When you’re a company which was already 130 years old when New Zealand’s Treaty of Waitangi was signed, how do you conduct yourself in 2016’s retail market? At Frankfurt’s Ambiente homewares fair in February, heritage tableware brands like Meissen, Royal Copenhagen and Kahla sought to address questions like this.rn
Meissen is a porcelain-maker based near Dresden in Germany. Founded in 1710, it was the first porcelain manufactory developed in Europe. Its director tabletop and hotel services, Achim Bornhäußer, estimates 85 percent of the designs from Meissen’s 300-year history are still in production: “Discontinued is not in our vocabulary.”
One line given prominence at Ambiente was a table setting featuring a delicate pumpkin-flower pattern. This pattern was first given expression in the form of a Chinese-style vase dating from 1920, but the design was subtly updated for its second outing. Bornhäußer, highlighted the table setting as a respectful way to deal with heritage.
“We have a duty to deal with it in our own way because it’s so valuable,” he says. “Don’t just copy, make it better.”
Nearly as old as Meissen is Danish company Royal Copenhagen, which is famous around the world for its blue floral porcelain. In fact, its slogan is “A passion for blue since 1775”.
Key account manager Flemming Sorensen spoke frankly of how Royal Copenhagen has recently enacted a price drop to help it reach a bigger target market. At the same time, the company widened its assortment into unpainted white products, but then realised, “We are a hand-painting company,” so is now in the process of undoing this change of tack.
In 2008, Royal Copenhagen offered an assortment which was 70 percent bigger than it now has. The majority of discontinued lines consisted of figurines and vases. “We made lots of not very kind decisions, but [without them], we may not be here anymore,” Sorensen says.
He spoke of seeing many other heritage companies losing their traditions, and emphasised the importance of modernising without distancing Royal Copenhagen from its roots.
At just 172 years old, German company Kahla is a relative newcomer, but the family-owned firm has seen some turbulence during its time. The porcelain-maker is located in what was for a short time East Germany, and in 2014 celebrated 20 years since it was re-established following German reunification.
The international crowd at Ambiente’s design tour were amused at the cross-significance of the word “Kahla” – in Arabic, it translates to “black”, while in Finnish, it means “fish”. The company is in fact named for the region in which it was founded, which is near Thuringia.
Designer Barbara Schmidt is now drawing on Japanese influences for her porcelain designs. The ‘O’ set she exhibited at Ambiente is inspired by origami – each piece bears a “pleat” or fold. O incorporates material advances as well as new design, with a layer of bonded silicon on the bottom of the cups helping it sit steadily on any surface.
For Schmidt, it’s impossible to choose between the importance of a piece’s identity or its function. Both must work together – and that remains as true for heritage companies as it is for the objects they make.
Sarah Dunn travelled to Ambiente courtesy of Messe Reps & Travel. A full article on Ambiente will be forthcoming in the April / May issue of NZRetail magazine.