Time often functions as a test of a material’s worth, its usefulness in the grand scheme of things. The practicality and lasting relevance of materials like wood, wool, metal reach far back into our history, better equipping humanity for our spritely sprint towards inevitable obsolescence. While as awesome and as taken for granted as many fundamental building blocks for existence are, when taking a closer look at the less thoroughly appreciated, less obvious contenders, little revelations rear their heads, perhaps none more than porcelain.
The name invokes as many reactions and impressions as its myriad uses — an MVP in fields as diverse as dentistry, electricity and fine art. All uses though, possess one commonality, their reliance on porcelain’s unique intrinsic characteristics: its hardness, translucency, inconceivably high resistance to heat, distinctively deep white color and range of texture from rough to smooth. Not coincidentally, the name “porcelain” refers to texture and translucency, derived from the Italian “porcellana” for a type of shell that reflects these very characteristics.
While no precise formulation of materials makes up porcelain, the clay mineral kaolinite is the most frequent main ingredient in an array that can include feldspar, quartz, bone ash and alabaster, among others, in the mix referred to as “paste.” This paste is then kneaded, reacting well to water and a skilled hand, allowing more or less flexibility and structure to the unfired clay.
And, oh, the firing: here’s where porcelain truly stands apart; fired at temperatures up to 2700 degrees Fahrenheit that would reduce most if not all other types of pottery to a spectacularly runny mess, the resulting material is so hard that even the most formidable steel would leave no scratch. The lengthy firing process allows for a complete molecular rearrangement of the paste in a process comparable to the formation of rocks and minerals in the molten core of the Earth.
This also creates an unrivaled insulator, seized upon for industrial uses from common light bulb bases to larger power transformer bushings to porcelain tiles. Just how insulatory? Heat-wise, this is best illustrated from an incident reported at Europe’s first porcelain production facility, where a fresh-from-the-kiln white hot tea pot immediately submerged in cold water suffered absolutely no damage. From the whitest of heats to the coldest of colds, that’s remarkable for finicky earthenware’s delicately fragile reputation. In the ’80s, for the sake of historical accuracy, an evidently quite bored M.I.T. technician successfully repeated the experiment.
This strength lends itself crucially to electrical insulation as well, dampening any development of heat. A glaze allows for the shedding of moisture and unlike condensation-attracting glass, another great insulator, its strength allows any number of shapes free from structural strains.
Historically speaking, China is the birthplace of porcelain, with complex historical records putting its inception somewhere around the 16th–11th century B.C. As it spread across the Middle East and eventually into the West, it became highly prized and an object of intrigue sought after to be duplicated.
In January of 1708, at the behest of the enviably named August the Strong (King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania), a young alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger, working with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, brought porcelain to Europe. By 1710, the still extant Meissen Manufactory was formed to produce Europe’s first porcelain, attracting artists and artisans from across the continent to lend their own styles in forging a visual language for the new medium. Johann Joachim Kändler had his rococo flourishes, Marianne Hoest her predilection for lugubriously lustrous fish.
Among a number of others, they ushered in an era of porcelain arts, crafts and kitchenware of unparalleled and previously undreamed of beauty and luxury. Companies sprang up in France (Sèvres, 1740), England (Chelsea Porcelain Factory, 1743) and Denmark (Bing & Grøndahl, 1853) to produce all the figurines, plates and candelabras money could buy and that the imagination could summon. In 1825, William Ellis Tucker of Philadelphia was the first company to produce porcelain in the United States. They went out of business only thirteen years later.
Utilizing different firing, painting and glazing techniques, a new visual language was established, one in which everyday objects such as birds or children were bestowed epic seizures of color and infinite fits of luminosity. While their artistry is often suffocated behind glass at galleries and museums — when taken for the elemental and enthusiastic works of art they are, their history and achievements are truly remarkable.
In addition to the marvels of the figures, the bordering, often intricate, floral embellishment on the kitchenware now exists in the contemporary lexicon of design as a bonafide classic. Not only still used as decoration on kitchenware, these designs can be seen on everyday items from bed sheets to napkins.
Porcelain is so much a part of our everyday design vernacular, a wide range of interesting deconstructivist takes on the material have emerged, none more effectively than from the Dutch bastion of conceptual chicanery as Droog – where Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders have continued to expand the realms of the porcelain’s reach. That is the definition of timeless, a “white gold” for the ages.
Leading image: Cockatoo by Johann Joachim Kandler, Meissen Porcelain, 1734. (Image courtesy Rijksmuseum, Netherlands)
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