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May 24th 2021


Museum buildings

When I was growing up my parents came back from Paris with a small group of colorful plates which became “the dessert plates” for major family events. They were not fine china, nor earthenware but something apart, bright scenes of different storefronts for the butcher, the baker, the cheese store etc. Today there are six of the original eight and they still have pride of place in my mother’s cupboard, next to the pile of much-loved white Rosenthal plates she chose as a bride in 1951. Color was always to be used sparingly on the table, she said.

When you grow up in a modernist house with an orange garage door painted bright in homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, with uncomfortable Eames chairs and Mies tables when all of your school friends live with softness and comfort, design takes on many levels of oddness and discomfort. The arrival of these dessert plates from GIEN were a lively surprise in my adolescence, when the split-level house had given way to one with slate roof and stone walls built in the 1920’s. A Bauhaus interior, my mother said. But still the GIEN plates were there, and brought something else to the table with festive homemade dinners with pecan pie, or apple pie made by my mother, and then those added by various sisters-in-laws.

Display area for finished works inside “La Manufacture

How do you put any kind of judgement on plates that have lived with generations from different countries and traditions? Originally designed for grand dynasties, royalty even, GIEN ended up there on the shelf in my childhood kitchen, and there remains as I write this today. After a year of pandemic and not getting home, these plates take on yet a new vibration. Which is why it is interesting to me that Mathilde Bretillot, the visionary French designer, still to some a well-kept secret like mom’s cake plates– has been invited to rethink the new museum at La Manufacture de GIEN, to begin the celebration of their 200th anniversary.


I caught up with the designer and asked about the project as it is developing into something special adjacent to the factory where the plates, bowls, pitchers, object de vertu are still being produced in a process that incorporates mechanical with the human touch that is unique to each object, a hand finishing. We do not have a word in English for such a combination of machine with hand. But the French have coined it well with “La Manufacture”. Nor do we have a word for “faïence” which is glazed ceramic pottery.

Designer Mathilde Bretillot inside “La Manufacture

This project of redesigning the museum which takes the public into the spirit of GIEN is more complex than it first sounds. After all, you could say, how difficult is it to explain what has been going on for two centuries of plate making? But as a place, a real heart beating environment, where people and kilns and machines work in a studio atmosphere, where the factory complex includes, gardens where artisans sit under the trees to have lunch, or the much-loved factory store where treasures with slight flaws find new adoptive parents, as a creative hub and a battery for social history, ah this is something else entirely. This is not just a story of plates.

In situ the outside of the complex is a series of buildings including a 17th century austere building which was once a former convent. The idea of La Manufacture dates back to Colbert (think Louis XIV) who was interested in collecting the best makers of France. Ergo the Comité Colbert today which does very much the same thing, and GIEN is a member. The place was founded in 1821 by an Englishman, Thomas Hall. The special quality of the faïence is a recipe of clay, sand and kaolin, fired for the first time between 1160-1180°C (to make the biscuit) Then the rich colors and additional shapes are added with patience and minute detail, one of three hand processes at this stage — painting, printing, or stencil transfer — then the object is put again into the oven.


Iconic finished works inside “La Manufacture

One of the marvels in all this is understanding that clay is a living thing, it is fundamentally an unstable substance. The historic process has become a channel for cultural transmission of all the hands that have ever worked in this studio for two hundred years, and the singular precise knowledge is why the cake plates in Philadelphia still vibrate with pleasure. Such energy is timeless and precious; the life is in the material itself and its sublime content is traced by how it has been touched by artisans day after day. This is why GIEN is rare and sought after. This is what Colbert saw so many years ago, and we see this inner creative engine through Bretillot’s treatment of the new museum opening in the fall. She begins,

“The aim is to feel you are always in between the objects as they come out and what do they show us. But you are wondering about the life, the emergence of things, the social evolution, the technical evolution. They show all of this. How many people are working, the wars, the change of energy, the ovens, the shifts in taste.”

“We are mindful that history is changing on all sides. From Chinese décor, trees or flowers for the table ware, monograms, simple outlines, then pitchers and basins for the bathroom, bowls; how do you create a new way of looking by putting new things together?”

Color samples inside “La Manufacture

One room is very 19th century, big heavy mantle piece, chimney, huge vases. Some were made for the universal exhibitions. One of the famous ones with the peacock is so big we cannot move it to do the works; this room will be more like a room, more domestic with faïence lining the walls, the owners would sit around a big table to take it in, and we will have a huge library with an alphabet of images and objects. Each of the rooms will have a way of organising it differently.”


The lower ground floor will look like a contemporary gallery with a long ramp and the idea of the open book within the space itself. The ground floor with arches frame a sloping lower space like an open book with long pages, objects on the left and on the right, pictures, texts photos on the right. On the first floor there will be alcoves with clusters of objects, settings for tables and otherwise, which are still very much alive. The top floor is full of columns so you will go around the spaces with a set of smaller views, niches.

Preliminary sketch of the reception area for the new museum

Part of the discussion is the transition in history GIEN has experienced. Director, Yves de Talhouët wants to show the production through the history of social evolution, economic evolution and industrial innovation. There will be one big gallery where the products as real objects will be juxtaposed to the other side with historical documents showing how they were made and why, the change in energy, ovens, making a better paste which was stronger, the developments of materials and machinery.

Preliminary sketch of a display case for the new museum

“Years ago this site went all the way up to the Loire, which was how materials once arrived; a series of financial crisis in the 20th century saw this campus cut back to include the major buildings we have today. You arrive through the gate, the museum is the long building on your left on three floors. Ahead of you, across the court, will be a café, garden and the factory shop, of course. The campus is very mineral so we are working with the idea of a garden from the front of the buildings to the gate which will mirror the interior garden used by the artisans behind the studio building.”


In the end, the brand of GIEN is the story telling, what the brand is saying and what this very unique kind of production is saying; it is interesting to have this for GIEN to show what the roots have been, and these are specific and strong.

Early sketch for scenography and display for the new museum
Possible installation proposals for the exhibition space

It is very rare to have such a “Manufacture” going, it is a real luxury, a French domestic project. Faïence de GIEN is much warmer than porcelain. Europe was once so rich and still is with these things. The competition is mad, especially with mass production everywhere. But the goal for Bretillot here is to really reveal and invite the audience to experience — see, feel, even smell the culture behind these objects, “if they don’t understand why it is worth what it is worth, there will be no audience for the future. The story behind the objects talk about the content, and this is how we know they are not just objects on a shelf.”

Monumental pieces from Gien’s 200-year history in situ in the new scenography