When Ali Miller discovered her china had been featured on the BBC hit show Sherlock, the next year was a whirlwind of activity, and requests for products began to snowball.
“I started getting hundreds of orders, but I didn’t realise that my china had been used on the show for several months,” she explains. “I had to do a bit of detective work of my own to understand where the influx of interest had come from.” While being featured on the programme was a stroke of luck that shot the brand to fame amongst Sherlock fanatics, Ali had been quietly working on her art behind the scenes for many years.
As a child growing up with severe dyslexia and struggling with her school work, she found solace in art- a place where words weren’t necessary. After graduating from art school in 2003, Ali continued to follow her passion, working on her collages in the evenings alongside her day job in window display design. “I used to make collages from old books and magazines- anything that was around the house,” she explains. “I started decorating any objects I could find- covering furniture with my art.” While she admits her mother was less than impressed to see her chairs hijacked for painting, the project sparked an idea for Ali. “I studied screen painting and photography at night school and I realised that my art could be put on objects. I started experimenting with firing my designs on to china- and that’s how my first tea set was born.”
Describing her art as ‘quintessentially British’, Ali is heavily inspired by childhood books like Mary Poppins and Alice in Wonderland, as well as her hometown of London. “All of my inspiration basically comes from real life,” she says. “From my childhood in London reading my favourite books, right through to the events and emotions that have impacted my own life and the lives of friends.”
After working for various department stores including Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and Ikea, Ali’s father became seriously ill and she made the decision to leave her fulltime job. “Ikea was extremely understanding about my situation,” she says. “But in the end I knew I wanted to spend more time with my dad and couldn’t handle a fulltime job at that time. I decided to put all my efforts into art instead, which I could do from home. Sadly he eventually passed away and I channelled even more of my energy into art.”
Though she’d been exhibiting her work for years, it wasn’t until 2010 that framers John Jones invited her to run a major exhibition in their space. “I brought lots of pieces, tea towels, china- everything I had. It all sold out that evening and that was the moment Ali Miller London was born.” Realising that gifts, ornaments and china were a more affordable way for people to buy her art, Ali began to research how to expand her project.
While the original pieces she sold were vintage china, it made sense to work with a production company in Stoke in order to expand the business.
“The vintage pieces fit so well with the theme of my work- which is to tell stories about life that are passed down through generations,” she explains. “To make the business work, I needed to produce on a much bigger scale.”
The TV effect
She began to sell her products through a few stockists, then in 2012 her china was used in an episode of Sherlock and Ali found herself catapulted by overnight success. “I was so grateful for this opportunity- it really helped me to accelerate the brand. While it was a huge challenge to keep up with orders in the first year, I was incredibly lucky as it really put my brand on the map.” She has since visited Sherlock conventions to showcase more of her work, and even sent lead actor Benedict Cumberbatch a baby teapot after the birth of his son. “Fans of the show still love and buy my work- which is fantastic.”
Ali has watched her business grow organically and says her products have now gained an international fan base. While the past few years have been a little quieter after having two children, she is determined to continue developing the brand, with new ideas in the pipeline. “Most of the work I get at the moment is word of mouth- which is fantastic. I am hoping to launch some new products soon through, so it’s a case of ‘watch this space’.”
For Ali, launching the business has been a happy rollercoaster and learning on the job has been a key factor in her success. “I have learnt a huge amount in a short space of time which has been an amazing experience. Working in retail for so long means I understand the importance of keeping the brand fresh, updating my website and attracting new customers. While I am not a traditional designer with new stock every winter and spring, my art will continue to evolve. I want my pieces to tell stories that can be passed down for generations to come.”
You can check out the Ali Miller London collection during afternoon tea at The Grove, available all week from 1.30pm to 4.30pm in the lounges