner, director of business development at the Crafts Council, the impetus for this is coming, too, from "fashion designers and department stores launching home ranges in response to the current boom in lifestyle retailing". Turner welcomes the phenomenon in general: "More companies like Wedgwood should recognise the value young designers can bring to their business."

Eager to be identified with more than just its signature, powder-blue Jasperware, Wedgwood recently commissioned product-developer Nick Munro to expand its range. Thanks to him, the company now sells such unexpected products as wine-coolers, and even dog bowls.

German company Nymphenburg - renowned for its fussy figurines - has called on industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, ceramicist Bodo Sperlein and jewellery designer Ted Muehling to reinterpret the brand. London gallery Vessel will show these designers' reinterpretations in September. "The show will forgo the usual constraints of a department store," says co-owner Nadia Ladas.

Waterford - purveyor of baroque crystal - has hired fashion designer John Rocha to dream up some hip designs to counter its reputation for all things rococo. The result is more clean-cut than cut-glass. Similarly, Dartington Glass (think frumpy wedding-list fare) has enlisted architect and designer Nigel Coates to reinterpret the brand.

W Lusty & Sons Ltd - maker of Lloyd Loom furniture - is almost vampirical in its intake of fresh blood: so far, it has commissioned designs by Matthew Hilton, Jane Dillon, Ron Arad, Maiko Tsutsumi and Gitta Geschwendtner (creator of an eccentric furry chaise-longue).

So, while great-aunt Gertrude's present of a porcelain pomander will always end up in the bottom drawer, a 21st-century gift by Wedgwood, or even Nymphenburg, is far less likely to meet that sorry fate.

Case history 1: Wedgwood Wedgwood was once synonymous with pale blue trinket trays destined for the blue-rinse brigade. That is, until Nick Munro adapted its Jasperware for modern living. Influenced primarily by Thirties potter Keith Murray - who worked for Wedgwood - Munro has designed a wine-cooler, ice-bucket, lemon-squeezer, pestle and mortar, vases, salt and pepper grinders and pet bowls. His brief? "I had to use jasper [a fine vitrified stoneware] and address the fact that the number of people buying the blue and white stuff was tailing off - all right, dying off."

According to Wedgwood's marketing director, Samantha Jeffrey, Munro - a designer whose wares are sold in concessions at Harvey Nichols and Liberty - was taken on because "he's seen as a successful product developer. Although we asked him to reinvent our historically iconographic Jasperware, all Nick's designs make a link with the past. He's really looked at the company archives." Munro has indeed done that, without, he insists, compromising his modernising mission. He was inspired, above all, by the experimental approach of Josiah Wedgwood, who founded the company in 1775 and who was as given to creating fashionable ceramics as any young-blood ceramicist is today.

Jasperware was inspired by the late 18th-century fad for neo-classicism, made fashionable by people returning from the Grand Tour. Wedgwood designed a range inspired by Egypt - when exploring it was all the rage. "In view of this, it struck me as ironic that Wedgwood, the brand, is considered so staid," says Munro. Some, however, have criticised Munro for not breaking bravely enough with tradition. But, like many trad firms seeking to reinvent themselves, Wedgwood is caught between two stools: by introducing radically contemporary designs, it risks alienating its loyal following. But if it doesn't move with the times, it may fall by the wayside - along with its blue-rinse fan base. Watch this space.