Today’s Diary of a Tile Addict mourns two contrasting individuals who both made an indelible mark on the UK tiling scene.
The first is the renowned Lake District ceramicist Maggie Angus Berkowitz, who died recently, aged 91. Maggie studied, worked and made ceramics in UK, Italy, USA, Africa, and Japan but recently had been working and living in the place where she was born, Milnthorpe, Cumbria.
Maggie’s tiles and tile panels, often made for individual clients or a specific site, are best thought of as pictures painted with glazes and oxides, fired on unglazed tiles. Many fellow Tile Addicts will have seen Maggie’s original and unique tiles without knowing who created them, such as the panel celebrating Kendal and Rinteln’s twinning in Elephant Yard, Kendal; or The Road to Jerusalem installation at Low Furness Cove Primary School, Great Urswick.
For someone who enjoyed such a stellar career, and garnered significant international recognition, it is quite remarkable that Maggie only took up ceramics full time when she retired from teaching. A graduate of Lancaster School of Art, and London University’s Institute of Education, Maggie met her American husband, Marvin, in Tanzania, then moved to New York, returning to the Lakes in 1973 to teach at Milnthorpe Secondary School.
However, it was not until Mary Burkett, the Director of Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendall, offered Maggie an exhibition that her career as a ceramicist really took off. She is held in particularly high regard in Japan. There was a huge exhibition of her work there in 2002 in Gallery Ray; a period in which she worked in a potter’s studio in Seto, while attending language classes in Nagoya City.
A uniquely positive and life-affirming individual, Maggie continue to work and look forward to the last. Her legacy is a body of dynamic, organic and vibrant ceramic tableau that are richly individual yet universal in their themes and accessibility. She will, quite justifiably, be remembered as one of the finest ceramic artists of her generation.
Today Tile Addict is also mourning the passing of one of the UK tile industry’s true visionaries, Fired Earth’s founder Nicholas Kneale, who has died aged 71.
It was back in 1983 that Kneale, with a £10,000 bank loan and four Spanish terracotta tiles, set up Fired Earth. Combining a flair for marketing with a passion for design, Nicholas’s concept proved so successful that, two decades later, Fired Earth was snapped up by Aga Group for £30 million.
In an interview with his local newspaper, the Oxford Times, in May 2007, Nicholas showed typical modesty. “I had tried several ventures and was bust. But I had spotted a gap in the interior design market for good quality and well-designed tiles. At the time, in the 1980s, we had a very dull market in tiles. I found four designs of terracotta tiles made in Spain and the business began from there with a loan from Barclays in Banbury.”
Operating from a lean-to on the side of a farmhouse in Middle Aston, Kneale set about researching the market, touring Spain and Italy, as well small potteries in Britain; in the process discovering a wealth of talented craftsmen and women. By the mid 1990s the business had grown to 15 showrooms across the country, including Fired Earth’s first large London showroom in Fulham Road. Today, Fired Earth has more than 60 showrooms across the country, including eight in London.
As the company grew, the business expanded into most areas of interior design, while maintaining a core interest in tiles. “We realised people wanted to buy products for their interior designs in one place. So we moved into paint, wooden flooring, fabrics, soft furnishings, furniture, and equipment for kitchens and bathrooms. We always went in for quality products. I think I regard the business as having been an adventure more than a source of pride.”
Personally, I vividly remember attending a Fired Earth polo event at Kirtlington Park in the late 1980s. I cannot think of another individual who would have had the vision or courage to promote ceramic tiles by running a polo event. Yet, around 30 years ago, that it just what Nicholas did, attracting a huge audience of designers, home owners, and tiling suppliers to a soggy Oxfordshire field in the process. I have been to hundreds of product launches and press events since then, but none as memorable as Fired Earth’s polo day. And that, I believe, really says it all. Nicholas was a true visionary; an accidental entrepreneur who changed the face of tile retailing in the UK for ever.