Ted Muehling

in an interview

Mr. Muehling, how did you learn about Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg then? How did the collaboration start?
In 1999 I got to know the Director of the Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg, Baron Egbert von Maltzahn, and he offered me a tour through the master workshops. The quiet, bright atmosphere of the studio in Nymphenburg was simply enchanting. I found it hard to believe there was still such skill and artisanal talent to produce such complicated and exquisite forms. Although my work was primarily in metal, designing and making jewellery and decorative pieces for the table, my background included a degree in Industrial Design. From that I knew the basics of clay production. I had explored other materials like glass and wood but never had the opportunity to work in porcelain until I designed for Nymphenburg.

How was it for you to return to the master workshops at Nymphenburg a decade after you designed the service White Coral and the Maritime Collection?
My involvement with Nymphenburg has been a continuum. In the early years I worked on several different pieces. The invitation a year ago or a bit more to continue the collaboration was a welcome surprise. It is an extraordinary privilege to work with this manufactory.

What is special about collaboration with Nymphenburg?
To work at Nymphenburg is a challenge for someone schooled in modern, rational design. This is not the place to make purely functional tableware. This is a place to dream and be extravagant. Let the mass production factories do the sensible and ordinary. This is a place only for the extraordinary. A designer has a responsibility to exploit all the talent and abilities that are nurtured here. When you experience this quality, drink from an impossibly thin Wersin teacup or uncover a finely painted landscape under your piece of cake you are having a heightened experience and it all tastes better.

You draw the inspiration for your designs from nature. Are you looking for something to balance the hectic big-city life of New York in nature?
I have always been intrigued with natural forms. Since childhood I have spent time in forests and the seaside. I never leave the beach without a treasure in my pocket. I have been making things all my life and there is a continuous thread of forms, from eggs to shells to leaves and branches. My intention is not to replicate these objects but to capture some essential quality. By simplifying and abstracting and making forms in different materials it is, at times, possible to spark a revelation in the viewer. By interpreting the familiar in unfamiliar ways or unexpected materials, one can heighten awareness. By translating the elegant spiral of a shell or the tactile surface of coral in porcelain, you make the experience new again. Its beauty becomes apparent again. Porcelain is a perfectly appropriate substance to interpret the calcified forms of a bird’s egg or a bleached out shell on a beach. A goal of mine at Nymphenburg is to respect and sympathize with the historic pieces. To juxtapose an intricately detailed figure by Bustelli with the smooth ovoid of an egg vase, enhances both.

You studied industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York. What do you especially treasure about handcraft as and industrial designer?
Although technology is a great tool, including computers and digital printing, there are surprises and idiosyncrasies that are very human that only occur when working directly with the material. One might call it soul, something intangible. There are very few workshops that would attempt the laborious steps Nymphenburg takes to realize a piece. Mass production and technologically advanced manufacturing has an important function in our world but it is not what Nymphenburg is about.

You drew your inspiration from nature even in your earlier work for Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg. Where did you find your inspiration for your new objects? What role does designing the surfaces play in your new designs?
Tortoises, with their majestic armoured shells, are ancient survivors, intriguing curiosities in our world. I thought the precision of bisque porcelain would be an appropriate and beautiful interpretation of these forms and facets. The light plays off the matte surface and enhances the concavities on the surfaces. Most of these facets are more random and less symmetrical than my previous work. They are less literal and perhaps suggest other forms and materials, like snow or icebergs. The cups, in particular, have a very tactile quality and seem to almost float on the points of the arched bottoms.

Together with experts in product development, you realized designs in porcelain in the master workshops. Were there particular technical challenges?
When I began my work at Nymphenburg in 1999, Ingrid Harding, who manages product development at Nymphenburg, helped me a lot to understand the background and solve problems with her extensive knowledge in the field of porcelain and clay. The current CEO, Mr. von Maltzahn, encourages me to experiment in order to understand the limits and the possibilities of the material and the processes. I have always found it advantageous to work directly with the material. Whether metal, glass or clay, serendipitous and unexpected things occur in the working process. Though I did not have the skill to control porcelain, a notoriously difficult material, I needed to work closely with the artisans at the factory to realize my ideas. These artisans at Nymphenburg are unparalleled. Clay is elemental, as is metal and glass, and it tells you what it can do. After the arduous process of moulding, forming and firing at precariously high temperatures, porcelain rewards with an extremely strong but thin and translucent beauty. It shrinks 17% in the firing, creating an even more delicate and precise product.

Is there an artist or designer who serves as your role model?
There are many artists and designers I admire. A few of my heroes are – Tappio Wirkala, from Finland, who worked in every material – Henning Koppel, who designed extraordinary silver for Georg Jensen – Constantin Brancusi for his exquisite forms – Anish Kapoor for his powerful, elemental art. There is an interesting quote from a famous musician and performance artist named Laurie Anderson. She said “I am not trying to do something avant-garde, I am trying to do something surprisingly beautiful.” This resonates with me.

Is your home furnished with natural objects or do you have objects of Nymphenburg porcelain at home? And what is your favourite piece that you designed for Nymphenburg?
The piece I did years ago called Coral Lantern, I am most proud of. It exploits a number of advantages endemic to porcelain. Meant for a candle, it incorporates durable heat resistance with a fine intricacy and translucency. By adding the fine holes, it has a sparkle when lit that suggests a night sky. So though my intention was coral-like, it serendipitously has an unexpected quality at night. We use one often at dinner in our house in the country. I prefer candlelight generally because of its soft, irregular glow. Electric is good for work but candlelight is for pleasure. At home we use a variety of tableware. Some of it is Nymphenburg seconds in white, and some pieces picked up at the flea market. Mats is a Swedish functionalist so we keep things rather simple but of fine quality. I like to experience a variety of shapes and sizes. Our table can be a beautiful hodgepodge. We live idiosyncratically with many books and a mixture of Scandinavian classic furniture, both antique and contemporary, and found objects. I tend to collect nature, art and artefact, so it is confusing to know the value of anything lying about. I have a collection of Neolithic tools - the first form of manmade artefact and tool.

What does the future look like for porcelain as a material in design?
Like glass and metal, porcelain has a long history. It is elemental and there is nothing comparable to replace it. It is more durable and natural than plastic. It comes from the earth and goes back to the earth. It is ecologically sound. It continues to be one of man’s great discoveries. The careful craftsmanship at Nymphenburg creates treasures that are passed down to future generations. It takes a stand against our “throw away” culture.

Ted Muehling biography

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