Elegance with Utility

The work of Susie Cooper (1902-1995)
By Andrew Casey

   Susie Cooper was without doubt one of the most influential and important women designers of the twentieth century. Underpinning her career was an understanding of customer taste and the latest trends in art gently mixed with an English restraint that made her work so popular. She was born on 29 October 1902. She attended the local school at Milton later attending evening classes at the Burslem School of Art, from September 1918. Susie was awarded a scholarship to attend full-time for three years. Being more interested in becoming a fashion designer than a ceramicist, she sat the examination to attend the Royal College of Art in London. As scholarships were only given to those in employment in the decorative arts field she did not qualify. To get around this problem Gordon Forsyth, her tutor at the Burslem School of Art, contacted his friend and colleague Albert Edward Gray, the owner of a small pottery based in Stoke. In order to qualify for the scholarship Susie worked at the Grays for a short time. Once there, however, she realised that she would be better placed to stay in the industry.

   When Susie joined Gray's in 1922 initially her role was as a paintress, and she was paid on a piecework basis. Gray's were developing a new range called Gloria Lustre designed by Gordon Forsyth. A selection of these wares was shown at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924, including a number designed by Susie. A notable example depicts cherubs underneath a fruit tree in purple and pink lustres. Gray's also showed a selection of pieces at the Exposition Des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes in Paris in 1925. The majority of Susie Cooper“s patterns, however, were hand painted floral patterns that emphasised simple brushwork effects. She also created some detailed print and enamel patterns such as Golden Catkin and Almond Blossom. In response to the demand for brightly coloured wares from Europe, she introduced several over glaze geometric patterns such as Moon and Mountains and Cubist on a range of tea, coffee, and fancies the range was extended with some vases and plaques. Unfortunately these thickly painted pieces would often flake or rub. At some point during the mid twenties a new Liner mark with the words 'Designed by Susie Cooper' was introduced. Banded decoration was used to create a popular range of patterns for decorative and domestic wares including Harmony and Layebands, the latter produced exclusively for the London Store Heals. Nursery wares patterns such as Quadrupeds were added to the firm“s productions alongside a limited range of silver lustre patterns.

   However, Susie became increasingly unhappy with the range of shapes that she had to use at Grays. Grays had to buy their shapes in from a range of suppliers rather than designing their own. Therefore she decided to set up in business as an independent designer; she realised that if she had stayed at Grays she would be a decorator rather than a designer. She left in 1929. Fortunately she was offered space within a small factory being set up by A.G. Richardson. No sooner had the first pieces been decorated and ready for firing, than the landlord foreclosed and Susie was forced to seek new accommodation. New premises were located at the Chelsea Works in Burslem. Simple banded and stylised floral patterns including Bronze Chrysanthemums were typical. In April the first order was taken from the Nottingham store. Business increased and Susie looked for new premises that would allow her to produce her own shapes. Wood and Sons offered her space at the Crown Works in Burslem.

   At this point the essential Susie Cooper style was achieved. She wanted to introduce good design for those people with more taste than money strongly believing that one should not have to pay for style. At the British Industries Fair in 1932 she unveiled her new patterns that included the Woodpecker pattern displayed alongside modern florals such as Briar Rose. These were marked with a new backstamp of a leaping deer, with the legend, A SUSIE COOPER PRODUCTION. Her Kestrel shape, introduced in 1932, was a practical and functional shape that was easily cleaned, that poured well and could take all manner of decoration. Lesser-known patterns of this period include Panorama, The Homestead and The Seagull. Susie also launched her incised studio wares with the intention that they would co-ordinate with the modern interior. Over the next six years a wide range of vases, jugs, bowls and candlesticks were produced.

   Her Wedding Ring pattern range, featuring soft paste band proved so popular that they were copied by firms both in Britain and North America.  An American company copied her popular burgundy and cream variation and they had the nerve to call it Susan's Red. Susie utilised crayon decoration for a range of simple graduated patterns, with a notable example in green enamel and crayon. This proved popular and was marketed as Tweed in North America. It was also proudly displayed at the prestigious Royal Academy Exhibition in 1935. The demand for her wares inevitably led to introducing lithographs reproduced from her own artwork. This type of ware was first tested on the North American market for feedback in 1934. The sheer quality of the reproduction, from her original artwork, left many dealers refusing to believe that they were printed! The most popular pattern was Dresden Spray, a printed centre motif with additional shaded band to edge Further patterns such as Swansea Spray, Grey Leaf, Long Leaf and Tigerlily were added throughout the thirties.

   The Falcon shape was introduced in 1937. This modern shape was used for patterns such as Tyrol and Elegance. A year later the Spiral shape, produced to appeal to the export market, was launched. This range was decorated with simple floral patterns such as Endon, Woodlands and Patricia Rose. During the late thirties the firm established a good trade with the North American provinces through her agent Fondeville & Co, based in New York. In particular Eaton“s, the Canadian store, were big customers of her wares and extensively promoted her pottery focusing on the originality of this young English designer. New specialty lines were developed to meet the needs of the American table. In particular she designed a modern version of the Turkey Set for the Thanks Giving celebrations and smaller items such as moustache cups and saucers, water pitchers for the boardroom and cocktail trays, for after dinner parties.

   In 1940 Susie Cooper was awarded the honour of Royal Designer for Industry, the only woman from the potteries to be awarded such recognition. Very few patterns were put into production during the early years of the forties. A number of new patterns were put together for the first post war British Industries Fair in 1947. These included the Starbursts, Chinese Fern and Tree of Life patterns. These wares were exported chiefly to South Africa and North America, with only seconds being allowed for sale in Britain.

   In early 1950 the firm moved to bone china production, in tune with public tastes. Examples of her work were shown at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Her first patterns were decorated on her exquisite Quail shape. Over the years a range of simple floral motifs, ferns, scrolls and spot patterns were used. A typical design was Raised Spot. Her Wild Strawberry and Parrot Tulip were popular in North America. By 1954 boxed gift ware, beakers, toast racks and condiment sets were introduced alongside a few earthenware patterns. In 1957 a new scallop tureen and a taller Kestrel teacup and saucer was introduced.

   To extend her products Susie wanted to produce bone china dinnerware. The firm merged with R.H.SL Plant in November 1958, to form Tuscan Holdings Group Ltd. Susie developed the Can shape that was used for a number of successful patterns that included Black Fruits, Carnaby Daisy, Harlequinade and Pennant. These contemporary patterns were popular in both Scandinavia and Canada. Further patterns such as Florida, Charisma, Indian Summer and Everglade were targeted towards the Canadian market. In March 1966 both Plants and Susie Cooper Ltd. were taken over by Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd. Artistically there was no change in her production after the take-over. The words "A Member of the Wedgwood Group" were incorporated into the backstamp.

   Her most outstanding pattern of the seventies was Cornpoppy. Susie spent some time experimenting with new ideas, creating an amazing range of trial pieces such as Tiger Cubs in Combat, Florentine Pipers and Chou Dynasty. In recognition of her achievements Wedgwood staged an exhibition of the designers work at the Sandersons Gallery, London in 1977. A year later she was awarded the honour of receiving an Order of the British Empire. In 1980 Wedgwood closed down the Crown Works. After much thought she relocated to William Adams Ltd where she designed Blue Daisy, Meadowlands and Florida. Susie decided to retire in 1985.

   In 1987 the Victoria and Albert Museum organised a retrospective exhibition, 'Susie Cooper Productions.' To coincide with this event Wedgwood introduced three breakfast sets in Yellow Daisy, Spiral Fern and Polka Dot, all re-workings of patterns from the thirties. In 1993 Susie Cooper was honoured with an Honorary Degree from the Royal College of Art in London. Susie was fortunate to be able to live to such an age as to see her cost conscious wares studied, celebrated and collected. Susie passed away during the summer of 1995. A special memorial service was held during October of the following year. In 1997 Wedgwood issued two special trios -- one featuring the Recumbent Deer, an early eighties pattern designed by Susie alongside a design by Clarice Cliff.

Take a look at the Susie Cooper Images

[ Welcome ][ Articles ][ Links ]
[ Site Map ][ Collecting the 20th Century Event ][ Sponsors ]
[ Contacts ][ Subscribe ][ Bios ][ Images ][ Bookstore ][ Updates ]