Design & Decoration S02 ep15 : Michel Bernardaud, Bernardaud Porcelain,[????]
Interview with Michel Bernardaud
The story of French porcelain begins in 1768 when a woman from the village of Saint-Yrieix La Perche near Limoges discovers a soft, white clay that she uses to bleach her household linens. Experts would identify this substance as kaolin: the crucial, long sought after ingredient that is responsible for the resiliency, durability and flawless iridescent translucency of fine porcelain. The search for this “secret ingredient” had lasted four centuries since Marco Polo’s discovery of Chinese porcelain. The discovery of kaolin in France marked the birth of industrial and cultural significance of Limoges porcelain. Against this historical backdrop two enterprising industrialists, noticing an increase in consumer use of porcelain dinner services, open a factory in Limoges in 1863. The construction of railroad lines in the area offered means of distribution of their product to more markets. A workshop apprentice named Léonard Bernardaud distinguished himself among the workers. Twenty years later, he would be promoted to head of sales and later named partner. Léonard Bernardaud acquired the company in 1900 and gave it his name. He increased production capacity of the factory and opened up new markets, notably in the United States. Leonard was succeeded by his sons, Jacques and Michel Bernardaud. The brothers would assure the viability of the company during the turbulence of the Great Depression and World War II through collaborations with artists to expand the company's range of collections. In 1949, they boldly introduced the first gas-fueled tunnel kiln in France that operated 24 hours a day. This “green initiative” ensured constant firing temperatures that yielded sturdier pieces in greater quantity with fewer defects. As a result, industrial scale production was achieved without compromise to the high standards of craftsmanship based on artisan techniques for which the company is known.
Bernardaud: We’re the largest and the oldest family owned company in the porcelain world.
We’ve been established since 1863, so I’m 137 years old although I probably look younger.
Bernardaud: The company established in the world was a manufacturer created by the brother of
the King Louis XVIth, in 1757.
Bernardaud: So during centuries Europeans tried to manufacture porcelain and they were
importing it from mainland China was a very precious material at that time, the Kings were
keeping them in closed cabinets, it was very expensive. And suddenly during the course of the 18th
Century the … which is the clay the basic clay, very white that is used in the manufacturing
process of porcelain that was found in Limoges and in … together with the fact that in this region
and especially the Limoges one, you had huge forests that was providing the wood for the ovens.
Bernardaud: Our trademark is Bernardaud, we also have a branch which is the Manufacturing
Royale which is the first company created in Limoges by the brother of the King. And that we’ve
bought it, we’ve bought it.
When did you buy that?
Bernardaud: 50 years ago.
When did you become part of the history of Bernardaud?
Bernardaud: 20 years ago.
Did you know you were going to be in the family business in the back of your mind?
Bernardaud: No not really. My father was, would never talk of his business when he was coming
home and to be honest I had hardly visited more than two or three times the factory where that
belongs to my family before I joined it. I was in business school in Paris, was very happy there,
was a student, I was afterwards, I started working in a company that was doing public construction
and one day my father made me something that you call in Sicily, a proposal that you can’t refuse,
an offer that you can’t refuse. It was in 1979.
Bernardaud: Pottery is one of the oldest industries created by man, so yes, there is production of a
work. One of our main tasks is to keep ourselves different, not only in terms of maintaining a very,
very high quality, but also being capable of creating new shapes, new designs that are very modern
and one of the things that we’ve done to be able to do that is to work very closely with designers or
artists of our time and give them free hands more or less to do whatever they feel that should, this
could be done you know for Bernardaud. This is one of our good strengths.
Can you tell me some of the artists that work with you?
Bernardaud: … we’ve done some things with Warren Liechtenstein, with Cesar, with George
Sevel, we’re working a lot now with Olivia Ganier … Stratten, Marcus …
How do you find these people, do they come to you or how does it work?
Bernardaud: Well it’s by word of mouth more or less at the beginning and now a lot of them come
How different is an artist when he works with ceramics or a plate or your medium, than when say
Victorstein or one of these other artists is working with a canvas? Are they actually doing the print
first on a canvas and then you’re copying it onto the plate or do they actually work on the plate
Bernardaud: Well, could be both. In most cases we work from sketches on paper and then we do
first proof either in plaster or in porcelain and we work together with the designers, the artists and
he say yes, no or we say yes, no because we say this is impossible to manufacture or difficult to
manufacture and maybe we should change it this way or that way, not too much. Or we can have
the case of an artist coming to Limoges and working in our studios and with the moulders with the
painters and doing the piece, the first piece himself … originals absolutely and what we’re doing
also is that we’ve started a big program a few years ago to create a kind of … of porcelain in our
main factory in Limoges the factory where the company was founded in 1863, it’s been rebuilding
some of them being not any more in production and instead of doing some real estate operation,
what we have decided to do is to renovate those buildings, open them to the public which we’re
doing step by step, so we have all the old workshops that people can visit and have a feeling of the
history of the Limoges porcelain and we are going to build also rooms, bedrooms to host artists or
students that will come and spend some time with us you know to work on this material.
Bernardaud: If we were to send somebody from quality control in a museum right now and check
all the porcelain pieces … dye in it I would say 90% of it would be rejected for the white wear.
But of course this was back when they had rudimentary techniques.
Bernardaud: Absolutely, absolutely and especially the firing was far less under control, the glazing
as well. On the other hand, you were able in the past to get colours that you cannot get or very
hardly anymore now because of the environmental loss we cannot use lead any more or titanium in
the colours so the spectrum of colours that you have now is more limited than it was in the past.
Bernardaud: Working also with people that are the private airplanes, we found one day somebody
that was very concerned with the weight of the plane. I did a set of porcelain is not what is the
most heavy on the plane, but still he wanted us to work out something to make it very, very as light
as possible. So we had to redo entirely specially for him, all our mould to be able to produce plates
or cups that would be probably that are probably one-third or one-half of the weight of the normal
ones. Very high level of rejects because we had to eliminate a lot. But that was really a major task
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