Max Lamb’s crockery collection for 1882 Ltd

The Handmade Master

By Erin Johnson

When the Johnson brothers opened their eponymous ceramics factory in 1882, the British public was hungry for affordable, well-designed products made—as William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement, once put it—“by the people, for the people.” Responding to that need, Johnson Brothers, based in the town of Stoke-on-Trent (a.k.a. The Potteries), swiftly grew.

More than 130 years later, the need for affordable, well-designed products is still there—and so is the Johnson brothers’ company, now named 1882 Ltd. and owned by the father-daughter team of Christopher and Emily Johnson. “Our mission is to move forward with an eye on the past,” says Emily Johnson, “embracing craft and skill, and marrying it to today’s innovative designs.”

The company’s handmade Crockery line by British design star Max Lamb represents just such a marriage, which has resulted in a new approach to the production of fine bone china. “It’s a strong material that has a beautiful translucency,” Johnson explains, “and we love the usability of it. Max has expressed these innate qualities through unexpected, original forms.” When first approaching Lamb about designing the Crockery line, Johnson was deliberately open with her brief. “I merely asked for his interpretation of the material,” she recalls, “because Max’s approach is all about materiality and process. We knew he would do something fantastic.”

1882 Ltd.’s fine bone china products are produced through a process known as slip casting, which typically originates from a designer’s sketch that is then translated into a three-dimensional plaster model by a model maker. But when Lamb visited the factories, he recognized immediately that he was capable of acting as both designer and model maker. Instead of first planning the shapes of the pieces on paper and then passing the drawings to a model maker, he started from a solid block of plaster and chiseled the shapes right into the material.

This should come as no surprise to fans of Lamb, in whose work craftsmanship has always played a critical role. Indeed, with Lamb, his hands-on manner of working—and specifically, of working the material—is inseparable from the outcome: The material is a guide, and only through a process that is specific to that material does a final form emerge.

In the case of slip casting, the plaster model (i.e. "master") is used to make the production molds, typically in two or three parts for easy removal. It is into these molds that liquid fine bone china (i.e. "slip") is poured. Once full, the mold is rotated and tapped in order to release trapped air. As the plaster cast absorbs water from the slip, a layer of clay forms, taking the exact shape of the mold. The object is extracted from the mold, finished by hand (to remove mold lines), then left to dry. Next, it is fired and, in the case of Crockery, glazed internally. The exterior, says Johnson, is left in its natural bisque state in order to “stay true to the material.”

Before chipping away at his master model, Lamb had to learn the nuances of fine bone china. He also had to understand the process of slip casting and incorporate it into his design; all part of his attempt, says Johnson,  “to use the material honestly and the processes transparently, to give both their own voice rather than to impose his aesthetic.”

Max Lamb's Crockery collection for 1882 Ltd Courtesy of 1882 Ltd
The resulting “voice” bespeaks a luminous collection of stark, white wares—from mugs to jugs, bowls to vases—as contemporary as it is primitive. It wasn’t until I had handled the pieces myself, however, that I understood just what an extraordinary collaborative effort the Crockery collection represents.

On the one hand, there is Lamb, with his unique sensibility and process-oriented approach. On the other, there is 1882 Ltd, with its compelling mission and rich heritage. As I held these pieces, so delicate and yet so strong, they seemed almost to glow with a purity of form, design, and purpose. And when I saw their price tags, I knew they were made for me, too, the humble writer.

  • Text by

    • Erin Johnson

      Erin Johnson

      Erin is President and Founder of the New York-based DADOS, a consulting firm dedicated to research and curatorial strategy for design dealers and collectors. She also teaches at New York School of Interior Design and contributes to Object-Based.

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