For centuries France has nurtured some of the world’s most celebrated chefs and fashion designers. But French innovation didn’t start – nor does it stop – in the kitchen or on the catwalk. French artisans also set high standards in the realm of homeware. It all makes sense. In a culture where l’art de vivre contributes to national identity, beauty begins at home.
Baccarat, one of France’s best-known crystal manufacturers, began as a small glassworks in the village of Baccarat in north-eastern France in 1764. At first it focused on mirrors and windowpanes, but by 1816 it had turned to crystal glasswork. It was a judicious move: within a decade France’s King Louis XVIII had commissioned a series of lavish drinking glasses, and his successors followed suit.
Baccarat’s reputation soon spread far beyond France. For his sumptuous Dolmabahçe palace in Istanbul, Turkey’s Sultan Abdülmecid called on Baccarat to create vast chandeliers for his state rooms and crystal balusters for the grand staircase. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II owned a set of candelabra that stood several metres tall, as well as commissioning a collection of coloured and engraved glasses.
And in India, it was said that the Maharaja of Gwalior was so taken with Baccarat that he used elephants to test the ceiling strength of his new palace – the grandiose Jai Vilas Mahal – so he could hang two of the largest chandeliers the company had ever made.
These days, Baccarat artisans still combine white sand, lead oxide, potash and other substances (the exact ingredients are kept shrouded in mystery) before heating them to 1,450° Celsius. Colour, an 1839 innovation, is produced by adding metallic oxides to make 18 stunning hues from emerald green to cherry red. The firm’s archive, which includes designs that date back to its founding, now has 65,000 moulds and 200,000 drawings.
And the collection keeps on growing. Baccarat releases two collections per year, spanning tableware, lighting and furniture, and has a long-term catalogue of more than 2,000 works. Helping to keep it at the forefront of homeware design are its collaborations with names such as Marcel Wanders, Arik Levy and Philippe Starck, whose smoky-black Zenith Noir chandelier is a striking reinterpretation of a Baccarat classic.
Look for similarly impressive designs and creations to come; as part of its 250th anniversary celebration in 2014, Baccarat will re-issue some of its most celebrated pieces, as well as unveiling brilliant new ones.
Baccarat may have crystal covered, but when it comes to porcelain Bernardaud is a French star in an area dominated by Germany. The first European hard-paste porcelain was made in 1709 in the Saxon town of Meissen; it took another 60 years before the discovery of kaolin, the soft white clay that gives porcelain its resilience, in a village near Limoges enabled the French to make their own.
The coming of the railway to Limoges provided a further boost, and led to the opening of a factory for dinnerware there in 1863. Léonard Bernardaud, a workshop apprentice, would eventually rise to head of sales and partner, before finally acquiring the company and renaming it in 1900.
Today, Bernardaud continues to be celebrated for picture-perfect dinnerware in an impressive array of styles. Impeccable design has made it the iconic brand it is today. Pink vines and flowers dance across coffee pots and dinner plates in the Louis XV range, while a hand-painted blue-and-green floral pattern makes the Marie Antoinette motif timeless.
Michel Bernardaud, the company’s chairman, believes that Bernardaud’s rich history and deep knowledge of its craft frees its designers to break new ground. ‘We have been immersed in porcelain for many years, so we know what you can and cannot do with it,’ he said recently. ‘As long as we know that, we can be open to work on special projects that push the limits.’
Dining in style
As part of its 150th anniversary celebrations in 2013, Bernardaud has commissioned contemporary artists to create limited-edition dinner plates. Greek artist Fassianos has depicted mythological figures such as Neptune, Icarus, Demeter and Pan in blue, gold and a fiery red.
For her part, artist Sophie Calle wrote a story that is spread across six different plates (available in French or English). ‘I enjoy eating out of other people’s plates,’ she says, ‘because I always get the impression that what they have is better.’ If they own Bernardaud, she may be right.