The Ashtrays of Limoges
David L. Ross
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93
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Marco Polo's porcelainé de Chine, those imports of fine tableware from China, became known over time as porcelain, or, more simply, as china in English-speaking countries. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, European artisans tried for years, without success, to reproduce these exotic treasures. Indeed, only after much trial and error would European artisans finally unlock the Orient's jealously guarded techniques of firing the special clay that is used to make fine porcelain.
By the early 1700s, after countless experiments using different clay compounds, various firing temperatures and specially mixed glazes, European artisans and chemists at last mastered the Asian art of porcelain production. Soon thereafter, German, French and English craftsmen were turning out fine porcelain table service for the leading royal courts throughout Europe. By the late eighteenth century, the most famous names and centers of porcelain production were Meissen in Germany, Sévres and Limoges in France, Ginori in Italy and Royal Worcester and Spode in England.
Given this lineage, porcelain is the true aristocrat of earthenware. In contrast to other types of oven-fired tableware, porcelain is different in three chief ways: porcelain is produced using special clays and compounds; it is oven-fired at much higher temperatures than other types of earthenware; and finally, its decorations, known as glazes, are specially prepared for higher temperatures and, quite often, are carefully applied by hand.
All Limoges porcelain, like those of its illustrious counterparts in Austria, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, utilizes a special clay, which is composed of a mixture of kaolin, quartz and feldspar. These materials are then mixed carefully into a very dense, pastelike substance. The resulting clay is then molded into the appropriate form--a plate, teapot or ashtray--and baked at about 1,800'F in what is known as the first firing. This first firing process can last as long as eight hours, according to Bernardaud.
After cooling off, the plate or teapot is then dipped in a special enamel bath and immediately undergoes a grand feu, or second firing, at about 2,500'F, a process that can last as long as 30 hours. After the grand feu is completed, the decoration process begins: it starts with the application of a design motif, generally through a chromolithographic process, although certain valuable objects are normally painted by hand. In all cases, gold and platinum work on porcelain is hand-painted. A final series of firings, depending on the piece and the decorations, is then undertaken, at temperatures ranging from about 1,500'F to 2,200'F, notes Bernardaud.
Porcelaines Bernardaud's ashtrays are generously proportioned. The ashtrays also exhibit great personality, since many of Bernardaud's designs are inspired by artists like Kees Van Dongen, Raymond Loewy and Bernard Buffet. But many of the trademark Bernardaud designs come from the company's own atelier.
A famous example of Bernardaud's own work is its "Boston" design, a somewhat dreamy, but definitely jazzy, interpretation of the Roaring Twenties. Conceived and designed in Bernardaud's own atelier in 1925, "Boston" features a multicolored confetti look against an elegant gold background.
Echoing the sophisticated look of the '30s, Bernardaud's "Paris" design, shown in the ashtray format, reflects the Art Deco style inspired by the French artists Sonia Delauney and Fernand Leger. The ashtray's brilliant white background contrasts dramatically with exotic-looking women posed against a colorful background of powdered gold, soft coral and vivid turquoise.
Another ashtray, "Weiner," whose sleek, black-and-white design was inspired by the celebrated Viennese designer/artist Joseph Hoffman, displays a decidedly modernist look. Like "Boston," the Hoffman-inspired "Weiner" comes directly from Bernardaud's own atelier.
Jean-Pierre Hamard, artistic director of Bernardaud's atelier, oversees all the firm's design work, from the revival of historic designs of eighteenth-century French porcelain to new creative work by contemporary French designers like Catherine Bergen and Italian painters such as Giovanna Amoruso. In all, Porcelaines Bernardaud releases almost 20 new designs a year, not including special orders for clients like the sultan of Oman, Air France and foreign embassies, among others.
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