Porcelain has been made in Vienna for 300 years now – it’s time to take a look behind the scenes and inside the workshops of the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory Augarten. I quickly find the palace in the Augarten on the WIEN PRODUCTS city map and set off for a visit. Daniel Bauer, head of marketing, greets me and we begin the tour.
We are standing at the mold making area, and the two men working here show us how a casting mold or rolling mold is used to make a model. Plaster is their preferred material and their work is never finished – the molds can only be used about twenty times, then new ones have to be made. It is clear that the quality of the porcelain is handled with great precision – the employees here are passionate about their work. Concentration is also essential in the figurine department, where freshly poured mice are just being released from their mold – many separate pieces are joined together with steady hands until everything appears seamless.
We are standing in front of an enclosure in which all pieces are cleaned with compressed air and then stamped. Stamped? Daniel Bauer explains that every piece of porcelain bears the cobalt blue shield, the symbol of the Vienna manufactory that goes back to Maria Theresia. I am interested in the connection between Augarten and Maria Theresia. So I get a short overview of Vienna porcelain’s eventful history.
300 years ago porcelain was literally worth its weight in gold and every monarch was happy if he had a producer of the delicate tableware nearby. In 1718 Emperor Karl VI granted Claudius Innocentius du Paquier permission to be the sole porcelain producer for Vienna and the crown countries for 25 years. He did this quite successfully on what is today Vienna’s Porzellangasse – 25 years later, however, he was broke, and Empress Maria Theresia took over the manufactory under Imperial ownership. The manufactory experienced many economic and artistic high points until 1864, when it was closed and the collection was donated to the Museum of Art and Industry – today the Museum of Applied Art.
It wasn’t until 1923 that people started reflecting on the tradition of porcelain production, and the Vienna Porcelain Manufactory Augarten was founded where it still stands today. Once again it was artists such as Josef Hoffmann, Michael Powolny, and Ena Rottenberg who made design history as members of the legendary Wiener Werkstätte and created unique designs that are still being produced.
Today the manufactory works with contemporary designers and produces modern porcelain along with the traditional designs.
In the large firing hall we watch while many of the separate pieces are moved into the kiln for smoldering – clean and carefully stacked on a large cart – obviously with a system. The kiln master laughs, “of course, here you always have to pay attention to what you’re doing – raw porcelain is very fragile.”
After the first firing at about 980 degrees, during which the porcelain dries almost completely, it is glazed by hand and then fired again. I see finished white porcelain and wonder why it is so much smaller than the unfired pieces. “Hard porcelain, the way we make it, is fired in a so-called glost or glaze firing at 1380°C,” the kiln master explains to me – here it again almost reaches its melting point and shrinks by about 13%. Amazing – now I understand why the figurines have so many braces, and cups are fired on props… This is the only way they can keep their perfect shape. Quite sophisticated. It’s clear why a plate here costs more than cheaply produced dishware from Asia.
We have now walked through the casting area and throwing area, have seen how the finished pieces are inspected and sanded, and make our way upstairs to where they are painted.
It is quiet here – the porcelain painters are sitting at their tables working. Each one has a specialization – there are the flower painters, who paint roses and forget-me-nots on plates and cups with a light touch, next to them clothing and faces are painted on figurines, and other colleagues are painting the perfect edges in gold, platinum, or colors. When I ask whether the gold is real I get enthusiastic nods. After firing, the precious metal details are carefully polished with an agate stone.
I am truly amazed by the dexterity of the craftspeople – who consider their profession a calling, I discover. They learn new things throughout their career and take on new challenges, the employees explain.
Speaking of challenge – does it still make economic sense to produce in such a complex way these days? “You need people with a feel for the craft and who understand the idea behind the manufactory” is the answer I get, and “this way our owners preserve the production of white gold, which started in Vienna 300 years ago.”
I bid farewell and leave the manufactory impressed. I make the plan to visit some of the many events connected with “300 years of porcelain from Vienna.” The next time I drink coffee from Augarten porcelain I hope that the manufactory will be around for at least another 300 years – because the exquisite quality of the porcelain is certainly worth the walk to the manufactory.