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Press trip with Portugal Ceramics
Portugal has long been known for it’s ceramic industry. The country is rich in clay deposits after all, making it the perfect place to produce all different types of ceramics. Often we think of the colourful and ornately decorated ceramic tiles when we think of Portugal. They are literally on every street. On the walls of churches and palaces and humble houses. Even on park seats, fountains and in train stations. Not to mention the ceramic tableware. Who hasn’t crammed a few last minute plates and coasters into their suitcase on the way to the airport? It’s almost obligatory.
So when I was asked to join The Art of Possibility Tour to visit and explore some of Portugal’s many varied manufacturers of ceramic tableware, I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity to delve deeper into an industry with design and innovation at it’s heart. Each of the five factories that we visited were producing widely diverse products, but each and every one was immensely proud of it’s heritage, craftsmanship and creativity.
Grestel has been producing tableware, ovenware and serving accessories in fine stoneware for over 20 years. By using the best natural resources in Portugal as a raw material, they combine their own know-how in artisanal ceramic manufacturing with the latest technologies in an exclusive formula at high temperature. In fact their stoneware is fired just once at 1180 degrees centigrade which creates a fully vitrified surface resistant to thermal and mechanical shocks making the products dishwasher, oven and microwave proof.
Touring the factory floor it’s obvious that each and every worker shares the same passion for craftsmanship, whether they are operating machinery, hand finishing, glazing, decorating, or performing one of the many checks for quality. The same can be said for each and every one of the factories on our tour.
Arriving at Vista Alegre is akin to arriving at a historical and beautiful old Portuguese town instead of a porcelain factory. Founded in 1824, the Vista Alegre factory was the first industrial unit dedicated to producing porcelain in Portugal. Nowadays, it is more than a mere industrial unit. It is also a part of the Portuguese heritage, boasting buildings of undeniable architectural interest, and a repository of social and artistic memories.
The stunningly landscaped complex consists not just of a workplace. During the first years following the creation of the factory, the founders ordered a quarter for the workers to be built because the factory was too far from surrounding towns. Some workers still live in these houses today. There is a museum that boasts a collection of pieces that bear witness to the long and rich history of the company, including a reconstruction of a brick built kiln. There is even a church, and more recently a hotel.
However this is a company that does not live in the past. Contemporary design artists within the painting, sculpture, architecture, and literature areas, have lent their talent to many creations of the brand. Marcel Wanders, Jaime Hayon, Christian Lacroix and Oscar de la Renta to name but a few. Vista Alegre services are also officially used by the Portuguese President, the White House, several Royal Houses, as well as celebrities across the world.
A relative newby, Matceramica was established in 2000 at Vale de Ourém, Batalha and they produce both stoneware and earthenware tableware ceramics. As a company they continually invest in state-of-the-art technology such as machinery, robotics, and 3D printing, and they are a world pioneer in the digital printing technology applied to dinnerware. Watching robots along the production line was fascinating but machines cannot replace humans when it comes down to the detail of each piece. More fascinating was watching the workers painting with such care and precision.
Matceramica have a workforce of over 500 people, and a monthly output of over 1 million pieces, and they export 90% of their production to the U.S.A., Germany, France, Spain, the U.K., and China — most of which can be found in major retail chains and department stores.
In 2021, they completed a solar power station, extending over the production facility’s rooftop. This is now able to supply a substantial portion of the energy consumption needed while reducing the carbon footprint by shifting to a renewable energy source. In fact, sustainable energy was a consideration in all of the factories that we visited. While most of them used natural gas to fire the kilns (while making sure that they were always full to capacity), electricity often came from solar panels and water was recycled. Plus any waste products were recycled in some way.
Jomaze has been producing decorative ceramic items for over 50 years. Their vases, pots, candleholders, bowls, and lighting items were exciting to see even in their raw unbaked state. Such was the variety of shapes, sizes and integral decoration. The craftsmanship was incredible.
Some ancient techniques on ceramic production are still used in the factory, while adapting to today’s requirements of recycling and sustainability. The workforce is understandably skilled at producing such amazing product and they are proud to say that some have worked at the company for over 35 years.
Bordallo Pinheiro ceramics are unmistakable. Inspired by nature their tropical fruits, animals, fish, butterflies and vegetables jump out at you with eye-popping colour and shimmering glazes. Think of kiwi fruit platters, cabbages with lobsters, Bordallian swallows alighting on vases, and sardines decorated with butterflies, and you have the picture.
The founder, Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro is one of the most influential people of nineteenth century Portuguese culture, and will forever be intimately associated with caricature and artistic ceramics. In 1884 he began his ceramics production at the Fábrica de Faianças in Caldas, revealing pieces of great technical, artistic and creative quality. Where he developed azulejos (blue tiles), panels, pots, table centerpieces, vase busts, fountain basins, pitchers, plates, perfume bottles, vases and gigantic animals. Even today, in the opinion of renowned modern artists, his work was the work of a genius. And his work undoubtedly carries on.
Watching the mastery of workers putting together complex pieces was awe inspiring.
This trip was paid for by Portugal Ceramics but all views and images are my own.
Portugal Ceramics is an international brand representing Portuguese tile and tableware manufacturers.