Shaper: Emma Bridgewater

Show aired on 1st July 2017


Emma Bridgewater

After studying English at London University, Emma joined a small knitwear firm, but soon realised that what she really wanted to do was start her own company. Her ‘eureka moment’ came in 1985, when she was searching for a pretty cup and saucer for her mother’s birthday. Discovering that everything in the shops was either delicate and formal, or heavy and clunky, she realised there was a gap in the market for pottery that was both beautiful and practical, and that reflected the relaxed, colourful, mismatched home she’d grown up in.

Emma sketched out a mug, bowl and jug, and found a pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of British pottery, to make them up. She then set about decorating them using cut-out sponges – a traditional technique that was to become her signature style. The designs were snapped up by Liberty, Harrods, and The General Trading Co, and Emma Bridgewater Ltd was born. The company now has a turnover of over £16m a year, and Emma Bridgewater products are sold worldwide.

In 1987, Emma met and married Matthew Rice, then a furniture designer. In 1989, they joined forces professionally, and since then Matthew has created some of Emma Bridgewater’s best-loved designs.

As the company grew, Emma was determined to keep production of the pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, and in 1996, bought a Victorian factory there. Emma Bridgewater Ltd is now one of the largest employers of potters in the area. In recognition of her work championing manufacturing in Stoke-on-Trent, Emma has honorary degrees from the University of Staffordshire and Keele University, and in 2013, she was awarded a CBE for Services to Industry.

Emma and Matthew have four children, and live in Oxfordshire. When not working, her interests include books, food, country music and quiltmaking, and despite being surrounded by it every day, she still loves to collect pottery. In 2014, she published Toast & Marmalade and Other Stories, and in 2016 Pattern, memoirs that cover everything from the rollercoaster ride of building the business and creating the iconic designs, to the best way to cook bacon, and the pleasures of a well-stocked dresser.

In 2016 Emma was appointed President of Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). CPRE campaigns to preserve the English countryside, to direct planning pressure away from greenfield sites and guard against the despoliation of Britain.

Follow Emma on Twitter @EmmaBridgewater.

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“She was very, very relaxed and the china was sort of uptight and I had a revelation in the china shop that I was going to make the china that I ought to be able to buy her.”

“Years ago we did a mug that said ‘I love you more than Elvis’. Probably a lie for anyone to give that to anyone else.”

“Both of my grannies loved china, as grannies should, and they had very different tastes. One rather posh the other rather boho…”

“What happens is, in the beginning you are doing absolutely everything and it’s harum-scarum and you never seem to sleep at all.”

“I do have a very steely focus and I do have a continuous vision for the company and I think that’s probably built into most entrepreneurs.”

“Like everyone else I am prone to self-doubt, hideously so. But there is something about the people who work in the factory in Stoke that keeps me straight, keeps me level and I never doubt that that’s the right thing to be doing.”

“You’ve got to prepared to sit down and throw your hands up and say, okay look, maybe we are getting some of this wrong and we need to talk about it.”

“I look at some of the successful businesses in Stoke and I love that we are known as the biggest manufacturers there. I have to admit, it’s not true. We are just the mouthiest.”

“When I started, I wanted to be able to afford a car that didn’t break down on the motorway all the time.”