Obituaries: Susie Cooper

Susie Cooper was the most influential and important woman in the British pottery industry this century. She worked in the Potteries for 64 years - as designer, innovator and factory owner - and continued to design during her very active retirement.

Cooper's success was achieved because her designs were elegant and, more importantly, practical. They were always at least topical, usually ahead of fashion, leading the way. An outstanding example of practicality is the covered vegetable dish from Kestrel shape dinnerware (1933). The lid nestles well within the rim of the dish and the open handle elongates the base of the lid. When the lid is turned upside-down it becomes a dish itself; two for the price of one. The lid fits inside the base for storage and the dishes are stackable - very useful when space was at a premium in the smaller modern kitchens of the mid-1930s and when flats were becoming more popular.

Cooper was born in 1902. In her childhood, she had a flair for drawing which led to a scholarship at Burslem School of Art. Her intention was to be a textile designer and a condition of attending the Royal College of Art was adequate industrial experience. This experience was offered to her by Albert Edward Gray, proprietor of Gray's Pottery, who had founded a pottery decorating business with the intention of improving the quality of ceramic design.

On joining Gray's in 1922, Cooper realised that the local pottery industry could satisfy her wish to be a designer. She did not go to London, but instead began her long and fruitful career as pottery designer and manufacturer. Within two years of joining Gray's her work was on show at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The pots were hand-painted, in muted lustres of lilac, pink, silver and gold, with mythical beasts or baby cupids in landscapes.

Her first revolution of Gray's design process was to introduce hard-wearing enamel colours for everyday pottery. They had been specialising in lustre decoration, which does not withstand daily use, especially with fruit acids. Imported pottery from Czechoslovakia came to Cooper's attention. She knew that the skilled paintresses of the Potteries could easily imitate the patterns. Before long, Susie Cooper designs were stealing a march on the imports.

By 1929, Cooper was frustrated. She could never conceive a whole pot - the shape plus the surface pattern - because Gray's bought its ware ready-made, wanting only the pattern. On her 27th birthday Cooper set up her own business. She was warned by Edward Gray that she would not succeed and that within three months she would be back, asking for her old job. She proved him wrong and, in spite of several serious difficulties in the early days, Susie Cooper Pottery was a success story.

Surface patterns created by Susie Cooper were always devised with the skills of her employees in mind. She often spoke of her feeling of moral obligation to ensure full and permanent employment for her workforce. She had apparently simple patterns for beginners who were learning control of the "pencil" (the brush in Potteries dialect) and very complex ones for her most talented paintresses. Polka Dot and Exclamation Mark, in blue, green and orange, were two training patterns whilst detailed designs might include banding, sgraffito (when the pattern is made by scratching away the colour) and hand-painting. The colours chosen by Cooper were often in a muted palette, a choice which was carried through into the furnishing of her elegant home.

Susie Cooper's work was highly regarded in its own time. In 1940 she was awarded the coveted accolade Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society of Arts; the only woman and only exclusive pottery designer to be so awarded. In 1979 she was appointed OBE for her "contribution to the maintenance of excellence in industrial ceramic design". A few years ago we were preparing text for an exhibition which I was curating about her work. I indicated that I would include the title RDI. Susie very quietly said, "And the other thing?" She was very proud of her OBE but she never flaunted it.

I met her when she was in her mid-seventies. She was small in stature and gave the appearance of being frail. When she answered the telephone her voice was quiet and perhaps trembly. These outward signs were not the real Susie Cooper. On the contrary, she was made of steel. She always knew what she wanted to achieve. She set out to do it and do it she did. She did not promote herself by speaking to large meetings or attending big shows; instead she worked very hard creating ceramic designs which were practical, elegant and affordable. Her business slogan in the 1930s was "Elegance combined with utility"; artistry associated with commerce and practicality.

Hand-painting was only partly satisfactory for the perfectionist Susie Cooper because it allowed inconsistencies to creep in. No two paintresses would make exactly the same marks on a pot. For example, a left- handed paintress could be liable to make a mirror image of a pattern. To overcome such problems, Cooper strove to improve the lithographic prints which were available to the industry during the 1930s. She worked closely with the Universal Transfer Company to create multi-coloured printed decoration which is impossible to distinguish from hand-painting - an achievement which has benefited the pottery industry to this day.

In the 1950s Cooper began to make bone china, whilst maintaining the production of the 1930s earthenwares. Again her shapes were elegant and ahead of the fashion and the bone china body was potted very thinly, giving a lightness, translucency and whiteness seen only on rare occasions - thinner pots give greater opportunities for damage and consequent loss.

Cooper's Can shape of about 1957 is a design classic, being in constant production for over 30 years. It led the industry from the Festival of Britain/ Contemporary 1950s into the Geometric 1960s. I think that Susie Cooper excelled in her interpretation of this period, especially with the matt enamel colours which she preferred to use. In 1968 on a visit to Carnaby Street she was very animated by all that she saw - the vibrant colours, the stylised flowers, young people having fun. She returned to the Potteries with the idea of creating a special pattern - a coffee set called Carnaby Daisy. On her cylindrical Can shape she used matt black for most of the cup and the saucer, but in a panel by the handle she placed a large stylised daisy in shiny colours - burnt orange, olive green, deep turquoise. That was the secret of Cooper's success: always topical, always excellent design, always well made.

In 1966 the Susie Cooper Pottery joined the growing Wedgwood Group. Her autonomy was maintained until 1980, when her original Crown Works in Burslem was closed. Cooper moved her studio to the William Adams factory in Tunstall.

There is no one to fill the shoes of Susie Cooper. Her contribution is unique. No one's work compares with hers, either for its ground-breaking technical improvements, for its practicality, for its elegance or for its far-sightedness.

Kathy Niblett

Susan Vera Cooper, potter: born Stoke-on-Trent 29 October 1902; RDI 1940; OBE 1979; married 1938 Cecil Barker (died 1972; one son); died Douglas, Isle of Man 28 July 1995.

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