Collaborating with: Darwen Terracotta

Written By

Darwen Terracotta

16.11.2021 Thinking

One of the most striking collaborations we have recently worked on was with Darwen Terracotta on the Leeds Playhouse. The beautiful new façade of coloured ceramic tiles in vivid hues creates a strong visual identity that reflects the creativity and diversity of activity within the building. 

The use of ceramics externally roots the façade in the strong local tradition of ceramic and faience seen around Leeds. The plasticity of ceramic enabled us to create a three-dimensional façade that alters with the light conditions.

Darwen is renowned for having generations of dedicated artisans pass on their knowledge and experience since the founding of Shaws of Darwen in 1897. Their manufacturing process has changed little over time, combining centuries old skills with the latest modelling, casting, drying and kiln firing technology.

Describe what Darwen Terracotta make/do? 

Darwen Terracotta are manufacturers of handmade bespoke architectural terracotta and faience (glazed terracotta), servicing both the restoration and new build market.

Tell us how you came to this point in your creative work/ career?

From an early career in architecture in the early 70’s, in 1980 I joined a terracotta manufacturer who in their heyday were one of the big players but with changing architectural styles over the years, had now become a floor and wall tile producer. I found myself in the right time at the right place where we still had the preserved skills to look at the revival of our heritage market. We then grew the business to be global but being part of a larger group of companies with differing owners over the years, the eventual owners decided to close the terracotta division to concentrate on other things in 2015. And so forty very skilled craftspeople along with myself found themselves being made redundant that year. Rather than retire at the age of 59, myself and former colleague Steve Allen, borrowed £1.2m to set up a new factory where we intended to preserve this centuries old tradition. It was really important that we employ as many of the team we have worked with for so many years. Apart from the friendships involved, the product is so specialised that we could not see the loss of these skills that Darwen has been famous for since the end of the 19th century. Perhaps a little crazy in retrospect but six years on we find ourselves continuing to grow and continue to pass on the vital skills to offer creative ceramics. 

What is important to the development process when starting a new project?

Without doubt early discussions on the design proposals and the possibilities considering elements such as colour, shapes, installation and budgets etc. We also put a lot of emphasis on building a trusted relationship with the architects  to ensure we have open, ongoing discussion throughout the project: Leeds Playhouse a very typical example.

Where do you go to source new ideas and inspiration for project briefs?

The initial ideas will always come from the architects and their projects, but we enjoy becoming part of developing and achieving the final design.

How important is collaboration to you and your work?

Collaboration is probably the major factor to delivering a successful project.

A good example of this was recently winning the AJ Specification Award for Facades & Cladding. This was a joint award for John Robertson Architects and ourselves for the Academy House Project on Oxford Street, an award for collaboration between architect and manufacturer.

How important is the legacy of craftsmanship and design understanding to your production?

Craftsmanship is the heart of our business, with a combination of people with long service and a new generation of youth. It is so important that we invest in passing these skills to the next generation and our current programme of apprenticeship includes five apprentices in the laboratory, clay preparation, glaze application, marketing, and accounts. 

Can you tell us about any current projects Darwen Terracotta are working on that you are particularly excited about?

For restoration we are pleased to again be working on the Natural History Museum and Manchester Town Hall, and the current new build projects like Homerton College, Manchester Energy Centre and Manchester Museum are so rewarding, to see this traditional material being used again for new construction: a material that involves handmade craft, has great green credentials, is exceptionally durable in performance and so pleasing aesthetically.

What key factors must be considered when designing for a large scale project such as the Leeds Playhouse?

Again I would stress early stage collaboration with the architects as being vital to this process.

Which project have you worked on that you learned the most from? 

Every project is different and often requires its own solution. It is vital to sit down with the production team, so that everyone can contribute to the process, look at any potential pitfalls and buy into the project. It would be foolish not to say that we never stop learning. 

Which project do you feel has been the most important to date in terms of pushing your capabilities as a business?

Too many to mention, it could be very complex glaze colours/effects or complex shapes.

Is there a project past, present or future you wish you had worked on? / Any creative envy? 

There are projects done by the European or American machine extruded manufacturers that we greatly admire and would have loved to have done, however we tend to be in different markets, as these are often projects that are extremely large and high rise. Of course we can have creative envy when we see other innovative and interesting ceramic projects done by our competitors but we also have huge admiration and friendships in this market so its beneficial to our business to have that competition. 

What defines a successful outcome on a Darwen Terracotta project? 

Making the project without any major hiccups, having a good yield from kiln, and delivering to the agreed programme. Satisfying both client and architect, seeing a smile on their face when they see a beautiful outcome. We also link a successful project to being profitable and able to reinvest into the business and our people.


Jon Wilson, Partner at Darwen Terracotta.

Find out more about Darwen Terracotta here


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