Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Is Steve Jobs the Josiah Wedgwood of 21st century?

FT has a fascinating extract from Tristram Hunt's biography of Josiah Wedgwood, the potter from Staffordshire, who's been called the Steve Jobs of the 18th century. The extract points to several teachable aspects. 

Wedgwood's creamware, jasper, and basalt pottery came to occupy not only the dining shelves and tables of Georgian England but also globally. 

... he invested his innate genius in experimentation and an unceasing array of new glazes, colours, designs, shapes and sizes soon filled Wedgwood’s pattern books... His early designs were a riot of rococo, chinoiserie and ornamental bravado: teapots shaped like cauliflowers in deep green, pineapple tea caddies in startling yellows, and cups and saucers replete with Orientalist romance. Wedgwood’s innovative coloured glazing techniques extended to the production of pickle-dishes, dessert services, sauce boats, plates and ceramic handles for cutlery... Whether he caused it or captured it, Wedgwood was the master salesman to Europe’s first mass consumer society...

Apart from being a master craftsman, Wedgwood was a master at marketing, a very early pioneer of modern marketing, 

In a noisy and discerning retail environment, the challenge for Wedgwood and Bentley was how to distinguish brand strength. The answer, as any Instagram influencer knows, was to capture the mood makers. “The progress of the arts, at all times, and in every country, depends chiefly upon the encouragement they receive from those, who by their rank and affluence are legislators in taste,” Wedgwood wrote. So when he perfected his creamware body — an affordable earthenware to which transfer designs could be applied easily — he sought the approval of the ultimate legislator in taste, Queen Charlotte. Creamware became Queensware — “a name has a wonderful effect,” he informed Bentley — and Wedgwood took out adverts styling himself “Potter to Her Majesty”.
There is barely a technique in modern marketing — from product placement to advertising to free delivery to limited edition designs — that Wedgwood and Bentley did not anticipate. His West End showroom was more commercial gallery than shop: a space “to shew various table & desert [sic] services completely set out on two ranges of tables . . . in order to do the needful with the Ladys [sic] in the neatest, genteelest & best method”. When he completed his “Frog Service” dinner set for Empress Catherine II of Russia, he sold tickets for exclusive viewings. And when neoclassicism took over from rococo, Wedgwood seamlessly shifted his designs from baroque extravagance to austere elegance, with his jasperware vases becoming keenly desired ornaments for every stately home of note. Studiously, he never discounted because “low prices must beget a low quality in the manufacture, which will beget contempt, which will beget neglect, & disuse, and there is an end of the trade.”

He was the rare breed of technologist and businessman rolled into one, 

Above all, the product was superb. Wedgwood was a virtuoso businessman who combined technical proficiency with a gifted eye for trends. His marriage of technology and design, retail precision and manufacturing efficiency means it is not too much of a stretch to regard him as the Steve Jobs of the 18th century... Wedgwood in his interdisciplinary thinking, aesthetic control, production oversight and relentlessly experimental frame of mind.

He was also one of the leaders of the industrial revolution and modern manufacturing, 

Unlike Apple, he kept production local and manufactured his pottery at a markedly reduced cost by transforming ceramic production. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution can be found in a modest Stoke-on-Trent potbank he named Etruria, in honour of the preclassical civilisation renowned for its ceramics. Whereas previously the making of ceramics — from mixing of the clay to throwing the pots to dipping in slip to firing in a kiln — had taken place at different sites, Wedgwood consolidated them into a single conveyor belt-style process. He established a clear-cut division of labour to “make such machines of the men as cannot err” and, to eliminate waste, initiated the earliest system of cost accountancy in British corporate history. Alongside Richard Arkwright’s Cromford cotton mills in Derbyshire and Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham Soho Manufactory for metal goods, Wedgwood’s Etruria became a symbol of the coming industrial age of mass production.

His industrial manufacturing came with its flip side,

The Bloomsbury critic Roger Fry never quite forgave him. “As pottery, Wedgwood’s work is beyond praise, though it probably finally contributed to the destruction of the art, as an art,” he wrote, a little unfairly, “since it set an example of mechanical perfection which to this day prevents the trade from accepting any work in which the natural beauties of the material are not carefully obliterated by mechanical means.”
His politics was progressive - 'liberty under law, protestantism, and progress'. He even managed to sweetly converge his politics and business in a manner which would have made Steve Jobs proud.
Wedgwood’s most lasting contribution to 18th-century radicalism was his campaign against the slave trade, where he used his profound gifts of design and marketing to create a medallion that became the defining symbol of anti-slavery activism. Composed of white jasper with a black relief and mounted in gilt-metal, it depicts an enslaved African man on half-bended knee raising up his shackled arms. On the edge of the tiny medallion is inscribed the challenge: “Am I not a man and a brother?” Produced and distributed at Wedgwood’s expense, it was known as the Emancipation Badge and still stands as one of the most noble displays of what, in today’s sour expression, might be termed virtue signalling. “Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair,” wrote the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. “At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

On an issue which has strong resonance today, he was determined to beat the Chinese in their own art, 

This combination of marketing, design, manufacturing efficiency, and global ambition fostered in Wedgwood his historic determination to see off China. “I shall be glad to give you joy on the conquest of Peking,” he had boasted to Bentley, when he first heard of his jasperware being exported to China. Since the early 1600s, when the Dutch introduced Chinese porcelain to Europe, it was the “white gold” sailing from Canton that dominated the ceramics market. Sending his pottery up the Trent and Mersey Canal, from Stoke to the Liverpool docks and then to Europe, the Americas and empire, Wedgwood sought to turn the tide — and the affordability and durability of his creamware, in contrast to the expense and fragility of porcelain, did just that... China — the land that had fired exquisite ceramics for thousands of years, had invented porcelain and filled the cabinets of Europe with blue and white ware — was now to be reinstructed in the mystery of clay, by pottery from Staffordshire.

There is also something on the failings of his successors, especially the most recent ones,

When China’s export machine moved into gear in the 1990s, its effect on British ceramics, among many other markets around the world, was punishing. In 1984 there were 66 major potteries in Staffordshire employing 30,000 workers; by 2011, it had fallen to 33, employing some 8,000. For Wedgwood it was even worse, as the business simultaneously faced managerial missteps under the stewardship of the O’Reilly family. Confronting falling sales and explosive debt, Waterford Wedgwood (as it had become) outsourced the skilled work of Stoke painters, lithographers, glazers and dippers. The company bought Royal Doulton to acquire a new ceramic factory in Indonesia, which delivered low labour costs but at the cost of brand annihilation. “They did something . . . silly,” reflected Japanese-born ceramic artist Kaoru Parry, “when they moved their production to Indonesia. Because Japanese people loved Wedgwood, but they wouldn’t buy it unless it was made in England.” The move didn’t save them. Waterford Wedgwood went bankrupt in 2009 because of its sustained disavowal of Josiah Wedgwood’s precepts for success. From cost control to product design to technology to brand equity, the inheritors of the Wedgwood legend killed value by upending the business ethos that had been established back in 1759... the new managers thought the key to success was not to rival China, as Wedgwood had sought to do, but instead give in to a low-quality solution with its offshored production — even as it marketed the brand as classic, English tableware.
Instead of calling Josiah Wedgwood the "Steve Jobs of the 18th century", a more apposite description to either men would be call Steve Jobs the "Josiah Wedgwood of the 21st century"!

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