Words by Bethany Allen
Famed for its iconic stripes, Cornishware is a British design icon inspired by the azure blue skies and white crested waves of Cornwall.
Decorated by hand
With a timeless and instantly recognisable style, the history of Cornishware stretches back to the 1920s. 1924 to be exact. Produced by company T.G. Green, the classic design has stood the test of time, the iconic stripes adorning kitchens the world over. As a testament to this, if you happen to visit the London design museum you will see the classic 10 ounce mug displayed amongst 50 of the most iconic design pieces in the world.
Cornishware is now owned by husband and wife team, Charles and Karina Rickards, who bought the company in 2007. “When Charles bought Cornishware it was a decision very much led by the heart,” explains Karina. “We knew we had to rescue this iconic company, we knew we couldn’t let this household name disappear.” In order to save the struggling brand, production was reluctantly moved overseas. However, thanks to Charles’ entrepreneurial spirit and Karina’s passion, fortunes have now been restored to the brand and the couple have been working hard to return production back to the UK.
I sit talking with Karina at the Great Cornish Food Store in Truro, where the range of Cornishware pottery is used and displayed in the café. My peppermint tea arrives in the original Cornishware cup and saucer with bright blue stripes that juxtapose against the clean white, the chunky design and smooth edges immediately comforting, and I can easily imagine myself curled up on the sofa nursing a cup of tea as I turn the pages of an absorbing book. Lost in this thought I look up over the edge of my teacup and comment on the beautiful design. Karina gestures to the wall behind me where a huge photo of the clear blue skies and white crashing surf of Cornwall is displayed, and goes on to tell me the story of how one of the company designers for T.G. Green was inspired by a scene just like this when he created the Cornishware brand. Extremely modern for its time – considering that most pottery in the 20s was very delicate and floral – these chunky, durable mugs stood out. Indeed, almost 100 years later, thanks to the unique production process and dedication to hand-decoration, they continue to do so.
Charles and Karina Rickards. Beauty in simplicity
I want to know where the story began for Karina. “My husband, Charles, bought the business 10 years ago. I was then heavily pregnant with my fifth child.” She says with a smile: “He came back from work one day and announced that Cornishware had gone bankrupt. He was running another business at the time but his entrepreneurial spirit prevailed and the next day he came home and announced that he had indeed bought it. I was with my fifth child, knee deep in nappies and so I wasn’t that involved with the business to begin with. But then we moved to the West Country for a slower pace of life, we bought a Georgian farmhouse with all these beautiful outbuildings and when my little one started school I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be lovely to be able to walk out the front door and into the pottery’. It didn’t happen instantaneously. Charles made the decision to move production back to the UK and initially it gave us quite a headache because we had to find very skilled workers and decorators. One day I said to Charles: ‘I’ll have a go, let’s see if I can decorate a plate, why not? I’m an artist, my background is in art.’ He handed me a blank plate made with Cornish clay in Stoke-on-Trent (which is how we make our pottery now), we had an electric wheel and I had a go. Okay I was a bit slow to start with but it worked and the stripes were perfect! That was a real ‘eureka’ moment and one I will never forget.”
Thanks to Karina’s determination to decorate the plates by hand, what once housed the combine harvesters and tractors is now the warehouse; the milking parlour is the pottery and Karina’s dream of walking across the road and into the pottery has become a reality. Production began with plates and other non-handle flatware and has progressed into making the mugs and other products as well. “Bringing the mug production back has been tricky,” Karina says. “It takes three months to learn how to make a Cornishware mug and it is by far the most labour-intensive item. To create the striped effect you apply wax by hand and then dip the whole mug in paint, as it comes out the paint stays on the unwaxed areas and falls of the waxed areas like water off a duck’s back. It’s a really hard technique to master and at the moment it’s just two of us painting with another two learning the technique, so we are four decorators altogether, producing thousands of mugs a month! The days are long, tea helps,” she says musing. “So does chocolate, and loud music.”
They are almost three years down the line of reinstating production to the UK and 70% of all Cornishware is now made in Stoke-on-Trent and decorated at the pottery in the south west. “By summer 2020 we hope to have completed the move to 100% UK production. It’s been an amazing journey with various ups and downs, but by being part of the process my confidence has excelled,” Karina confides. For someone who hasn’t been working for a while it’s so valuable to be part of a team, because when you’re bringing up children they’re not going to say ‘oh well done for mopping up the floor, that was great,’ or ‘thank you for changing my nappies for the first three years of my life.’”
You may be wondering what role Charles plays. The answer is logistics, the numbers, the big plan, looking five years ahead and having a clear understanding of the business’ direction. Charles joins us midway through the interview, so I’m able to pick his brains on the production process. “The clay comes from the clay pits in St Austell, it’s then transported up to Stoke-on-Trent where four different components are added to it, before being delivered to Royal Stafford factory to make what we call the ‘blanks’, ready to be transported to our factory in the south west. And then the fun begins,” he says laughing. “Once it arrives at the factory the difficult bit starts – the painstaking process of decorating by hand with paint brushes, which people in this day and age find very curious.” He smiles: “So it’s all done as it was historically, it’s all about human dexterity and skill, each piece lovingly decorated and then fired again in the kiln which fuses the paint onto the body. Finally, it’s glazed and goes back in at a much higher temperature, that’s what gives it its durability. The higher the temperature the harder the product, so our product is suitable for both domestic use and professional use.”
A process that’s all about human dexterity
“A lot of people can’t believe it’s hand applied,” Karina adds, “so it’s my job to show the process to the audience. I’m very active on social media; I show products and try to connect with our audience. I’m so passionate about it, I live it, I breathe it, and I probably still have a bit of pottery dust on me,” she says appraising her clothes, “but that’s the best way to show our story. If you speak from the heart then people are going to relate to you and the brand that you’re creating.”
Karina’s Instagram account allows her loyal and growing fan base to follow her Cornish adventures at the family’s adored second home on the Lizard peninsula, as well as seeing the day-to-day goings on behind the scenes at Cornishware. Her followers will ask ‘how did you come up with the yellow?’, and Karina can tell them that it’s inspired by the oil-skin raincoats that the fishermen wear and the gorse flowers as she walks along the South West Coast Path. “I just love that yellow,” Karina says with a smile, “it always reminds me of these things as well as my sailing days.” As she speaks she lifts up her own yellow mug that has a designated spot in her handbag: “This is one of my very first hand-decorated mugs, it’s not absolutely perfect,” she says pointing to the vibrant block of yellow. “You can see a little dribble of yellow here, the paint is a bit too thick here, but it’s very special to me, it represents a turning point in my life and the Cornishware story.”
“Next year will be a big year for us,” says Charles. “It’s all about creating a philosophy of getting it right the first time – attention to detail and being considered and thoughtful. But most importantly it’s about finding people who understand what we’re trying to achieve, because then they care, and caring is what it’s all about.”
The Cornishware range is truly beautiful, capturing warmth and cosiness through its sturdy design and calling to mind scenes from a farm kitchen way back when.
For those rainy days when all you want to do is wrap your hands around a comforting mug of tea and sink into the sofa, for long night’s studying, or for big family breakfasts full of chatter and laughter. Cornishware will see you through it all, as it has done for generations.
The iconic blue stripes have become a hallmark of quality