Cornishware: Cleanliness in design for the modern home. An article on the design legacy of Cornishware, written for The Modernist Magazine 38: Kitchen, guest edited by Matt Retallick in March 2021.
As someone who grew-up in Cornwall, the blue and white stripes of Cornishware are more than familiar. In fact, Cornishware has become so recognisable, so ubiquitous with the British kitchen that we probably don’t give it a second thought. To me though, it captures the very essence of kitchen modernism with a design couldn’t be any more uncomplicated or timeless; in Cornishware we see a democratisation of design that has become a part of all our lives at some point. The precise origins are uncertain, but it is widely believed that Cornishware started in the 1920s with the earliest recorded mention in a trade catalogue in 1924, and this may shock you, but it’s never been made in Cornwall. T.G. Green who manufacture Cornishware were at that time based at Church Gresley near Burton-on-Trent, and today at Shepton Mallet in Somerset. So why the name Cornishware? Well, the story goes that a salesman for the pottery mentioned that the blue and white stripes reminded him of his holidays in Cornwall, and in promotional leaflets from the early 1960s we see the pottery leading with the slogan ‘Blue of the Atlantic, White of the Cornish Clouds, Glisten of the Sea’. Not made in Cornwall maybe, but certainly made from it, with clay from the pits of the lunar-landscaped region around St Austell.
Originally called Cornish Kitchen Ware, the range grew to address the needs of the modern kitchen, and by the 1930s it included, for example, lipped bowls, biscuit jars, egg separators and flour dredgers. Some of these original designs have stood the test of time and are still available today, including dreadnought jugs, mugs and pudding bowls. The late 1950s saw the expansion into other colours, all keeping something of the Cornish colour palette, including a black that nodded to the flag of St Piran, patron saint of the county. The theme remains, and today you can find, among others, tin grey, summer rose, orange, and a yellow surely inspired by saffron, a mainstay of traditional Cornish baking. The more atypical Cornish Red was introduced to cater for the American market, who in the 1950s weren’t quite ready to welcome blue and white into the kitchen, associating the colours instead with the bathroom.
In 1964 the range was modernised further with T.G. Green enlisting the expertise of a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art named Judith Onions. Onions, who as an art student had been at the centre of the early bubblings of swinging London transformed the 40-year-old range by making the forms sleeker and creating new additions that kept up with developing trends. Familiar with the already established coffee bar culture she designed the first Cornishware coffee set which included a cafetière, and rationalised older staples, making them, relevant and appealing to the hip and happening 1960s consumer, as well as entirely consistent for the first time. This simple intervention aimed to make the chic kitchen easily achievable, with everything matching in stripey streamlined harmony; the goal of Cornishware was to appeal to the masses, and to be for genuine everyday use, the middle classes welcome to keep their heirloom bone china and stuffy dining rooms. To reflect this shift, Onions also designed a new logo for the pottery, a simple roundel symbol which was no doubt influenced by the early 1960s Pop Art of the likes of Pauline Boty, Jasper Johns and Peter Blake.
Like so many, Cornishware has become a fixture in the rhythm of my own kitchen. From the flip-topped salt box, garlic pot, utensil jar, and my morning coffee from a classic 10oz mug. It is this mug which in recent years has seen an elevation into the canon of design history, for example it appears proudly in the ’50 Globally Iconic Designs of the 20th Century’ collection display at London’s Design Museum alongside the SONY Walkman F1, Anna G. corkscrew by Alessi, and that modernist staple the Bialetti Moka Express. Examples of Judith Onion’s work also appear in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, who explain Cornishware in terms of its association ‘with the nostalgic ideal of the English cottage’, and therein lies the key to success, there are not many examples in design that successfully bridge that gap between the traditional, through the modern and into the contemporary. Cornishware is after all equally at home showcased on your Granny’s Welsh-dresser as it is on the breakfast bars of the present-day home. It is as used, collected and adored as it ever was, and pottery owner Karina Rickards embraces this, using her Instagram as a way to bring a community of stripe-loving devotees together, but also to share quite frankly mesmerising videos of glaze application and casting, all of which is still done by hand by a tiny team of crafts people. So, the next time you spot those classic stripes, consider them as an indelible symbol of kitchen modernism - as the old saying goes it’s often the simplest of things that have the most impact.