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December 2007

Staying Small and Fine

Nymphenburg porcelain preserves the past, plans for a bright future

One of the grand court buildings on the Nymphenburg Palace rondelle today houses the showroom of Nymphenburg Porcelain, usually cited with Meissen and KPM as the epitome of German porcelain-making. Just behind that building is a short garden path that leads visitors back 250 years to the manufactory, where water from palace canals powers the machines just as it did in the 1760s.
Since the medieval ages, alchemists all over the world had tried to determine a recipe for making gold. The byproduct of that futile search was the discovery, first in China, of porcelain, or “white gold.” Subsequently, the sovereigns of Prussia (KPM), Saxonia (Meissen) and Bavaria founded porcelain manufactories as a source of extra income. Elector Max Joseph III launched the Munich company with the court’s investment in 1747, in a hunting lodge at Neudeck, not far from the Au offices of MUNICH FOUND. Production began on the elegant table services, centerpieces and figurines associated with court life, but it wasn’t until 1754 that pieces appeared stamped with the Elector’s coat of arms. In 1761, the studios moved to the palace at Nymphenburg. Designer and sculptor Franz Anton Bustelli of Ticino—the most important china artist of the Rococo—instituted high standards of porcelain making, thereby founding the worldwide reputation for these unique masterpieces.
The level of craftsmanship insisted upon in those first decades has been painstakingly maintained at Nymphenburg. Today, the manufactory is known for its handwork in a world where these skills mostly have been lost to increasingly mechanized production. The original buildings and works are protected as a historic monument and little has changed over the centuries. “Klein und fein” is still the motto here, according to Sabine Arneth, who joined the 60-plus-member staff in 1980 and leads the weekly tours. (Note: Guests must call in advance to see if space is available, as tour numbers are extremely limited.) Nymphenburg artists tap the design repertoire from the last 250 years to create new pieces, about 85 percent of which are special-ordered by clients such as governments and royal families for their homes, retreats and yachts. The high quality and handwork involved in each project dictate cost; pieces start at around € 50 for the tiniest of dishes, and most table services cost many thousands of euro. Of course, Nymphenburg porcelain is now more a collector’s item than tableware, but most Munich families have at least a coffee or tea dish in the closet, handed down from generation to generation.
As in most porcelain companies, the exact recipe for Nymphenburg porcelain is a closely guarded secret. The main ingredients are feldspar, quartz and kaolin. Once the pulverized ingredients are blended to create the porcelain clay, it is aged—much like fine wine—in the cellar for two years, where it undergoes a fermentation process that makes it easier to handle. It can then be used to “throw” pieces on a wheel, or, it is blended with water to create a paste called slip that is poured into plaster molds. (These molds can only be used about 20 times before they begin to lose their crisp lines and dull the pieces that are created from them.) Whether thrown or molded, porcelain pieces are fired in “biscuit” firings using a giant gas-powered kiln. Figurines are then created out of up to 100 individually molded parts and painted.
The exact ingredients for Nymphenburg’s colors also are a secret. The spacious painting rooms on the second story of the studio are filled with the scent of oils of clove and lavender, as well as turpentine: the combination used to create the paints. Each artist works freehand from a model to re-create designs. In some cases, certain master pieces require artists have a decade-long apprenticeship in the painting department. Bustelli’s famous Comedia dell’arte figures, for example—bestsellers in the trendiest of New York galleries—take about two weeks for one artist to paint. Finally, each piece is stamped with an “F” for his Royal Highness Duke Franz of Bavaria, as the company is still owned by the Wittelsbachs, the former Bavarian royal family.
Since the late 1990s, the manufactory has worked with up-and-coming designers to create new pieces. One such project by American designer Ted Muehling was a maritime collection featuring shell-shaped bowls and popular egg vases that capture the design trends of the current market. Dutch artist Hella Jongerius, who was awarded the Design Prize of Germany in 2006 for her Nymphenburg Sketches, adds whimsical flora and fauna to tableware and continues the long tradition of animal forms. With these new additions, Nymphenburg has ensured the company’s designs will continue to hold up over time—in this case, centuries. <<<

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