A Porcelain Story

The incredible story of the Nymphenburg Porcelain manufacture, where everything is still done by hand.

by 23 January 2017

Fine porcelain has been made in the northern wing of the Nymphenburg Palace since 1761. The manufacture was founded in the 18th century by Prince-Elector Max III, and still today the company refuses to adopt any form of automated production. It is considered the last major producer of pure porcelain throughout the world.  Here, the term ‘manufacture,’ which comes from the Latin ‘manu factum’ (made by hand) is taken literally. Each vase, figurine, and sculptural piece is marked with the Wittelsbacher lozenge shield and bears the personal mark both of the potter or sculptor, and of the painter.

The first stage in production is the clay body, a secret blend of kaolin, feldspar and silica that is mixed by master blender Dieter Zeus, using mills that are powered by a torrent channelled from the Nymphenburg Canal, which drives a wheel and thence a series of belts. The porcelain is then left to age for two years before it is ready for the potters’ wheel. The sculptural pieces are modelled entirely by hand. After this, a specialist fettler works on the surface and the fine details, and then the pieces are bisque-fired. The decorations are then applied by skilled artists, who use brushes only, no decals or templates, to paint each piece.

first imageporcelain production process

Up until the manufacture’s renovation in 2014, visitors could see only a range of the brand’s top pieces. Today on the other hand, you can embark on a voyage of discovery through six thematically-arranged galleries. On the ground floor, there is an atelier showing the current artists’ designs. You may think that porcelain is something just for dignified dowager coffee mornings, collectors or investors, but this is not the case: works in Nymphenburg porcelain include many avant-garde art concepts.

Classics such as the Rococo service, with the most elaborate floral decoration in the world – each piece requires three weeks of painstaking work by the artist – are still favourites in fashionable homes from Munich to Berlin and much further afield. For nearly 270 years, clients have included the international aristocracy, palaces, embassies, hotels and churches.

Related: 6 of the best galleries in Berlin

The manufacture’s fame is also based on the work of sculptor Franz Anton Bustelli (1723-1763) and his series of 16 Commedia dell’arte figures. They are still made today, and famous couturiers (including Vivienne Westwood, Elie Saab, Christian Lacroix and Maurizio Galante) have created new ‘costumes’ for them.

clara the rhinocerosClara the rhinoceros

Another ongoing favourite, made in bisque and glazed versions, is Clara the rhinoceros and her remarkable story. In 1768 Peter Anton created the original, originally intended as a table piece offering a solution to awkward gaps in the conversation at dinner. Clara herself, originally from India (1738-1758), spent most of her life touring Europe, visiting cities, royal courts, fairs and even the Venice Carnival, posing for sculptors and inspiring poets and musicians.

Today, contemporary artists such as Ted Muehling, Konstantin Grcic and Hella Jongorius continue to develop new designs for the maison, with the objective of attracting new clients. Alternatively, you can commission a custom-made piece, perhaps as a wedding gift. Or you could order décor for your luxury yacht, as seen on the Queen of Datcha or the Golden Odyssey, whether they be tiles, bathroom fixtures, or a new dinner service. A famous yacht owner? Aristotle Onassis ordered a table service designed by French artist Colette de Jouvanel for his legendary Christina Onassis.

last picpersonalized wedding pieces

And what does the future hold for the Manufaktur? Headed by Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, the company continues to thrive and develop new markets – but always with caution, because Nymphenburg should remain forever ‘a Bavarian Manufaktur.’