I recently had the honor of attending Ambiente 2016 in Frankfurt – it’s the European trade show for all things Dining, Living, and Giving – with Jeanne Khoe Chung, Lynn Byrne and Marion Rockstroh-Kruft as part of Modenus‘ Design Hounds initiative.
I’ll share my top three design trends from the show as soon as they’re published on Ambiente’s blog – there is so much fresh talent and innovation in the world! – but, for now, I’d like to tell you about what centuries old porcelain company, Meissen, is doing to keep the magic alive and stay competitive in the 21st Century.
On our second full day in Germany, we had the honor of making a quick morning visit to the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK). We were there to get a behind the scenes look at work of the 2016 German Design Award winners and we quickly became entranced by the way architect Richard Meier incorporated the 1803 Villa Metzler into his extraordinary 1985 addition.
ADD side note:: I would love to be an intern at Meier’s firm. The way he plays with light is magic and the way he integrated the new building into the surrounding community is inspired. Do you think he’d take a pass at the cottage plans?
At the Villa, we saw historic Zuber wallpapers, elaborate moulding and woodwork, and exquisite antiques. One of a handful of buildings that wasn’t destroyed during World War II, the staff at the MAK took great care to recreate the interiors of the Villa to the way it looked as a residence.
After pointing out that the beautiful porcelain pieces in the Villa came from Meissen, our guide was thrilled to hear we had appointment to meet them later that day. We were excited to get a hint of what was to come.
Who knew that our visit to the MAK would create a full circle lesson on merging the old with the new?
Our mission that afternoon was to join Meissen in their booth at Ambiente, take a tour of their Frankfurt retail store, and proceed to dinner with some of their executives. (Full disclosure:: Meissen paid for my meal, but not my opinions.)
It wasn’t my first encounter with the company. I’d once taken a quick walk through their booth at Maison et Objet, but didn’t comprehend the importance of what I saw.
Fast forward three years and the story dramatically changes. After photographing and touching many of the products in their showroom, learning about the company’s history over dinner, and doing a lot of research after returning home, I came away with a deeper understanding of why an 18-piece monkey orchestra costs $38,000 on 1stDibs.
Meissen:: Where They’ve Been
Let’s start with this informative tour of Albrechtsburg Castle, the place of Meissen’s birth:
It’s possible I drooled a little.
The second thing that caught my eye was a jewelry case originally designed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Reissued in 2013, the original was designed by Ludwig Sturm. Made of precious woods, lined with high quality velvet, and decorated with individual porcelain figures, the very limited edition case clocks in at $613,279.10 USD as I type.
Exchange rates fluctuate, y’all. By the minute.
It took the team at Meissen two years to recreate Sturm’s masterpiece. Since the company keeps the mold for every piece of porcelain ever produced at the factory, they were able to borrow some for the reissue, but had to take the original case apart in order to reproduce all of the details.
As we gathered round the large, intricately designed box, a gloved young woman began to open it and I heard a collective sigh from our group.
With its eleven velvet-lined drawers, the case conjured dreams of filling it with gems.
The gilded interior features hand painted drawer fronts.
And the Roman Goddess Juno, with her spirit-animal peacock, sit on top as the box’s crown.
Image my shock when the staff encouraged me to touch it.
Me. 550,000 Euros. Without a glove.
All of the possibilities that regularly befall a bona fide klutz ran through my head. You break it, you buy it, was just one phrase that echoed in the ether. It also occurred to me that my figure is spot-on 19th century trends…
The staff waylaid any breakage concerns, so I ran my hand across the surface and was surprised to feel the paint.
This is a tell-tale trait of a Meissen product because they fire the clay once before they paint it with their multi-layered pâte-sur-pâte technique and once after, giving the pieces a dimension not seen, or felt, in most manufacturers work.
Each one of the four cherubs gracing the corners of the case is has a unique look and distinct personality. Here are two for you to compare:
The original molds were used for the base figures, but everything else is applied in individual pieces. Lovely, elaborate little works of art, aren’t they?
Meissen:: Where They Are Going
Admittedly, the Jewelry Case isn’t for everyone. It’s pretty fancy. The typical Meissen collector is well-to-do and …well, appreciative of $38,000 Monkey Orchestras.
Meissen knows it too, so in order to appeal to contemporary buyers, they have expanded their product line by blowing up the scale of some of the company’s most beloved patterns and applying them in new ways.
Ming Dragon is a pattern that dates back to the 18th century.
Historically painted on plates and vases in a persimmon color, today you’ll find it gracing their tableware, as well as lamp bases and shades seen in their booth at Ambiente.
Meissen took the explosion of the pattern one step further, by creating fabrics for their new furniture line that echo the scales and combs of the dragon’s skin and body.
Drawn from history, their Cosmopolitan tableware is very current and I adore it in every color, especially turquoise and red.
Born of the Cosmopolitan line, the highly mixable Royal Palace fabric shade, shown here in Noble Kiss, makes a bold statement atop this large red porcelain base.
They make writing instruments too. I’m not sure which came first, the exquisite Mascara fountain pen or its matching geometric fabric, but I’ll take both for an elegant office!
Among the many contemporary pieces in Meissen’s booth at Ambiente that caught my eye, Saxonia is the favorite, by far. She is radiant!
Just over 26″ tall, Saxonia is the “little sister” of Saxon, Statue of Liberty, who measures in at a whopping 5′-11.”
Created in 1739 by Johann Joachim Kaendler, the 4000 Royal Blossoms now gracing Saxonia’s jewelry and skirt were first used on dinnerware commissioned by the Electress of Saxon, the state in Germany where the town of Meissen is located.
Saxon, Statue of Liberty made her début in October of 2014. Visitors from all over the world came to see her on display in the House of Meissen. The work garnered so much interest, the company decided to make a smaller version available for sale, the one you see pictured here.
The creator of both sisters is Meissen’s head sculptor, Jörg Danielczyk.
I mentioned that the “little sister” has 4000 blossoms, but for got to add that the “big sister” is covered with 8000. Finding out that each one of the blossoms is made by hand and then fused to the body with a porcelain weld made me appreciate the artistry Danielczyk accomplished even more.
The company took one more step in the evolution of the Royal Blossom by taking single blooms and transforming them into wearable art.
That’s right. Meissen makes jewelry too.
We got a close-up look later that evening at the company’y retail location, courtesy of Mr. Alvin Thomas, of New Orléans, Louisiana. It was nice to meet a true Southern gentleman in the middle of a cold and rainy night in Frankfurt. He takes great pride in his store and it shows.
It is literally a jewel box.
I honestly do not remember what Saxonia retails for, but believe the ring on her hand can be yours for a reasonable sum.
The jewelry pieces come solely crafted in porcelain, studded with a diamond center, or made entirely of diamonds and gold. Elegant and feminine, the line was a hit with our crew.
You can meet Mr. Thomas and see a few of their one-of-a-kind and couture pieces in my Instagram feed. It’s a good thing I don’t possess a criminal mind or I’d be doing time in a gefängnis for hijacking the fabulous chandelier earrings you’ll see there!
From the store, we walked to a nearby restaurant. Over dinner, I learned some interesting details about Meissen.
Having the distinct pleasure of sitting by CEO Dr. Tillmann Blaschke, and the elegant and delightful head of U.K. operations, Fiona Milne, I found out a few of the lesser known facts about the company.
- Meissen is, has been, and will always be state-owned.
- It has operated continually through seven types of political rule in Germany.
- They are the only porcelain company that owns their own mine.
- The quality of fine white clay from that mine is unique to Meissen.
- There is a finite amount of clay.
- The best estimate is the supply is enough for about 50 more years of production.
- There are only two miners working to retrieve the clay.
- Only two women paint the tell-tale crossed swords on every piece the company produces.
- They will customize patterns for you.
- They keep the bones of everything they make, so if you break a monogrammed plate they’ll make you a new one.
- An apprentice spends five years learning from a Master painter before moving to production.
- None of the painters, no matter their age, wears magnifying or reading glasses to paint even the tiniest of brush strokes.
That last one is inconceivable, as I’ve gone bleary-eyed while writing this post.
From our history lesson at the MAK, to their booth at Ambiente, our visit to the luxurious Frankfurt boutique, to dinner with their executives, and through all the research needed to complete this story, I truly gained a deep appreciation for the artistry at Meissen, and understand why it holds its value and appeal to investors and collectors.
Meissen’s commitment to excellence is it’s history; nurtured in the veins of the mine, flowing up through skilled artisans, and working it’s way to the top. As it evolves to meet the more streamlined desires of today’s high-end customers, that commitment never wanes.
As consumer focus returns to the makers of the world, this company has a head start because mass production isn’t a part of their lexicon and never has been. In an age when the head of IKEA admits even they’ve hit market saturation, that’s pretty amazing.
Rolling with the times while still doing YOU sounds like a Life Goal to me!
P.S. A little hint:: Do your research. Whether you’re downsizing your grandmother’s house or your own, or if you’re a garage sale addict, look for the company’s signature cobalt blue swords. You never know. No doubt, someone, somewhere, at sometime, took a look at a band of 18 monkeys and stuck them in the “sell” pile. $38k, guy. $38k. That will buy a lot of bananas or, you know, a car.