Tailor made: Behind the Scenes at KPM

The Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur is the first of four stops in our new series “Reveal the Iconic You”, produced in collaboration with smart

For someone who’s favorite childhood “scout” was Christoph from Sendung mit der Maus, who was tormented in school by jeers of “Vroni Frage, Anna Plage” (a very clever way my German classmates let me know I was asking too many questions), and today still isn’t surprised by an annoyed rolling of eyes when my investigative hour gets underway at social occasions…for someone like that, it’s crystal clear that a series like this is a dream come true. And now to say it clearly: I’m talking about myself.

The overarching theme of this interview series has to do with what “tailor made” actually means, as well as how differently these questions are received (and more importantly, answered). Thanks to our collaborating partner smart, I was able to go find out exclusively for hey woman! Parallel to the four most important features of the smart BRABUS tailor made customization program, I’ll be asking about expertise in the “workmanship” category for the first episode. “Color”, “form”, and “material” will follow in the coming weeks.

This exciting collaboration began with a visit to Bottrop, basically the birthplace of luxury cars. That’s where you’ll find the headquarters of the auto tuning company BRABUS, with whose help I was allowed to put together my own smart. And my list of ideas for my own personal extra-class vehicle was incredibly long thanks to this four-part inspirational trip.

So off I went to a diverse group of businesses with my hey woman! team, a group made up of production manager Julia Knolle, the incredible Julia Zierer armed with her camera and responsible for all the eye candy and editing, and Catarina Marques Teles with the microphone in her hand and all the organizational aspects in her grip.

The topic of craftsmanship comes down to special extras like ornamental seams, stitching, and facings. So naturally my first stop is in Berlin at KPM (Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur), founded in 1763 by Frederick the Great. What’s especially exciting is that it’s still headquartered in the heart of Berlin (not far from Straße des 17. Juni) and today still almost exclusively produces all of its porcelain tableware sets and figurines by hand, even the decorative painting.

Moodboard KPM

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting the banker and businessman Jörg Woltmann and his wife at a dinner with my former editor-in-chief Margit J. Mayer from German Harper’s Bazaar. Now I have to go on a bit of a tangent. Beforehand, MJM had invited me to the Gucci store to examine Alessandro Michele’s new vision for the label up close, with friends as well as some tea and scones. So our topic of conversation from all sides was the wonderfully versatile Michele, who before his appointment as CD at Gucci was, alongside his role under the former Gucci CD Frida Gianni, CD at the Italian traditional porcelain manufacturer Richard Ginori. As a big fan of traditional handcraft, I was absolutely thrilled by this information.

And then Herr Woltmann finally told me about his successfully implemented project: turning the previously state-run KPM into an economically feasible and self-refinancing company. When he purchased KPM 10 years ago, the banker also acquired one of the world’s last luxury brands, and one that is also part of our cultural heritage. Now, thanks to Herr Woltmann’s restructuring, it will also be around for another 200 years.

I don’t need to bring up how thrilled I was by this altruistic passion. Because here it isn’t about profit or taking over the market, but simply the preservation of tradition, of art, and of course also history.

I accepted Herr Woltmann’s invitation for a personally guided tour through the porcelain manufactory with glee – and I think the awestruck nodding of my head in the video lets my delight and excitement shine through.

Veronika Heilbrunner: The manufactory has been around for 250 years. What were the most significant changes in all that time?

Jörg Woltmann: The manufactory has always stood for change. We stand for design competence and we have always set the pace. Whereas others have imitated us, at the manufactory we have always placed the emphasis on what is “in”.

Of course, at first, Rococo was the most important. The big shift came at the start of the 20th Century, around 1920, with the rise of The New Objectivity and Bauhaus – society slowed down. That represented a big turning point at the manufactory.

I’ve also read that the first women that ever worked for you came at that time, with Bauhaus.                   

JW: Exactly. Trude Petri for example. Urbino, a table service created by Petri in 1931, is one of my favorites from our collection.

And now a few hard facts

What do you see as the “golden age” of the manufactory and what does that mean in production and employee numbers?

JW: Of course, the manufactories were essentially larger before. After the Second World War, a lot was also produced. Everything was bombed, everything destroyed. It was an economic miracle. People were stocking up again and a large service for 12 people was popular. That’s of course not the case anymore.

We also manufactured porcelain for industry. The Berliner Funkturm is built with KPM porcelain (editor’s note: KPM porcelain insulators were used as the base columns of the radio tower). That was important work. When the company still belonged to a senator from Berlin, the decision was made to sell the technical porcelain and we don’t produce it anymore. Today we focus on art porcelain: so, what you see here – hand-painted porcelain of the highest quality.

That means that how many people worked here before the War?

JW: I can’t really say anymore, but I guess 600 to 800. Today we have around 160-180 employees.


And now a few questions that I was personally itching to ask

Frederik the Great, who bought the KPM, had a lot produced for himself and also as state gifts for diplomatic purposes. Do you still get those kind of orders today?

JW: Back then it was very common to be presented with large state gifts and when you think of the pomp and glory of Prussia, KPM had a large hand in that. Like I said, they were state gifts and the people receiving them would have the opinion that if the Prussian State has this kind of manufactory, then it must be a strong state. That is how it was then.

Unfortunately, today it’s a little different. Today it’s taken into consideration that state gifts don’t appear too extravagant. We do, however, still produce special gifts for special guests of the city, like something for the Pope or for Obama when he visits Berlin. We make those here in our manufactory.

Great – and then you get a request from…

JW: From the President of Germany’s office or the Chancellor. She was also here a year ago with the Chinese Prime Minister and then we produced some special pieces, of course.  

And what kind of things are gifted?          

JW: Either the Brandenburg Gate or a coffee cup and saucer with the guest’s initials on it. Something like that is always happily gifted. That’s all within a certain scale of course and not as lavish as before. It’s not a 24-piece table service.

I’m coming from fashion and what’s always fascinating for me is couture, where it’s about customized production. Do you have something like that? Customers who say: “I want something very special that only I will have.”

JW: Yes, of course. We are a manufactory that works on an order basis and we get great requests. For example, we provided Paul Allen – Bill Gate’s partner – with a special table service for his yacht that only he has and that only he or his son are allowed to reorder. We have a diverse group of customers who order something special: for embassies, many want to have something special or the family coat of arms, or a special form. We do that. That’s why we’re a manufactory and that’s what we stand for.


And now comes my absolute favorite part of the conversation             

What does “tailor made” mean for you personally?

JW: That means to let things be made where you say that they are either limited or very specially made, but not necessarily “off-the-shelf”. I’ve actually always loved luxury. I bought my first business at 28 and then I had a bit of money in my account one day and bought myself three things: a nice car, a good watch, and my KPM porcelain.

Today I have a car collection, a watch collection, but the KPM porcelain is still the first I bought. That’s the problem with KPM. If you have one of their table services, you’ll never have anything better. Good for the consumer, not so good for the manufacturer. For me it is important to have something that is very special, and above all that people have worked on. I think that is really especially great, because I love handcraft. I love my manufactory and that was also one of the reasons why I bought it within a week 10 years ago. I think it is something special to see what people do – the slow movement, the art of handcraft – that is very, very important to me and I simply love it.


You obviously have a special connection to “white gold”?

JW: I grew up with KPM porcelain and knew early on that it was something special because on Sundays, as a small boy, we didn’t have to set the table or clear it, or especially wash the dishes or dry them, because that was when the good china was used. I always liked it and then bought my own KPM at 28. I was, however, a “pure user”. I bought the table service named Kurland plus the vases, because I always liked the vases in that form.

And then when the company was privatized in 2004, it didn’t go well. But I didn’t want to see the company go under, that was 2006 – and so I bought it. But of course there was also the appeal of buying one of the last luxury brands available in the world. And also to bring a company like that to the forefront again has already been an enrichment in my life. I’m a banker by profession. I’m still working. I’m the sole shareholder of the Allgemeine Beamten Bank (ABK) and I am also a member of the board. I divide my working time. I’m here at KPM in the mornings and at the bank in the afternoons.

In closing, I’d like to share a few quotes from product developer Thomas Wenzel with you. The most exciting part of talking with the manufactory’s designer was to see that here, on one side, it’s about protecting and caring for the art of handcraft. But on the other hand, companies like KPM also live by bringing new products on the market and innovating in the field of porcelain.                                                                    

First a few exciting numbers

Out of the historical pieces, which one that takes the most work? Which takes the longest to be produced?

Thomas Wenzel: I think that would be the princess groups. They are made up of about 90 individual pieces and then have to be “garnished together”. It’s always a surprise when they come out of the kiln. Cracks can show up at the seams, which is why we need to make about 10 groups of princesses to get one at the end that’s really first rate. Therefore, of course, it’s relatively expensive. It’s a big effort, yes.                                                 

And now quickly to the most current, prize-winning piece by the manufactory

I’ve come across the KPM coffee filter a few times now. How did you arrive at the idea?

TW: We were thinking about which themes we could devote ourselves to next. And it seemed to me that the coffee filter together with the idea of “slow living” was back in style. And this idea of “hand filtered”, of course that fits in wonderfully with our brand philosophy and our wish to keep tradition alive. The next step was then to think what the coffee filter would look like and what I didn’t want was for it to be so reserved in its form as a normal coffee filter, so that one wouldn’t perceive it quite right in the end.

I thought about the idea of filters and filter paper (there are also kinds of filter paper with this waved form, or folded form) more closely and, through that, the beveled form of the KPM filter came about. In essence, the advantage lies in that the form follows the function. The bevels create recessed areas so that the paper filter, when you put one in and it becomes moist, doesn’t stick. Therefore, there’s no back up in the process when you’re brewing your coffee. You know it surely: when you’re always pouring in the water and then the water just stands still and doesn’t flow through anymore – that doesn’t happen at all with this filter.

It’s unnecessary to add, but at the end of the visit we went directly to the KPM cafeteria to let all of this exciting information sink it!!!

Thank you to the Königliche Porzellan Manufaktur for the excellent cooperation.


Translation: Melissa Frost