Setting up pottery 1265° North in Newcastle upon Tyne was a labour of love for Richard Cullen and master potter Jun Rhee, but they are now the producers of tableware used by some of the country’s most famous restaurants. Lisa Jenkins takes a tour of their studio
Making an impression is vitally important in the increasingly competitive foodservice sector. The food you serve needs to stand out to receive the best reviews and keep the customers coming back, but the tableware you choose to serve it on has to be unique too. And stoneware producer 1265° North has created a niche by supplying tableware to some of the UK’s best chefs.
Richard Cullen is the owner and director of 1265° North, a pottery business, bar and café in Newcastle upon Tyne. Cullen began his career as a potter in November 2014 after completing an art foundation qualification, firing his pots in a temperamental Dutch-built kiln that was more than 25 years old.
He gave his first batch of stoneware plates away for free to chef Dave Coulson at local restaurant Peace & Loaf. Early in 2015, Paul Brown, managing director of Continental Chef Supplies (CCS), a trading division of Bunzl UK, happened to see the plates at Peace & Loaf and contacted Cullen. Brown liked the organic, natural look of the stoneware and wanted to see if he could supply them to chefs across the country.
Cullen was producing pots on his own at the time and had bought a new, larger kiln to complete an order made by Brown. “We had a massive gas-fired kiln that I fired up for Paul for a big order he’d secured for us,” says Cullen. “However, we had problems with that order – the customer wouldn’t take it. The plates were not consistent in shape and size, and a load of them smashed in the van on the journey. I thought I was finished!”
But CCS persevered and worked with Cullen to develop consistency in his tableware and supported him through his move to new, larger premises. The new site in Ouseburn dated back to 1926 and was originally the first apprentice school in Newcastle. It was near the old Ouseburn pottery and was practically derelict. “It was cheap, and the landlord let us have it on a short-term lease,” explains Cullen.
Cullen was by now joined by business partners Rachel De La Haye and Geffen Yoeli-Rimmer, and he had secured funding from the Craft’s Council Hothouse Scheme. Around this time, he started to receive a number of messages from a guy in South Korea on Instagram: “I ignored him for ages, but he kept messaging me. Eventually, I looked at his Instagram account and it spoke for itself.”
The messages were from Jun Rhee, a talented potter who came from South Korea but was in Ireland as part of a trip he had organised after university. Cullen invited him to Newcastle to see what the business was producing. “When Jun arrived at the pottery on a whim – a mad plan hatched by the both of us – he brought his philosophy, skill, diligence and discipline to the business and we were able to combine British and Korean passion and design. We haven’t looked back since,” adds Cullen.
In Asia, Rhee’s craft is respected and sustainable, and being a master potter is a skill to be admired. It’s a traditional craft that exists to fulfil a utility; to have a purpose.
Rhee arrived as Cullen and his partners were moving into the Ouseburn property. “We’d just taken on the new site and it was a wreck,” says Cullen. “As soon as he arrived, we shoved a power washer in his hands and he just got on with it. However, he looked at me as if to say, ‘shit, this is worse than national service!’”
The four-strong team got stuck in to doing all the renovations to the building themselves: Cullen taught himself to weld from videos on YouTube as well as renovating all the woodwork. On opening day they had exactly £1.20 in their business account.
Now, 1265° North, named for the temperature its pots are fired at, along with the Kiln Mediterranean Bar and Kitchen, has become one of the trendiest places to visit in Newcastle. The kitchen serves salads, stews, daily specials, cakes and coffee. “It’s the bringing together of all of the best coffee houses Rachel, Geffen and I used to frequent during the development stages of the business,” says Cullen.
All of the ceramics used in the café are crafted on-site, and there is a viewing window into the studio so the customers can see the stoneware being made. “Kiln allows us to test the products for their practicality in our customers’ businesses and it’s a space for chefs to come and visit and grab a decent coffee,” says Cullen.
Rhee has bought standardisation to the entrepreneurial team in Ouseburn, and with his and Cullen’s passion and creativity, they are helping to take the culinary scene in Newcastle to new levels. The business has thrived and Cullen credits Rhee with a large percentage of this success. “There is structure and process now,” he says.
Jun Rhee spent four years studying at university in South Korea and three years with master potter Lee Se Young in his home in the mountains of Korea.
To gain a place as a master potter’s assistant, Rhee visited Se Young for a year, begging him to take him on as his apprentice with a three-hour journey on each occasion.
“The best thing he taught me was patience,” says Rhee. The second, according to the potter, is: “to always keep the same shape in a pot – the lip, the base, the curve – and that everything has reason that comes from old wisdom.”
Rhee and Cullen believe that contemporary art means incorporating history and evolving with it. Rhee explains this with the use of a cup: “The curve keeps the liquid at the right temperature for the optimum heat; the rim has always been designed to be comfortable for the lip and the base, which is slightly angled, is for sturdiness and to pick the cup up when upside down after washing. Simple principles, but the best design for functionality,” he says.
Sourcing the right stoneware for your tables
Questions to consider when sourcing tableware include:
• What kind of food will you put on the stoneware?
• What’s the theme for the restaurant?
• What’s the concept for the restaurant?
• Does the stoneware need to be sculptural or practical?
• What type of glaze would work best?
• What size best suits the dishes?
• What colour should they be?
1265° North supplies its plates in two standard colours – oatmeal and blue – but can also produce bespoke colours and shapes.
The company has produced tableware for restaurants including the Forest Side in Grasmere in the Lake District, the House of Tides in Newcastle upon Tyne and Restaurant Story in London.