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In Focus: German handcrafts


Nuremberg’s charming Handwerkerhof craft centre showcases the traditional skills the city is famous for

Josh Sims
Josh Sims,

Get married in Nuremberg and friends are likely to give you a cup made of tin – the poor man’s silver, as it was once dubbed. But this is no snub – local tradition says that the holder of the cup is said to be the one who holds the reins of the relationship. The maker of the cup might well be Georg Stanisavljevic, who is also the keeper of the city’s long history of tin smithing. In his small shop-cum-workshop all things tin can be found, from bottle openers to figurines.

Although the tin industry has been significant in Nuremberg since the mid-16th century, Stanisavljevic, who makes his own moulds and fires his models at the requisite 1,300 degrees Celsius, has only been here since 1971. However, the Handwerkerhof where he works represents a step back in time to celebrate the various crafts that are a central part of Nuremberg’s history, and for which the city was once recognised across Europe. This charming craft centre with its timbered buildings, cobbled streets, traditional signs and bright awnings represents Nuremberg’s full craft diversity, from metalwork to leather, pottery, ceramics and stained glass.

Stanisavljevic’s giant plates might do battle with small armies – of tin soldiers, naturally. They stand ready for combat with drumming monkeys hiding in boxes at another of the Handwerkerhof’s shops, one specialising in tin toys. Germany was once renowned as the world’s best maker of tin toys of all kinds, before it switched its metalwork and engineering know-how to making some of the world’s best cars. Craftsmen here made some of the first tin plate toy cars in the 1890s, and until early in the 20th century Nuremberg was responsible for a third of Germany’s mechanical toy exports.

One could hardly be in a better German city to see some outstanding examples of stained glass, given the variety of halls, chapels and administrative buildings with fine examples. These are exemplified by the early 16th century windows of the Saint Lorenz and Saint Sebald churches, created by glass master Veit Hirschvogel to designs by Albrecht Dürer, no less. Today the Handwerkerhof is host to Helga Feurer, Nuremberg’s only remaining stained glass painter. Feurer’s workshop has been situated in the Handwerkerhof for over 30 years, but her craft dates back far longer and has remained unaltered for centuries.

Traditional dolls may be a niche market in today’s world, but they are still made here and a German child from days long gone would immediately recognise the fatschenkinder –chubby, swaddled baby dolls once typically made by novices in nunneries as devotional objects before much later becoming toys. The Handwerkerhof doll shop sells antique, collectible examples as well as new versions. And although these large porcelain-headed, big-eyed dolls would struggle to fit inside them, Nuremberg’s 18th-century patrician families would also have wanted their offspring to play with a dolls’ house. These too were made here in the city, often as scale models of the family home. Also available are the distinctive Nuremberg Christmas tree fairies – with wings but armless, a haunting rendering of the familiar icon.

Visitors can also discover the little-known art of pyrography, also known as pokerwork. This is the burning of a design or motif into wooden forms of all kinds, a rare skill that makes an unusual change from most woodworking processes involving knives and chisels. Not that the ancient hand skills of Nuremberg don’t move on; centuries ago this strange craft would have been done, as the name suggests, using metal spikes and other implements heated to red hot in open fires. These days the pokerwork practitioners at the Handwerkerhof use a metal loop attached to a transformer, which allows for better control of the heat applied to the wood. Take time to admire this curious artisanal procedure – at a reassuringly safe distance.

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