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Smashing Plates

As featured in Issue 12 of Ethos Magazine

by Fiona Shaw
Published 1 September 2022

At Weeva we are all about sustainability across all aspects of our business. We are committed to reducing, reusing and recycling – and we don’t just mean our waste! So, when we come across features that resonate or inspire change in publications or by authors that share our ethos and vision – we love nothing more than to share them.

This feature by Publisher and Co-Founder at Ethos Magazine, Fiona Shaw was originally written in April 2020. What started as a community housing regeneration project in Liverpool has now led to Granbyware – the world’s first 100% recycled ceramic dinnerware.

As it launches the world’s first recycled tableware, Fiona Shaw catches up with the Granby Workshop team to talk Kickstarter campaigns, community and the chemistry of a good glaze.

You could quite easily walk past, if you didn’t know it was there. A hive of activity hidden away in this unassuming old shop and the flat above. There’s a patchwork of multicoloured tiles on the outside, but it’s probably the vibrant street art splashed across the hoardings opposite and the house across the street that will catch your eye. ‘Hope’, says one. ‘We are the future,’ another: the outward signs of the optimism that buzzes around Granby Four Streets – this inner city community on the edge of Liverpool’s city centre.

In December 2015, this unassuming crossroads in Liverpool 8 became the epicentre of art world attention. The design collective Assemble was working with the area’s community land trust to refurbish Granby Triangle’s empty houses, after decades of forced demolition and failed housing renewal programmes. Starting with ten houses, together they were reclaiming the area for the community, refurbishing homes creatively, making sure that they were affordable to rent and buy, and rooted firmly in the community. Assemble created the fixtures, fittings and much of the furniture for the homes, and became the first group of ‘non artists’ to win the Turner Prize.

“Everything of value in those houses had been stripped out,” says Sumuyya Khader, Granby Workshop’s operations manager. “There was supposed to be five affordable houses to rent, and five for sale, so the idea was to make sure that people moved in and there was something nice in them,” she says.

​After the win, the workshop began to strike out on its own as an independent business. An initial call sought people with a connection to Granby, who were interested in making or learning. “There were between 12 and 15 of us,” says Khader. “A bunch of people of different ages and backgrounds, all making products alongside Assemble – handles, fireplaces, cut out tiles – creating 20 or so ranges, from woodworking and furniture to ceramics. It was really broad and a crazy frenzy for a couple of months. We made all of these pieces that then went into the showroom in Glasgow.”

With attention on Granby, Assemble produced a catalogue of its products with stories from residents and local history as the background. Khader says: “Those stories were really important. It was about taking back these properties and making something new – and a great opportunity to set up this business and see if it’d succeed.”

Rethinking recycling

As you climb the steep stairs to the office, sunlight pours in across shelves stacked high with ceramics. And, now, Granby Workshop is producing what will become its signature line.

Granbyware is the world’s first 100% recycled ceramic dinnerware. Its range of plates, bowls and mugs are elegant muted greens, blues, browns and greys, made from ceramic, glass and stone waste – the tonnes of crushed glass, old tiles and factory sludge otherwise destined for landfill. They’ve been brought to life by a Kickstarter campaign, which raised £68,926 from 705 backers at the end of 2019.

The idea of a recycled table set had “been floating around for a while,” says Khader. “Granby Rock [a terrazzo-like material made from recycled building rubble, developed by Assemble and Will Shannon, was used as an architectural material in the first ten houses] had an element of recycling, using brick and slate from the sites of the houses. The idea’s always been there – we’re always exploring how we make Granbyware uses, in various quantities, recycled glass, crushed brick and waste from stone quarrying, the fines and dust created by cutting stone and unfired ceramic waste from ceramics industry – much of which goes to landfill currently.

The tableware’s success will be down, he says, to the clay body: “How it behaves in your hand – how easy it is to form; that it fires to a reasonable temperature and becomes vitreous. It’s a challenge for us to make a clay body from waste that people can use in the dishwasher and microwave and would be OK in a commercial kitchen. We have to make sure it’s safe for food – you have to check really carefully that materials like lead aren’t present, which was historically used a lot in ceramics.” He’s been experimenting with ‘filter cakes’ (the re-solidified clay taken out of larger ceramic producers’ filtration systems), mixing and matching the waste from different producers to get a mix that has all of the technical properties the Granby team needs.

And those beautiful colours… the glazes, too, come from recycled minerals: the greens from iron oxide rust and blue from cobalt. The workshop has teamed up with The Water Research Centre, (the research arm of British Water, before the service was privatised). “They were extracting things from water supplies to make sure they’re clean,” says Jones, “before transferring to extracting materials from waste. So we’ve been working together to get the materials that make the colours. When you filter waste to make water safe for drinking, you extract a lot of minerals. And a lot of them – things like cobalt – we’ve seen the price rocket because it’s used in the batteries for electric cars. Equally, some of them are conflict minerals. So we’re better off getting them from recovered sources for many reasons.” It’s one of those sustainable situations that’s a win-win.

Finding focus

Ceramics became the focus after what Khader calls the ‘first chapter of the workshop’ – those frantic days of rushing round, creating an entire Turner Prize exhibition. “It gave us a chance to review the process – and ask what we wanted to be,” she says.

Whilst Assemble was still involved, the workshop was becoming increasingly independent, says Khader. “What should it be? What’s been popular – what products do people like? And what can we be versatile with, but with a batch production process?

“It was difficult, cutting all these other products because the capacity to make them wasn’t there. But we were learning more about the ceramics and advertised for permanent staff – a ceramicist and an operations manager. That was the workshop’s second wave.

“The rules we put in place got slightly tweaked as we went. We wanted there to be the opportunity to make something slightly different in the process – give things a slight random element. And so we smoke fire our ceramics in a barbecue in the back yard. No two are the same.”

Ever since then, the workshop has been slowly finding its own feet, she says. “We have a lot of ambitions in terms of the community, but have realised over time that we don’t have the capacity to do them, which is a really difficult thing to do. We’re learning as we go.”

There are plans for an education programme, and free workshops for the community. But space for a classroom is at a premium. The workshop is due a move to Aspen Grove, around the corner from Granby Street. The new space gives them somewhere to produce their own ceramics, alongside running classes and workshops. Whilst it’s only a five-minute walk away, “Getting back to Granby Street is still the dream,” says Khader. “We’ve been brimming out of this place for a while now, but we’re really sad that it’s not on Granby Street. It’s been a difficult decision to make. But we have to act now to grow the business.” And every change brings new questions. “If we do have a bigger capacity, how will we approach it?” she asks. “Does everything have to be made in house?”

In the meantime, the team has been busy perfecting the recipe for its Granbyware. Limited by space and time – a Kickstarter campaign deadline, alongside the tile production going on downstairs – the plates are being made in Stoke, the centre of the UK’s ceramics industry. Granby Street just doesn’t have the capacity to make a couple of thousands of plates. “We’ve had all of the clay mixed and sent to them, and done a few visits to go through it,” says Khader. “They’ve been producing it to bisque, and then we’re doing the glazing ourselves.”

Granby Workshop’s eye for design has created a loyal, supporting community that reaches far beyond these four streets. But the pressure was on with its Granbyware Kickstarter campaign. Whilst both Splatware and Granbyware caught Kickstarter’s eye and were shared with its huge, global audience, getting Granbyware ready to go was still a struggle. “Splatware is super colourful and was totally different. It’s a vibrant thing, and doubled its target,” admits Khader. “We knew that Granbyware was really special – but unless sustainability is your thing – unless that’s your mantra, or you’re a supporter of the workshop, it was really difficult to get the same momentum behind it. It didn’t hit as hard as we thought it would. People were confused about what it means to be 100% recycled – it’s a tricky conversation to get across and a more difficult story to tell.”

And the idea is complicated – not least because it sounds such an obvious thing to do, but is clearly uncharted territory.

So how do you know that you’re the first, I ask Jones? “It started with us wanting to make a more everyday range – a core standard range for the workshop, using recycled materials. It was only through the development and finding the materials that we found it was possible to make something that was 100% recycled. It’s hard to prove no-one else has done it – and we’ve done a LOT of research,” he smiles. “But we haven’t found anyone else who’s using 100% recycled clay for crockery. Other people are doing more with brick and tile, but not tableware.”

The plan for the rest of the year is to get the entire Granby range – minus the encaustic tiles, that can’t be – made from the recycled clay. “It may slightly change how some things look,” says Khader. “But it feels like it’s a really important thing. We have to be doing it. And then there’s no excuse for other people if we can, as a small scale manufacturer.”

“The whole world’s moving in this direction,” adds Jones. “And it’s inevitable that in the future we will be – we should be – drawing more on the materials that already exist around us, rather than digging up new materials then dumping old ones.”

Already Granby Workshop’s meticulous process has been gaining attention. “We’ve had some interest from larger producers,” says Jones. “On one hand, we don’t want to tell people exactly where everything comes from, because it’s taken us a really long time to develop this supply chain. On the other hand, it’s something we want to encourage other people to do… I guess we’d just like them to develop their own sources,” he admits.

And the project is getting attention from the workshop’s commercial audience. “They’re the ones who’re asking about sustainability,” says Khader. “Where it’s made; whether we make it? We know our market and when people come to us they’re looking for something a bit different and are consistently asking those questions. It’s rare to be able to call up a design studio and speak to someone who’s actually doing that, and directly get the answer from someone…”

Everything here is carefully put together. There’s a thoughtful quality to everything they do – from the impact on the local community to the playful branding and designing boxes that perfectly fit the product and prevent excess paper packaging. These pioneers of making, of craft, and of community, are that bit of hope we all need.

First published in April 2020 in Ethos Magazine

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Weeva stands firmly for ethical business practices and believes in fair-trade journalism. This article has been syndicated and paid for with kind permission of Ethos Magazine.

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