If getting out the best china for a dinner party can feel like a social pressure even today, imagine the angst of ensuring a good spread for the Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, Johann Friedrich Karl von Ostein, in the 18th century. This was the man who took his desire for porcelain tableware of the highest standard so seriously that he granted a manufacturer the right to make it in Frankfurt just to ensure a steady supply to his household.
The result was the founding of Höchst Porzellan (now Höchster Porzellan-Manufaktur) in 1746, making it one of Germany’s earliest porcelain manufacturers. It adopted the wheel of Mainz as its trademark, in honour of its sponsor, a symbol that appears on its white-glazed and biscuit-fired porcelain, painted pieces, decorations and, above all, tableware even today. It’s not the only survivor from the maker’s early years; Höchster’s range includes skilful reproductions of some of its most celebrated pieces from the 18th century.
Frankfurt: city of porcelain
Yet while Höchster may have an obvious presence around Frankfurt, the company is far from alone in porcelain manufacturing in Germany. The country is home to many of the finest porcelain makers in the world, from Meissen to Nymphenburg, Wagner & Apel to Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur and Lichte. Given that it was in Germany that the secret of how the Chinese made their much-sought-after porcelain was finally discovered in 1708, it’s not surprising that so many German brands are among those rated most highly by collectors.
Villeroy & Boch
Jessika Rauch is brand ambassador for Villeroy & Boch, another German porcelain brand. The development of such a strong porcelain industry in the country was, she believes, only natural. At a time when the infrastructure to move raw materials long distances wasn’t available, makers had to set up wherever those happened to be, and much of Germany is rich in kaolin, quartz and feldspar: porcelain’s three key ingredients. The abundance of these helped create a quality product, too: ‘the kind of porcelain that your grandmother passes down to you,’ says Rauch.
Choosing the best
‘Of course, some people will struggle to tell the difference between mass-market tableware and fine porcelain products, much as they would in clothing between one cotton and another,’ she adds. ‘The good porcelain often has a creamier colour, is smooth rather than rough on the underside and, if you really know your porcelain, even sounds different. But it really shows its quality in the process of using it. It lasts. It’s an investment.’
She notes that many of the nation’s smaller makers have struggled financially over recent decades, but that the major players have found success in necessary re-invention. If older generations have seen high-quality porcelain as aspirational, then younger generations have tended to view it as rather old fashioned, though vintage pieces – decorated with floral motifs, country scenes or gold trim – are currently fashionable in some quarters.
A new audience
‘The fact is that nobody needs a new set of porcelain tableware every year. Most people no longer want a soup tureen or six kinds of plate. So as a national industry we have to adapt,’ explains Rauch. ‘We have to follow trends – are we eating more pasta? Are more of us living alone? – and provide more contemporary products. We have to be ready for when people decide they’re finished with Ikea.’
This is why the likes of Villeroy & Boch increasingly produce more innovative pieces which, for example, blend materials: porcelain with slate, porcelain with wood. It’s why Frankfurt’s Höchster works with the designer Veit Streitenberger – also a Frankfurt resident – to create strikingly modern interpretations of more conservative porcelain forms. The company’s Impressions series, for instance, takes its name literally. A contemporary cubist vase is physically imprinted with the form of a traditional trumpet vase. A conical bowl is transformed with integrated elements from an 18th-century flower-relief plate of the kind von Ostein would have been familiar with. Other pieces are more unexpected still: a porcelain letter opener, for example, designed by Mario Effenberger and winner of the Frankfurt Messe Design Plus Award.
In this dynamic market, not every smaller piece has a place. Ornamental figurines, as one might expect given modern home interiors, are now strictly a collectors’ item, or perhaps purchased for a special occasion. Although perhaps it is just a matter of time until those, too, undergo reinvention by one of Germany’s oldest craft industries.