“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are”: Sebastian Herkner with his unburned vase „Falda“ for Rosenthal. Photo © Rosenthal
Shards are the chance
by Martina Metzner
Nov 9, 2015

Monday morning on the train to Selb: Sebastian Herkner has missed his connection, but quickly finds an alternative using the Deutsche Bahn app and finally arrives in Nuremberg, continuing the final leg by bus. The Offenbach-based designer is in a good mood, talks a lot, in particular about the week choc a bloc with appointments. He says he has four interviews on his agenda. And the next day he has to go to Berlin, but only for an hour’s meeting, he will return that evening. He says he’s happy to do this as it enables him to see the people he works with in person. At the same time he organizes a medical check-up for Colombia, where he is heading in a few days at the invitation of the Goethe Institut there.

You get the impression Herkner’s career is currently at a decisive phase. In 2012 the graduate from the Offenbach University of Art and Design brought out “Bell Table” at ClassiCon, and things really took off after that. Next year Herkner will present no less than 15 new products. And he will design “The House” at imm cologne. “I only need four hours’ sleep,” reveals the 34-year old and grins mischievously. He can hardly draw on the train, he adds, but he can read. So he read the entire news magazine “Spiegel” through in one day. His routine: “During the week I travel and at the weekend I’m home in Offenbach and work.” Success never comes by itself. Doubtless his open communicative manner also helps: “Because I can talk”, says Herkner. Some people even describe him as a “marketing machine”.

A stronghold for white gold

The first thing we see on arriving at Rosenthal’s main office in Selb – mountains of waste high as houses: That was once the production facility of Hutschenreuther says the taxi driver. Since 2000 the brand has been part of the Rosenthal Group under whose umbrella the brands Rosenthal, Rosenthal Studio-Line, Arzberg and Thomas thrive more or less well. The rubble symbolizes the situation: Selb was once a stronghold of porcelain manufacture. In the 1950s and 1960s up to 37,000 people lived from the production of the “white gold” in the region known as “Bavarian Siberia” for its somewhat cooler temperatures. Meanwhile the cheap competition from the Far East has inundated the market, eating and shopping habits have changed– and that is costing many jobs. Today, a total of 2,000 porcelain employees work in Selb itself, with about 850 at Rosenthal.

Rosenthal has also undergone turbulent times: After bankruptcy in 2009 the firm – then still part of the Irish-British Waterford-Wedgewood group – was taken over by the Italian Sambonet-Paderno Group, a market leader in tabletop furnishings . Today, the firm’s managing director is an Italian, Pierluigi Coppo. Yet Rosenthal has remained Rosenthal. Production continues at the two locations – at Rothbühl in Selb, and at the “Thomas am Kulm” factory in Speichersdorf. Since the Italians stepped in Rosenthal GmbH has been in the black again; in 2013 sales revenues came to EUR 77 million.

Today people buy plates at Ikea

In Selb things are gearing up for an important milestone: Next year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Philip Rosenthal, who died in 2001 at the age of 84. Sebastian Herkner will also play a role in the celebrations. Andreas Gerecke, Rosenthal’s Marketing Director for the last nine years is out to revamp the firm’s image. After all, the brand which like Braun, Vorwerk or Walter Knoll stands for German product design, has a richly filled portfolio starting with designs by Raymond Loewy, via r Tapio Wirkkala, Björn Wiinblad, Mario Bellini, Jasper Morrison, Konstantin Grcic, Patricia Urquiola through to Walter Gropius, whose “TAC”-Service, brought out in 1967, is still one of most sought-after by this skilled designer.

In Selb it is no secret that people today rarely have high-quality 30-piece sets of porcelain tableware in their display cabinets as did solid middle class families just a few decades ago. And price plays a bigger role than quality when buying tableware. Meanwhile, every fourth plate in Germany is bought from Ikea which is why in Germany where some 60 percent of the business is generated Rosenthal is operating on a stagnating or contracting market as in other European countries. Only in Russia, China and the Middle East is there a growing interest in porcelain. Moreover, huge investments are required to launch a new service. The development costs including the molds for firing come to a grand total of EUR 1.5-2 million, so if a specific set of high-end chinaware does not sell very well it spells a huge loss.

A complete brand world

In other words, fresh ideas are needed – and they are generated, for example, by teaming up with designers such as Sebastian Herkner. For the Rosenthal Studio Line, he has designed the vase “Collana” inspired by “Bell Table”. It has a modular composition and combines glass and porcelain in a highly elegant manner by means of a gold colored “collar“ (Ital. collana). Then there is his vase “Falda”, which plays with the contrast between glazed and biscuit porcelain and whose opening recalls an opened foil twist on a champagne bottle, and “Mitis”, a series of vases, clocks, and clothes hooks of biscuit porcelain in pastel shades.

In the newly designed Rosenthal office vaguely reminiscent of the brightly furnished Google office Gerecke explains it is not enough today just to manufacture tableware, you have to create a complete brand world. What Gerecke, who commutes between Selb and a second home in Berlin has in mind is the semi-luxury design and lifestyle world. Which is perhaps one reason why this spring during the Salone del Mobile in Milan Rosenthal also exhibited some of its signature pieces in the Museo delle Culture under the title “Long tradition, young creation”, and the show including designs by Sebastian Herkner. In a throwback to the 1970s, furniture also features in the program again: boxy upholstered sofas, lounge chairs with slim legs of brass tubing, but also items of porcelain such as tear-drop-shaped loudspeakers or the luminaire “Nightingale” by Christophe de la Fontaine. Even wristwatches with porcelain faces are available. “Departure, new beginnings, confidence. The times are changing. Rosenthal meets this challenge”, at least this is what it says on the Website.

Gropius and flamingos

In the Rosenthal company headquarters Herkner seems to glide through the corridors. Here again you repeatedly encounter his designs, such as the “Collana” vase . You can see he feels at home here, talks with the specialists from the Product Development section, exchanges a few words with Gerecke, before proceeding to the Am Rothbühl factory. The factory building was designed by no less a person than Walter Gropius with whom Philip Rosenthal was friends, as was the factory building known as the “glass cathedral” in Amberg, which no longer belongs to Rosenthal today, however. Up until a few years ago the visitors to Am Rothbühl were greeted by flamingos, typical of eccentric Rosenthal Jr. Today, the plaster is peeling from the walls and there are tortoises rather than flamingos. This is not challenged by the famous “Gropius Hammer” in the lobby – a supporting pillar with a hammer-like head, which has indentations at the sides allowing the roof girders to be placed on it. With its grid layout of ten by ten meters the building comes over as clear and the rooms have a generous height – making it still very practical today, or so the production manager reports.

A love of factories

“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are,” says Sebastian Herkner. There is no dirt, no unpleasant smells or harsh noises – everything seems pure and gentle, like porcelain itself. The designer enjoys being on the very spot where his things are made. “I am interested in factories, always take a look at where and how a manufacturer produces his goods,” he explains, “and if I don’t like it then I might turn down a possible collaboration.” He is in favor of keeping such manufacturing plants in Germany and is happy to explain to customers why a table produced in Germany has a certain price. It makes him proud to be able to help boost business as happened with Poschinger Glasmanufaktur, which produces the “Bell Table” for ClassiCon.

On the so-called carousels in the Am Rothbühl facility stand the molds into which the soft mass of feldspar, kaolin and quartz is poured. Once the object has been dried in the open air, it is fired at 1,400 degrees for about five hours in ovens measuring that are close to 40 meters long. At the second firing the body is given a glaze making it waterproof. Herkner greets a woman who is applying a wax solution by hand to the pleated sections of his “Falda” vase so that the porcelain remains unglazed in these places. It is a scene that is repeated: Herkner approaches a factory worker, laughs and jokes with them like a good friend from his youth, and is immediately on the ball. He is someone who quickly establishes a connection to people. Herkner is as diverse as his designs. It is difficult to recognize a clear line in his work. He explains the reason for that himself: He takes a close look at each company, does an analysis and then designs something to suit their needs. Herkner wants to do more than just realize products. For example, together with the Goethe Institute he works in social projects, travels say to Zimbabwe to make raffia baskets with a women’s cooperative, which are now being marketed via mail-order design firm Ikarus.

Round and open

Social aspects also play a role for Herkner, when he tackles projects like “The House” for imm cologne: “I asked myself how people are welcomed here?”, says Herkner to explain the genesis of the project, and starts talking about the wave of refugees coming to Germany. “The House” is to be transparent and open, to welcome everyone – and adds naturally he only means the thing about the refugees symbolically. Herkner’s “House” is round, there are hardly walls, but individual areas can be partitioned off using swathes of material suspended from the ceiling. You should be able to enter or leave again at any time; he will also cook and look after guest there.

Late that evening we are back in Offenbach. Sebastian Herkner has remained loyal to the city since his studies, he lives and works here. It does not have a lot of glamour to offer, but anyone who knows Herkner knows that Offenbach suits him: its down-to-earth feeling, the different cultures who live alongside one another, perhaps also the deliberate underdog mentality. “I concern myself more with this city than it concerns itself with me,” he says and almost goes into raptures. Last year 6,000 people relocated from Frankfurt to Offenbach. It takes just half an hour to get to the airport from the city center, and not to forget: Goethe’s first great love Lili Schönemann also lived here. Herkner has made his own mark on the face of the city: in a collaborative effort with his colleagues Reinhard Dienes and Peter Eckart he draped the large coal crane in the harbor with a light installation that is visible from afar. It is Herkner’s conviction that “Offenbach is underestimated.”

“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are”: Sebastian Herkner with his unburned vase „Falda“ for Rosenthal. Photo © Rosenthal0
“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are”: Sebastian Herkner with his unburned vase „Falda“ for Rosenthal. Photo © Rosenthal1
“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are”: Sebastian Herkner with his unburned vase „Falda“ for Rosenthal. Photo © Rosenthal2
“For me porcelain factories are among the most attractive there are”: Sebastian Herkner with his unburned vase „Falda“ for Rosenthal. Photo © Rosenthal3