Porcelain art created for eternity
BY LARA VIRIOT
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)
Meissen porcelain – the name stands for quality and first-class craftsmanship, for luxury and opulence, for tradition and, last but not least, for passion. Based in the Saxon city of Meissen, the company enjoys worldwide fame and is well known far beyond German borders. A successful craft business that is loved for doing what it has been doing for centuries – timelessly elegant, mostly hand-painted porcelain. But to inspire with its porcelain art even in the 21st century, the traditional house has had the help of the renowned designer team Otto Drögsler and Jörg Ehrlich since 2017 to restore its splendour. With new, modern design vocabulary and selected objects from the company’s own model and mould archive, which have been reinterpreted and modernised by painting, the company is now going strong and combining baroque opulence with contemporary techniques and designs. We spoke with Georg Nussdorfer about the history of the house, the uniqueness of the old craftsmanship and the contemporary relevance as well as the future plans of Meissen.
When did you first come into contact with Meissen porcelain and what fascinates you most about it?
I can’t say exactly anymore, but through my family I have known Meissen porcelain to be a household name since early childhood. On particularly festive occasions, for example, we would use the Meissen porcelain. When I first travelled to Meissen more than three years ago, I learned a lot about the long tradition of Meissen porcelain and also had the opportunity to visit the factory and the museum. My enthusiasm was immediately aroused: more than 300 years of porcelain art practice, which is still so immediately noticeable in the workshops today! I was really fascinated by the workmanship behind every single piece of porcelain, as well as the expertise and high level of identification of the employees with the company. That is why I feel gratitude, but also a great responsibility for being able to manage the manufacture’s business together with Dr. Tillmann Blaschke since 2016. It is a wonderful task to give contemporary relevance to a cultural heritage that is more than 300 years old and to develop new target groups. I want people to incorporate porcelain into their daily lives and enjoy it every day – from the display case to the table. For me personally, starting the day with a coffee from my Meissen cup has become a beautiful ritual.
Please tell us about the history and philosophy of Meissen.
It is hardly possible to summarise the exciting and rich history in just a few words, I can only give a brief insight: as early as the 13th century, porcelain was a highly coveted item at the royal courts of Europe and was imported from China at extravagant prices. In 1708, the court alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger succeeded in producing the first European porcelain. Originally, Böttger was supposed to find a formula for the production of gold on behalf of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony. Finally, instead of sparkling gold, he succeeded in producing the “white gold”: porcelain. Augustus the Strong then founded the porcelain factory Meissen in 1710. The blue Crossed Swords were introduced just a few years later as insignia for Meissen porcelain. At first the factory was located in Meissen’s Albrechtsburg, but since the beginning of the 1860s it can be found in the workshops of Meissen’s Triebischtal. The reason why Meissen was always successful in its sometimes very troubled history is probably because it has always given the highest importance to the quality and perfection of its porcelain and craftsmanship. In addition, in its more than 300-year history, in every epoch, Meissen has always worked with different artists. Each design was therefore always an expression of the spirit of the time – from the baroque centrepiece for Europe’s royal courts, to the famous onion pattern, Art Deco-style sculptures, to contemporary porcelain art. Today, we continue to follow this century-long tradition and commission artists and designers to create new porcelain. Nowadays, we draw from the richness of our history and remember our artisanal traditions to combine them with the innovative power of the present. Each piece of Meissen porcelain thus combines history and modernity and is an expression of the masterful skill and rich wealth of experience of our manufacture’s craftsmen.
How did Meissen manage to maintain this standard over the centuries while simultaneously keeping up with the times?
We adapt to the current culture, lifestyle and luxury trends, but always remain aware of our ostentatious baroque origins and define our own contemporary interpretation. Meissen stands for modern opulence. Moreover, another and, in my opinion, essential factor for the long existence of the manufacture is certainly that Meissen has never made compromises in terms of quality and that the finest workmanship has always been regarded as the supreme principle of the factory. The abundance of details, the faithfulness to the original and the richness of colour that are only available at Meissen today are only possible through practiced craftsmanship and the upholding of our tradition. At Meissen, there is also a clear commitment to the location. Meissen porcelain has always been inextricably linked to the city of Meissen on the Elbe River, making it home to the brand and a gateway to the global luxury market at the same time. Our in-house training of porcelain painters, potters and embossers with an integrated
drawing school since 1764 is another guarantor of Meissen’s artisanal mastery. There are currently around 40 apprentices in training with us. Most apprentices remain at Meissen after their apprenticeship. For example, the average length of service in the company is 29 years and shows both the high level of identification of the employees with the company and the importance of the experience in connection with craftsmanship and artistry.
What continues to make Meissen so unique today?
Meissen invented European porcelain more than 300 years ago. 10,000 colour recipes from all eras, 700,000 models and plaster moulds from old and modern times as well as around 6,000 different decorations build the substantial foundation of Meissen and cannot be duplicated. We live the factory. We have a unique wealth of old techniques that we continuously reapply in new designs. We can also produce porcelain objects in a size and quality unlike anyone else. We also meet the demand for sustainable products very well in terms of environmental and social standards as well as in terms of our philanthropic self-image. We are 100 per cent made in Germany, where the environmental and social standards are already very high by law. Our porcelain is not subject to short-term, fast-paced fashion trends, but is of lasting value – so we go against the common throwaway mentality that wastes natural resources on our planet and increases waste production. Should one or the other porcelain product be damaged or break over the years, we can faithfully reproduce the porcelain from all eras for our customers, for example, and thus fulfil a service again. With the purchase of Meissen porcelain, our customers are clearly following the call to “Buy less, choose well and make it last” from Vivienne Westwood, one of the best-known campaigners for sustainable consumption. Meissen invented European porcelain and we feel it is a social responsibility to preserve this unique cultural heritage and to lead it successfully into the future. Our manufactory’s own mine, not far from Meissen, is also unique. Here, the raw material kaolin is sourced daily by two Meissen miners. It is most important for the outstanding radiant white of Meissen porcelain and is later on processed with quartz and feldspar into a porcelain paste.
Have you ever worked in the factory?
At Meissen, it is not possible to work in the factory for a day. The extraordinary craftsmanship of our employees requires not only years of training, but also a special technical and artistic skill. Once a year, we open the Meissen production facility in Triebischtal and provide a rare insight into the studios, work areas and workshops of the factory. Visitors then have the opportunity to personally convince themselves of our employees’ skills and the elaborate production process of Meissen porcelain. Across different production areas, visitors have the chance to experience first-hand how the Meissen porcelain is still elaborately refined and processed by hand.
Meissen stands for traditional craftsmanship of the highest quality – what skills does it take to be able to work in the factory?
Porcelain art comes from skill: At Meissen, training as a porcelain painter and embosser takes more than three years. It takes many more years of learning to reach the level of Master. Today, a piece created for the “Limited Masterpieces” collection requires months of handicraft and is the result of decades of exacting training. Our selection process therefore takes into account artistic talent, but also a steady hand and the patience of potential apprentices. Of course, the enthusiasm and passion for Meissen porcelain and its more than 300-year history goes without saying. This is the only way to obtain the finest porcelains and decorations of famous Meissen quality that possess unique radiance and inspire generations.
Please describe the process of how, for example, a porcelain vase is made in an individual design. How long does it take from the idea to the finished product?
The fine kaolin clay is the decisive ingredient for the production of white porcelain. For more than 250 years, it has been mined in the company-owned pits in Seilitz, a mere 15 kilometres from Meissen. In a months-long refinement process, quartz and feldspar are added to produce the raw porcelain paste under constant monitoring. According to traditional manufacturing techniques, the porcelain raw material is fashioned and modelled until it finally assumes its finished shape in the kiln. The shaping of all Meissen porcelain takes place according to one of three techniques: turning, casting, moulding. Plates and cups are shaped by hand on turntables. For the casting process, the liquefied porcelain mass is poured into a multiple part plaster mould. The up to 100 individual parts of a sculpture are made by pressing the paste in plaster moulds. Always conceived and shaped in many individual parts, Meissen figures and sculptures get their final form from embossers. Porcelain pieces spend hundreds of hours in the kilns at different temperatures. Their baptism by fire happens immediately after the drying phase with the first so-called biscuit firing. At temperatures of 950 °C, the structure of the porcelain is consolidated into a porous, absorbent body. All underglaze paintings as well as the “Crossed Swords” of all Meissen porcelain take place directly on these burnt up blanks. After the biscuit firing, the glaze is applied by immersion or spraying. The glaze – also made in the factory – forms the glass-like protection and unique shine in the following glost firing that can last up to six days. During this subsequent firing at up to 1,400 °C, the glaze fuses with the porcelain, which shrinks by about a sixth of its original size. The special strength, pure white colour, and brilliant lustre of true Meissen porcelain can only be achieved if the composition of the porcelain paste and the firing technology are optimally coordinated. In the case of on-glaze painting, the colours are painted on the glaze of the glost-fired porcelain. For this purpose, the colour powder is mixed with essential oils by the porcelain painter to a paintable colour and applied to the porcelain. Elaborate decorations require multiple colour applications. The subsequent decorative firing, the melting of the colours onto the glaze, takes place at about 900 °C in the electric kiln. Due to the elaborate production process of the Meissen porcelain, several months or even a few years pass before a Meissen porcelain finally emerges from a new product idea.
You have only recently renewed Meissen’s corporate design. What were the reasons for this and what does the new design stand for? Do you think this influences visitors’ perception of Meissen?
Following the credo “out of the show cases”, we want to bring “modern opulence” to the table and into the living areas with Meissen porcelain. This is achieved by staying true to our roots and growing into the future with new design liveliness – this is Meissen’s style and it is also reflected in the new corporate design – the revised image of the oldest porcelain manufacturer in Europe. Meissen stands for modern opulence. Current cultural, lifestyle and luxury trends serve as inspiration, and we connect them with the rich stylistic heritage from over 300 years of manufacturing history. This creates a contemporary interpretation of its own. The new Meissen. The new corporate design thus embodies the essence of Meissen in visual form: contemporary treatment of its own history, custom-made, complex and opulent, original, modern and luxurious with its own character. Meissen porcelain really has contemporary relevance. We have been increasingly approached about our new image since its relaunch in October last year. Our social media channels, marketing materials and the new website, in particular, are experiencing great popularity, even among new target groups.
Will there soon be more from Meissen that we can look forward to?
In its more than 300-year history, Meissen has repeatedly worked with various designers of the respective eras – we will continue to follow this tradition in the future. Otto Drögsler and Jörg Ehrlich have been entrusted with the creative direction for our product design since 2017. They design porcelain themselves and also curate our collaborations with other international designers. The “Meissen Mug Collection” and our new bird porcelain – a homage to traditional bird painting – are very popular. We are passionate about new designs in our Meissen atelier. We can now also look forward to exciting collaborations: last year, we launched the joint shaving brush set “Edition Meissen” with MÜHLE shaving culture, among other things, thus combining the Saxon manufacturing traditions of MÜHLE and Meissen in an ornate porcelain edition shaving brush. But we have also had collaborations with Bocci, USM Haller and Bentley. A cooperation with the American skateboarding cult label “Supreme” attracted a lot of attention and surprise in the spring. The limited sculpture “Amor with T-Shirt” combines the urban attitude of the American cult brand with our expert craftsmanship. The next few months will also be very exciting for us since we are currently working on further collaborations that are coming up with renowned luxury brands. Wait and see what’s in store!
Since 2016, Georg Nussdorfer has been strengthening the management of the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen GmbH. The 48-year-old graduate, born near Salzburg, is a certified marketing and sales expert with extensive international experience. Mr Nussdorfer spent 17 years with Swarovski in marketing, product management and sales. He has held management and executive positions at the traditional Austrian crystal company for eleven years. Most recently, he was responsible for global sales on the board of Swarovski Professional.
Picture credit © Haus Meissen