Nick Davies lifts the lid on one of the UK’s greatest, yet relatively unknown, ceramic designers
Susie Cooper is without doubt one of the most important female ceramic designers of the 20th century – yet the chances are you’ve probably never heard of her! She produced pioneering, colourful, cutting edge ceramic designs throughout every decade since she began in the 1920s until she died in the 1990s. Her fantastic eye for design enabled her to always be a market leader, continually delivering what the customer wanted through the ever-changing swings in style and taste. Born in 1902 in Stoke-on-Trent, Cooper studied at the Burslem School of Art, intending to pursue a career in fashion. But her application to the Royal College of Art was rejected due to her lack of experience in the relevant industry. In 1922, she joined local pottery firm A E Grays, initially as a trainee painter and then within a year becoming resident designer. Working in an industry dominated by men, Cooper pushed to have her name included on the backstamp mark and a new logo was designed which incorporated a galleon in full sail. She would become one of the very first women in history to be able to print her name onto her ceramics. Seeking further challenges, made the bold move of starting her own factory in 1929, becoming one of the first ladies in the Potteries to run her own business under her own name. However, disaster struck several times – she opened her business just before the Wall Street Crash, while the factory she had leased was closed by the owner’s creditors. Then in May 1942, a fire swept through the entire factory forcing another closure.
Despite these setbacks, Cooper survived by continually producing fashionable, affordable wares that used the latest technology and combined elegance with function. She overcame wartime restrictions on production and the loss of all her previous work and set about using paint techniques such as aerographing and sgraffitto decoration instead of laborious, time-consuming hand painting. This would lead to her receiving the Royal Designer for Industry award from the Royal Society of Arts. In 1966, the Wedgwood group made her an offer that was too good to refuse and the factory and all her designs were sold. For Cooper, this was a tremendously successful outcome as she no longer had to manage and maintain a factory with all its problems. She was free to do what she loved best, design and create, and she would do this until she died in 1995. Today, Susie Cooper’s distinctive pieces are highly collectible, and will look great in any lounge or living room.