Stoke-on-Trent is so synonymous with ceramics that even the city’s own website declares that it has “respectfully claimed the title of World Capital” for the material.
And since the link between the region and the industry dates back to the creation of Josiah Wedgwood and Sons in 1759, it is natural that Staffordshire University should be an important centre for ceramics education.
It offers a prestigious MA in ceramic design with strong ties to local manufacturers as well as a BA in 3D design: crafts, in which some students go on to specialise in ceramics after an initial foundation year. It also hosts the annual conference of the National Association of Ceramics in Higher Education.
This autumn it has been listed as the first of three sponsors for the British Ceramics Biennial, taking place for the fourth time from 26 September to 8 November. This is now a major event, showcasing leading international designers and cutting-edge creative work while also attempting to promote local businesses, bring in visitors to Stoke and encourage more young people to consider a career in ceramics.
This year’s main exhibition, held at the original Spode factory site, will give 11 artists, selected by a panel of judges, the opportunity “to present new works exemplifying the energy and vitality of the best of British contemporary ceramics practice” in styles “rang[ing] from monumental architectural detail to intricate and intimate contemplative pieces”.
Other shows feature vases inspired by 18th-century porcelain, work engaging with the “diverse cultural communities living in Stoke-on-Trent” and a “multi-media installation bring[ing] together ceramics, sound and public participation to commemorate the soldiers of the North Staffordshire Regiment in the Great War”.
Although the university’s support for the biennial is partly financial, it mainly takes the form of providing office space to the Clay Foundation, the charity that runs the event. Executive pro vice-chancellor Rosy Crehan and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies, Astrid Herhoffer, both have a place on the board of trustees.
So how does this partnership enable Staffordshire University to pursue its corporate and educational goals?
David Sanderson, professor of ceramic design, describes himself as “a design consultant and collaborator with industry”. In 2010, he created a university spin-off company called Flux, which, according to its website, aims to drive "a veritable renaissance of design, craftsmanship and quality manufacturing” in “the traditional heartland of fine bone china since the 18th century”. The firm’s “distinctive, eclectic designs”, many of them involving input from students or recent graduates, hope to “exude a quintessential Englishness which is synonymous with Staffordshire”.
At this year’s biennial, he says, Flux will be exhibiting the results of “a fairly recent collaboration…Last year I was approached by a region of Japan called Arita, one of the centres of porcelain manufacture. They make high-value products in one of the authentic crafts centres of Japan, but they have no market share in Europe and so wanted to collaborate with Flux.”
This led to joint project “based around the principle of fusion, with us looking at ideas inspired by the Japanese market and vice versa. Students who enrolled last September were given a task to design products specifically for sushi and pouring vessels for sake. We will be exhibiting the best of that. We will also have some ideas on porcelain from Japan displayed within our Flux collection.”
Such work is described by Professor Sanderson as “a product of intent, a range of student solutions to a problem” that may or may not eventually be brought to market. There are also possibilities for exchange schemes, for example with a ceramic college in Arita that is keen to send students to Stoke to complete their education.
Since an American company called 3D Systems is donating a 3D printer, Staffordshire students are also working on a project brief for a ceramic piece that will be put into production during the biennial. This is already attracting interest from local businesses and may form a basis for further collaboration.
Finally, an exhibition called Fresh will offer a space for 22 promising recent graduates (three of them from Staffordshire itself) to present new ceramic work to the public. During the biennial, a panel will select the best. Awards include a one-month residency at Guldagergaard, the international Ceramics Research Centre in Denmark, and three £1,000 scholarships for Creativity and Innovation in Ceramics to support those who want to continue on Staffordshire’s MA course.
22 graduates have been offered a space in the Fresh exhibition
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Brunel University London
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