Matt gold, please!
von Markus Frenzl | Aug 13, 2009

Hand-crafted porcelain: obscenely expensive, decorative items for the glass cabinet, dusty traditions, small bowls, figurines ... we know the kind of thing only too well. And then, somehow, you find yourself in front of the Nymphenburg Palace in Munich in a building on the Nördliches Schlossrondell, taking a guided tour round the porcelain manufactory and meeting Mr. Zeus, who makes the porcelain clay; one of the last of his kind, he spends all day in the paste mill, where he grinds kaolin, feldspar and quartz and turns it into porcelain paste, which then has to mature for another two years. You get to meet Mr. Färber in the turning shop, who is so proud of his profession, his skills and "his" company, to an extent that no-one has never seen in, say, a web-page designer. He demonstrates the elaborate process involved in making a plate by designer Ted Muehling: formed by hand on a potter's wheel which is driven by water power, the initial rough shape is then cut from the throwing wheel with a wire, put over a plaster mould, and the underside shaped using a template. Then, when he has finished shaping it, Mr. Färber stamps his mark on the base - many collectors indeed place great value on their pieces' having been made by one particular craftsman. In the luting shop, you meet Mr. Hörl who is making a chrysanthemum flower from porcelain paste, with dozens of hand-shaped petals, much larger than they will be in the end, because his creations will shrink by a seventh in the firing process. And then there is Mr. Ehrlich, who has stayed on for the visitors, even though it got too dark for him to work a long time ago. In the painting shop, which smells of turpentine, clove oil and lavender oil, he is decorating a Commedia dell' Arte figure with a design by fashion designer Gareth Pugh, who probably had no idea how difficult his zigzag pattern was going to make life for the painters.

You walk through a universe of fragile, white objects on coarse wooden tables. Full wooden crates that have probably been used here for hundreds of years, with "feldspar" and "kaolin" on them. Piles of plates with colour samples, dozens of skulls, on spikes ready for firing, designed way back in 1756 by Franz Ignaz Günther for a rococo crucifix. An armada of hippos, waiting in line to be painted. Opulent centre pieces, which sit unfinished on the rough wooden boards of their nursery, before they are scrubbed up and allowed out onto the damask table cloths of the outside world. Model items on the wooden shelves in the middle of the painting shop, which provide precise details of what the finished product should look like. And then there are designs by Hella Jongerius where colours have been tried out, or a porcelain snail exquisitely painted in gold, with a note beneath in marker-pen which says "Matt gold, please!" Everywhere there are things that are perceptibly infused with a feeling of life that comes both from the work that has gone into them and from the pride of the craftsmen who made them.

And suddenly you are aware that just an ordinary guided tour has managed to absorb you in a culture of traditional manufacture the like of which you thought long forgotten, in craft traditions which have become differentiated over centuries and have been preserved here as though in a time capsule, in the bowls and figurines where now, looking with sharper eyes, you see their quality and the work that has gone into them. And even as a designer, in whose head the words "ornaments = crime" continue to echo, you suddenly come to appreciate the quality of the decoration and of the colours, developed specially in the colour laboratory and exquisitely matched to one another; colours that in the world of industrial design are often just seen as an unnecessary and frivolous obfuscation of pure form. You actually come to hope that all this may be preserved and not fall victim to some random mania for rationalisation. And you want that little rococo skull on your desk as a memento mori of a fortunately still living culture of craftsmanship, or that chrysanthemum flower, made of dozens of individual petals as a permanent reminder that it is possible to breathe life into design.

Photographer Frank Stolle has photographed the workshops at the Nymphenburg porcelain manufactory. A selection of his pictures can be seen here, for the first time in public.