Friday, July 30, 2010

Launching Chinoiserie and Swag, Limoges Porcelain for BRFC

Early in our careers while at Robert A. M. Stern Architects, we spent a good deal of time designing furnishings, bed linens, textiles and porcelain for private clients and international manufacturers. This was in the mid 1980s, during the first, great wave of the architect as product designer, whose icons today are Michael Graves' famous tea kettle and the Tizio desk lamp.

These Stern designs were among the most interesting and rewarding work we have ever done, and we are particularly pleased to again have opportunities to pursue product design anew, this time under our own names. Years after our initial, stillborn Limoges porcelain designs for RAMSA, we have had the great, good fortune to ally with Bryn Reese Fine China, a fledgling company dedicated to reviving the art of the table with innovative porcelain of the highest quality.

We were approached by BRFC's eponymous founder two years ago with a proposal for collaboration and the end result, after a fascinating gestation, are two services, Chinoiserie and Swag, that offer something contemporary porcelain has rarely seen—designs that build and interrelate among separate, unique pieces to create a harmonious ensemble, designs that tell a story that unfolds as a meal itself unfolds, enriching the dining experience with what we hope are successive notes of elegance, harmony, whimsy and surprise.

A mere handful of patterns have ever employed this approach; almost all are simple repetitions of the same decorative band, enlarged or reduced as needed to decorate the shoulder of each piece in the service. The result is, frankly, monotony, and in truth the vast majority of traditional patterns offer not the slightest nod to contemporary design aesthetics. This stultifying combination is, we believe, a major reason for the current crisis in fine porcelain, which cannot simply be blamed on the encroachment of low-priced Asian offerings or the belief that fiancées consider bridal registries for fine tableware to be démodé.

When we surveyed the market at the outset of this project, what surprised us most was the severe lack of patterns that combined understatement and a fresh perspective on traditional porcelain. We saw a real need to create services that both respond to today’s more informal entertaining and that reinvigorate the timeless qualities of traditional designs with lightness, concision and grace. We also remarked that many contemporary patterns were overly graphic and frankly overpowering "statements," and we saw that our task as designers was to accentuate the natural beauty of finely made porcelain, not to employ it as a backdrop for our designs. We hope that these new patterns embody a unique synthesis of abundance and restraint—lively yet balanced, each service is in fact five related patterns that, like a musical score, build a whole far richer than any single movement.

We intended both patterns to be "backbone" services, to be chosen and used as the host's "good china"; and so we selected fine porcelain from Limoges, France with clean, classic forms. We wanted that both Chinoiserie and Swag be equally at home at a formal dinner or an impromptu luncheon, combined with heirloom crystal and silver or with contemporary tableware. The Limoges blanks were decorated at Pickard Porcelain, the only quality porcelain company in the United States and the traditional supplier of State services to the White House (in fact, one set of proofs was delayed while the company rushed to complete the Obama State service).

The following posts treat each pattern in greater detail.

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Swag was inspired by a gouache sketch of a ceiling pattern executed by the great Prussian architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, and thus recalls the understated, refined neoclassicism of late eighteenth-century interiors. Evocative rather than imitative, Swag pares the visual vocabulary of its source to its essentials, though we hope with a contemporary eye toward balance and restraint. The pattern is really an exercise in minimalism and evocation: the sparing use of decoration, enriched with burnished gold accents, complement the service’s classic forms and allow the natural beauty of the Limoges porcelain to take center stage.

The design both combines and alternates a Greek-key band in Cherokee red with delicate, abstracted laurel garlands, highlighted with burnished gold and touches of faded periwinkle blue. The understated masculinity of the bold red key—simple, rectilinear and finely scaled—finds an ideal partner and foil in the laurel garlands. Festooned in graceful, repeating arcs or running in simple bands, the trompe l'oeil gold garlands enliven the service and provide both counterpoint and balance to the red Greek-key bands. Both Greek key and blue garland teacups are available.

Swag is certainly a more "formal" service than Chinoiserie, and that was our intention. We believe that the use of classic design elements, employed with subtlety and address, makes Swag an extremely versatile service, ideal for entertaining and any occasion that merits a beautifully dressed table.


Chinoiserie was developed from a watercolor of a fantasy Chinoiserie bridge, "The Buttery Bridge at Poltow." The pattern is intended to evoke the playful spirit of the exotic pagodas and garden pavilions which embellished the landscape gardens of Ancien Régime Europe. Like the charming garden follies that are its inspiration, Chinoiserie freely mixes diverse elements to surprise and delight throughout the meal.

Chinese Chippendale treillage and celadon porcelain with a craquelure glaze dominate the pattern, with certain pieces highlighted with colorful accents of butterflies at rest and in flight. Chinoiserie features rich color harmonies of juniper green and dusky rose, embellished with burnished gold accents, that enhance the subtle white of the Limoges porcelain and highlight its classic forms and timeless elegance. Both juniper green and Chinese red service plates are available.

The teacup, with its miniature vignette of the original watercolor, echoes the scenic views of the great eighteenth-century porcelain manufacturers, while the butterflies themselves are a contemporary reference to the insects originally added by the early artists of Meissen to obscure the minor imperfections of porcelain pieces.

Above all, our intention with Chinoiserie was to create a mix of patterns which both capture the style's unique spirit with understatement and a lightness of touch; we hope we have succeeded, and that the service can be effortlessly used for both formal dining and informal occasions.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Librairie Galignani, Paris

Librairie Galignani, located at 224, rue de Rivoli, facing the Tuileries Gardens in Paris' First Arrondissement, is the oldest English-language bookseller outside the English-speaking world and was founded in 1801 by the Venetian Giovanni Galignani, an advenurous member of an illustrious publishing family whose first work was printed in 1520.

Today, Galignani is the foremost Parisian bookseller of works on art and art history, architecture, design, fashion, politics and English literature, and maintains a beautiful bookstore fitted out with tall mahogany bookcases, herringbone oak floors, and wheeled ladders fixed on a brass rail to reach the highest shelves, all bathed in natural light beneath a large, old skylight. An important part of Paris' cultural life, Galignani regularly hosts lectures and receptions for authors of newly published works.

For several years, Galignani has been featuring our architectural notecards in exclusivity, having refused the entreaties of all other producers. The new director, Madame Danielle Cillien Sabatier, commissioned this watercolor of the bookstore's facade with the intention to reproduce it as a folding card, to be used for invitations to special events and offered for sale in the store as well. It will also be reproduced as the store's bookmark, which is offered with every book purchased, and of which over 100,000 copies are distributed each year.

The watercolor depicts a portion of the famous arcades bordering the Tuileries, drawn in elevation, and is combined with a detailed one-point perspective of the bookstore's display windows and the interiors behind, the central doors left open to catch a glimpse of the annex at the far end of the store.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


For E.R. Butler, Inc. in Manhattan, a company that specializes in quality architectural hardware and home accessories, we are designing a series of limited-edition birdcages in the Chinoiserie style. This unusual project came to us by way of the company's founder, Mr. Rhett Butler, whose wish is to use his company's precision machining and foundry capabilities to their fullest by challenging his craftsmen to execute exceptional designs in a variety of noble materials.

Designing in the Chinoiserie style of course has very little to do with actual Chinese precedents; traditional Chinese birdcages are in fact simple objects made of fine bamboo or wood strips, as pictured below. Rather, Chinoiserie references the West's fantasy view of the East, and employs a repertoire of forms and details largely foreign to Chinese aesthetics. It is a flight of fancy whose vocabulary of decorative embellishments are intended to evoke picturesque whimsy.

Heading this post is the prototype of the first in this series, fabricated of turned and laser-cut brass. With a stylistic nod to the Biedermeier style, the cage, which stands 22 inches high, is designed to hold smaller birds such as finches and canaries.

The turned-brass bells and the scrolling corner volutes are typical Chinoiserie details, as is the incurving "roof," doubly so thanks to its doubled curvature.