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The art of porcelain at Meissen


Historic German porcelain house Meissen, which recently celebrated its 300th anniversary, is rediscovering its artistic traditions – with a distinctly modern twist, as Becky Sunshine discovers

‘It’s a challenge to define luxury these days,’ says Dr Christian Kurtzke, the charismatic CEO of German luxury porcelain brand Meissen, which last year launched its home collection, opened an impressive flagship in Milan and has recently launched a fourth season of exquisitely covetable jewellery. ‘There’s a crisis of authenticity for many of the luxury brands,’ he says, ‘but we’re really looking for something that goes deep. In Germany we’re less interested in trends and talk about luxury in a different way: it means quality and refinement. Meissen is in a fortunate position and doesn’t need to rush for scale or fast revenue.’

Meissen’s transformation
Meissen’s rich history spans a little over three centuries and the company celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2010; Kurtzke joined at the end of 2008, in time for the celebrations. ‘I felt it was absolutely the moment to take Meissen back to its origins, its philosophical foundations,’ he explains. ‘The archives tell the most wonderful story, so I felt it was time to transform the company from a traditional porcelain manufacturer into a luxury brand without compromising its traditions of artistry and craftsmanship. Home and jewellery are part of the heritage of Meissen.’

The brand, founded by Augustus the Strong of Saxony in 1710, was created to impress competitive European royalty. Obsessed with porcelain from China, Augustus set artists the task of imitating the material using gold and silver, before they eventually worked out the formula for pure white porcelain for which Meissen has become known. The stately homes of Britain, Europe and beyond swiftly became filled with the pieces as a statement of status and privilege.

Looking back into the archives
‘People ask me why are we interested in jewellery, but the paradigm was these gold and silver pieces,’ explains Kurtzke. ‘So launching a jewellery line is really getting back to the company origins.’ In 2011 the 1739 Royal Blossom line was introduced, featuring gold blooms with porcelain details; women’s watches with hand-painted porcelain dials are new for this year. The same paradigm exists for the home products, says Kurtzke. ‘A hundred years ago, Meissen created hand-painted tiles, which we’ve now resurrected for walls, floors, bathrooms, spas and kitchens and can be seen throughout Villa Meissen in Milan.’ Looking back through the archives, Kurtzke also discovered the company was producing lamps in 1867 and in 1893 furniture was created using porcelain. ‘Many of those pillars of the home are deeply rooted in our manufacturing history – hand-painted silks, the craftsmanship. That’s what we’ve always done. It seems like the perfect time to bring them back.’

Finding the perfect home for Meissen
This, of course, meant Kurtzke needed somewhere to showcase the new lines. Villa Meissen, established in the 16th-century Casa Carcassola-Grande on Milan’s Via Montenapoleone, opened in April 2012 during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile (Milan Furniture Fair) and now houses the complete Meissen collection. It showcases Meissen Home, which consists of hand-crafted sofas, armchairs, tables, lamps, textiles and rugs, and rooms are dedicated to the Meissen jewellery and hand-painted porcelain collection. ‘We were looking for the ideal site for years,’ says Kurtzke. ‘I was certain I didn’t want a normal store, that’s not the purpose of this – I wanted to create a villa. It will function mostly by invitation for events, talks, cultural events in art, design and all aspects of culture.’

While the product is present, he explains, selling is not the villa’s primary function. ‘We’re truly sticking to the DNA of Meissen, the highest quality, which we realise only a fraction of people will understand. European luxury is discreet and everything we do is enriched with that DNA: colour, shape, pattern, it’s all about heritage and exacting standards. The Milan flagship will provide a European blueprint for further expansion globally.’

Inspire and co-create
Alongside Meissen’s commercial interests, the company also runs the Meissen ArtCampus in Leipzig, established in the 1920s and reinstated by Kurtzke in 2009. He describes it as ‘a platform for external artists, both German and from around the world, to come and paint or create 3D works, installations, anything they wish.’ The Meissen ArtCampus is, he says, ‘a wonderful place for artists to interact with Meissen and somewhere for the internal team to be inspired and to co-create. Some of the work has been shown at Art Basel.’ The initiative is not about sponsorship or investment, he emphasises, but about art for art’s sake. ‘I want stimulating, enriching people to work and get excited creatively. I want them talking about artistic principles. That’s essential for the creative future of Meissen.’

Meissen’s spirit of collaboration will continue to expand this year in projects with the Fraunhofer Center for Organic Materials and Electronic Devices Dresden. The partnership’s new range of porcelain lighting systems for spring 2013 is proof that Meissen is set to light up homes for centuries to come – both literally and figuratively.

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