Three and a half hours after I left Paris in the darkness of early morning, a shining sun welcomed me to Limoges, the porcelain capital of the world. I came to Limoges to visit a small porcelain workshop run by artist Sylvie Coquet.
I went inside and waited, and waited, while Sylvie, dressed for the part in a blue smock covered in white porcelain dust, finished a lengthy phone call. While she talked, I marveled at her amazing designs. Her organic shapes and textures were famous in the world of French porcelain.
When she finally hung up the phone, I explained that I was interested in learning about her process of porcelain making…
“That’s not possible,” she said. Turns out her process is a secret, you see.
At this point my brain is racing, thinking, “I’ve just traveled four hours to get here…now what?” The answer came when Sylvie suggested she call a couple of the other, larger, porcelain factories in Limoges and secured meetings at two famous factories: Royal Limoges and Bernardaud. She told me that I must leave immediately because they are waiting for me.
Back we drove, hurtling across the winding roads back to Limoges, first stop Royal Limoges. Inside, every surface was covered with porcelain that looked like it had been there for hundreds of years… stacks of plates, shelves of cups and bowls, and a statue here and there. The Royal Limoges factory is the oldest existing porcelain factory still in operation in Limoges, having been established in 1797.
My eyes tried to imbibe everything, but I was whisked up a rickety staircase into a cluttered office where I sat down at a wooden table with the illustrious head of the company, Lionel Delaygue, and his assistant, Frederick. Thinking on my feet, I talked about my desires to design a line of porcelain, all white, with timeless shapes. They looked at each other, and I know that if I hadn’t been right in front of them, one or both would have rolled their eyes. Patiently, they explained what that would entail but asked if I really wanted all white? Most designers, you see, come to them with designs for patterns to be put on the porcelain.
It was decided that first, before more details were discussed, I should have a tour of the factory, gaining insight into the process and products with Frederick. He led me through dusty passages and among various departments. There was the mold making room…
…the porcelain pouring area, where liquid porcelain is poured into molds.
Then there are kilns, where the first round of firing happens for 24 hours at 1800 degrees (F).
We saw the glazing room…
Witnessing the complex, time-consuming process demonstrated why the finished product is so expensive.
Finally, I walked up and down aisles of finished white porcelain, pondering shapes that I might put together for a collection.
Frederick was a saint. Instead of going home for his customary leisurely lunch, he took me to Le Churchill, a restaurant where I was welcomed like family. Chef Marion had spent two years in New York, so when she discovered my American roots, she flew to the piano and launched into a French-accented rendition of “New York, New York.” The other diners were in shock.
After a wonderful lunch, I made it just in time to the next factory, Bernardaud. There was, however, no one expecting me. The woman I was supposed to meet had no idea who I was or why I was there; she arranged for me to join a tour that happened to be in English and commence in five minutes.
Here I deepened my knowledge of the history and process of porcelain.
Now I was off for a tour of the National Porcelain Museum just before it closed at 5. An elderly woman at a bus stop helped me determine which bus to get on and then, once on the bus, the subject turned into a group discussion regarding where I should get off. As I was disembarked– at the proper spot– an old man told me, “Votre coiffure est tres jolie,” (I like your hair).
The museum was beautiful. The sun streamed through tall windows to lead me through porcelain from antiquity to today.
The time carried me away, almost to miss my train back to Paris.
I arrived at the train station with five minutes remaining to get my ticket and board. The kiosk would not, no matter how many times I tried, take my credit card. The information desk and kiosk bounced me between themselves like a pinball game. The lines were 10 deep. Sweating and stressed, looking very un-French, I ran to the train and just got on it without a ticket.
I later bought one from the conductor, which, if I had known I could have done, would have spared me the drama and the sweating.
Pamela Peterson is an American designer who’s humorous observations of design and travel make for fun reading on her blog. She has worked on Martha Stewart Living TV and Saturday Night Live.