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OBITUARIES / Susan Williams-Ellis, 1918 - 2007

Designer created classic tableware

December 17, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Susan Williams-Ellis, a trend-setting British ceramics designer who created a flowery yet daring line of high-end tableware that broke tradition, has died. She was 89.

Williams-Ellis died of bronchial pneumonia Nov. 27 at her home in Portmeirion, a fanciful village that her architect father built over half a century in Wales, said Josephine Dillon, a spokeswoman for Portmeirion Potteries, the company Williams-Ellis founded in 1962.

Williams-Ellis defied conventional thinking, creating pieces that were made to mix and match, a once-novel concept that continues to sustain her pottery business more than three decades after it was founded.

Noted British ceramics designer David Queensberry told The Times on Friday: "She was just completely original. She did her own thing and created all these, in a sense, curious and extraordinary designs. . . . She did things people had never done."

The company's history is nearly as eclectic as her most famous design, the Botanic Garden line that featured more than 30 floral patterns when it debuted in 1972 and quickly became a best-seller.

It may be the most successful tableware design in British ceramics in the postwar period, Queensberry said, and remains among the most popular tableware sold in the U.S.

While running the Portmeirion village souvenir shop with husband Euan Cooper-Willis in 1953, Williams-Ellis was unhappy with the poor quality of the tchotchkes. Trained as a painter and sculptor, she started producing designs that were applied to pottery made by others.

By the early 1960s the couple had their own factory in Stoke-on-Trent, a center of pottery-making in England, and Williams-Ellis began designing the shape of the ceramics in addition to the surface decoration.

The inspiration for her first great success came from cylindrical molds that the previous factory owners had used to make apothecary jars and other medical-related vessels.

She used the molds in 1963 to create a line called Totem that was decorated with bold, abstract patterns of embossed spirals and stars.

Overly tall, angular teapots towered over drum-shaped coffee cups and sugar bowls glazed in deep blue, amber and dark green.

The mildly counterculture design was so popular with 1960s consumers that Portmeirion Potteries struggled to keep up with demand, and the market became flooded with knockoffs.

Known for her often futuristic designs, Williams-Ellis was searching for a new idea in the early 1970s that could resurrect her then-struggling firm. In an antique shop, she found it in a book of botanical illustrations from 1817.

Unable to decide on one flower in the book to use for her new line, she decided that plates and other pieces would feature a variety of designs that could be unified by color and a leaf border. The dishes were named Botanic Garden to reflect the butterflies added for interest.

The idea met with resistance from retailers, who told her, "That's not one pattern, that's six," Anwyl Cooper-Willis, her daughter, who is a designer for Portmeirion Potteries, told Salt Lake City's Deseret Morning News in 2001.

"You have to remember we were still in the '50s mentality where everything had to match -- purse, shoes, dress, hat. And the whole idea of casual dining -- at least high-class casual dining -- didn't exist," she said.

Botanic Garden has sold more than 40 million pieces worldwide, according to Portmeirion Potteries.

"It's been fantastically successful," Williams-Ellis said of the line in a June interview with the BBC, and noted that the soup-tureen ladle was the most difficult piece to get right.

Her early work and the Botanic Garden pieces have become popular collectibles.

"She really did create something, but in a sense it was taken from history. No one should belittle that," Queensberry said. "If you were asked to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and choose a design, what are the chances of it being in production 30 years later?"

The eldest of three children, Susan Caroline Williams-Ellis was born June 6, 1918, in Guildford, England, to Clough Williams-Ellis and novelist Amabel Strachey. Her parents were members of the Bloomsbury group literary set. Author Rudyard Kipling was her godfather, and Noel Coward wrote the play "Blithe Spirit" at Portmeirion.

Her father started creating the Italianate village of Portmeirion in 1925, rescuing European buildings from destruction and building new ones, finishing in 1972.

She studied ceramics at Dartington Hall School near Totnes, England, and painting and sculpture at what is now known as Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. In addition to ceramics, she went on to design textiles, furniture and jewelry.

In 1945, she married Cooper-Willis, an economist who was the college roommate of her brother, Christopher, who was killed during World War II. The couple moved to a farm near Portmeirion in 1948, kept pigs and ducks and "lived on eggs and potatoes," she told the BBC.

She did freelance book illustrations while her husband worked part time as an economist. In 1953, they began taking over management of the village from her father, then in his 70s.

"Susan was marvelously amusing and eccentric," Queensberry said, with a career that was a "perfect example of the Sinatra song ['My Way']. And it worked."

In addition to her husband and daughter, Williams-Ellis is survived by a son, Robin Llywelyn, a novelist and managing director of Portmeirion village; and two other daughters, Menna, a designer for the pottery company, and Sian, a peace campaigner; a sister, Charlotte Wallace; and 11 grandchildren.

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