Midcentury Midwinter The Antique Shoppe March 2018 Postwar England was bleak. Rationing was in force, towns were in rubble, and the weather was, remarkably, worse than ever. Midwinter Pottery wanted to make a break with the past.    The Staffordshire firm had a  reputation for turning out Old English wares.  But cozy rural scenes and floral sprays were irredeemably out of date at home and abroad. “I will shoot the next man who comes all the way over from Stoke to show me more English roses,” said the buyer for one Canadian department store. So the firm sent the top sales director, Roy Midwinter, to the west coast of America to see the work of Modern American designers, like Eva Zeisel and Russel Wright.  Their fluid, rimless, and monochrome designs were familiar to the English ceramics industry, but it was vital to see their work in situ.   While Zeisel and Wright lived in New York City, it was out west that the youthful informality associated with their wares flourished. The milieu that Roy Midwinter wanted to observe was the intended audience for the Guide to Easier Living that Wright and his wife Mary published in 1951.  "We are making a new etiquette," proclaimed the authors. "They are better manners, more truly gracious, because they are sincere." This rosy view of human nature was further expressed in pronouncements against "the code of snobbish manners" and "the dictatorship of etiquette that stifles individuality."  Condemned, too, was the "the entire fiction of 'gracious living'" that was (it went without saying) "a cruel charade."  The Wrights' program for non-hierarchical socializing emphasized "co-operative meals" (buffets and potlucks) and "co-operative cleanups," with guests chipping in.  The place settings were to be limited to the bare  minimum.  Plates for bread, butter, and salad were superfluous, and using mugs obviated the need for saucers.  Even better: Stick to paper plates and napkins ("solid color" ones, they specified).  While these ideas were taking root in open plan houses across the country, Californians, in particular, were praised by the Wrights for their "willingness to disregard tradition and try anything new."  Roy Midwinter's impressions of the west coast are unknown. Certainly, he saw potential in the dishes. He  shipped home a study collection.   Six months later, in 1953, Midwinter Pottery came out with the Stylecraft line.   It was an immediate success and soon accounted for 60% of the company’s sales. Wartime restrictions were lifted, so British shoppers were free, for the first time in many years, to buy more than utility wares. While Stylecraft was inspired by American design, certain changes were necessary. The Stylecraft shapes tended to be boxier than the American models. It was the English custom to put the condiments on the rim, so  Midwinter retained this feature on the plate. There were surface differences, too. Pattern, not solid color, was the decoration. Fiesta, Hawaii, and Tropicana—the pattern names are redolent of the sunny, vagabond life—were applied to dinnerware and tea services.  The chief designer was Jessie Tait, who was in her mid-twenties at the time of the Stylecraft launch. She did not design the shapes (that was the work of co-director William Lunt) but was responsible for some of the most  successful patterns. Primavera, for example, has painted abstract plants and flowers.  It only looks improvised; Tait put a lot of effort into balancing motifs and getting the colors just right.  The plaid Homeweave was made in many colors. The minor variations in the painted decoration are compatible with the artisan theme.  Other  launch patterns, like Pussy Willow, were based on lithographs that Midwinter bought from a local firm.  It was up to Tait to arrange the lithographs and choose the hand detailing—the borders, gilding, or banding—that  framed the decoration. Tait was not the only Stylecraft designer.  One of Midwinter's bestselling patterns, Riviera, was based on the  drawings of Hugh Casson, a prominent architect and artist. Riviera was launched in 1954, ten years after Allied forces liberated France from German occupation.  There is no hint of that terrible time in the idyllic scenes of cafés and beaches that were enameled and transfer-printed on the modern-but-not-too-modern Stylecraft dishes. Stylecraft is sometimes used generically to describe all Midwinter production from the 1950s.  In fact, the company launched a second, even more influential line in 1955. The Fashion line resembles more closely the wares Roy Midwinter shipped home from California.   Swooping curves were in and sturdy angularity was out.  Gone was the plate rima loss for the husband accustomed to putting a daub of mustard there.  Other modifications included replacing the stumpy spout with a straight attenuated one and replacing the bracket handle with a high looping one.  Solid colored pieces were paired with patterned ones.                                 Some Fashion patterns were reworked Stylecraft favorites.  Riviera, for example, was spruced up and renamed Cannes.  While Stylecraft Riviera has a soft honey glaze, Fashion Cannes has a stark white ground. And the Cannes  cups have a turquoise exterior; the Riviera cups are decorated with a striped umbrella and flower boxes.  But the very best patterns were specially conceived for the Fashion line. Zambesi, which Tait designed in 1956, is probably the most sought after Midwinter pattern: A black-and-white tribal motif, with the handles and hollowware interiors in red.  Another Tait classic is Cuban Fantasy, which reflects Cuba's reputation as a raffish resort island.                                                                                                                                                    Patio is a jokey takeoff on the American taste for al fresco entertaining.  The patio was a staple of American decorating magazines, which ran frequent features on its furnishing and use.  The concept never really took off in overcast England.  What does the English patio look like? According to Tait, it is a mosaic of grey, black, and white, with a scattering of drab green and sunshine yellow.                                 It was at this time that Terence Conran began designing for Midwinter. Conran designed Nature Study, which was one of six patterns developed for the Fashion launch. Nature Study consists of printed black sketches of plants and insects on white ground.  The accompanying hollowware is black with a semi-matte glaze. In the same spirit is Conran's Plant Life, which appeared in 1956.  The most common version of this pattern has sketchy green plants in terracotta pots.                                                                                                    Stylecraft, which only a few years earlier had been the last word in English contemporary design, now seemed old fashioned. “Established successes which continue in great demand” read one optimistic Stylecraft  advertisement that ran after the Fashion launch.  Some Stylecraft patterns lingered on in production into the 1960s. For example, Red Domino, which Tait designed in 1953, consists of white polka dots on red banding applied to the rims and other flat surfaces.  There were attempts to develop a Fashion version, but the design made no sense on rimless wares.                                                                                                                Stylecraft and Fashion reflect the relaxation of postwar life. Compared to their Victorian grandparents, the newlyweds picking out Midwinter starter-sets were informal.  But England, in the 1950s, was hardly a free-for- all place. The stock list catered to a public that distinguished between a sauce boat and a mint boat.  And it went without saying, that the tea things you used at breakfast were not the ones you brought out in the afternoon.  Midwinter was selling principally to the British and Commonwealth markets, where there was not a strong demand for the simplified place settings advocated by the Wrights.  Thus the tiered cakes stands, toast racks, egg cups, jam pots, and cruets that Midwinter turned out for their Modern buyers.                          Stylecraft and Fashion embody Mid-century sophistication with their abstract and stylized patterns.  A few patterns, though, are representative of the genteel Old English look that Roy Midwinter wanted to steer the firm away from.  These pieces reflect the industry practice of applying traditional motifs to Modern forms. Cottage Garden, for example, depicts a thatched cottage surrounded by flowerbeds and crowned by a fussy border.  This pattern was used (mercifully, not very often) on Stylecraft wares. Likewise Tapestry Chintz, which was applied to Fashion wares. The designer is unknown; perhaps the bunches of pink and yellow roses were drawn from the firm's historic chintz repertoire. Another surprise Fashion pattern is Fishes which, with its realistic depictions of marine life, suggests the influence of a Victorian fish service.  It is similar in name only to Fish, another Fashion pattern by Tait, which is painted allover with abstract fish.                                      Stylecraft and Fashion are for sale on eBay and at auction houses.  Most pieces sell for less than $50. Zambesi pieces, however, are more expensive, with prices running into the low hundreds. 
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971