As chief designer of the Royal Porcelain Manufactory, Thomas Wenzel has been developing products for almost 30 years that are intended to preserve tradition and are still contemporary. This causes some discussions among some KPM enthusiasts. In an interview with Heike Glasses for the KPM customer magazine WEISS Nº 1, the designer reveals how he came to the Berlin manufacturer and what fascinates him every day.

©Holger Talinski

Thomas Wenzel starts where others give up. The chief designer at KPM Berlin is looking for a challenge. “When someone says something doesn’t work or is too complicated, I get curious,” he says. Seen this way, a material like porcelain that is not so easy to work with is just right for him. It fascinates him. He is convinced that it is a living material, that it has a soul: “Porcelain is a bitch.” Act like a diva. She doesn't forgive mistakes and you can't have anything with her. He talks about porcelain as if it were a creature that is always good for surprises.

His studio is located - somewhat hidden - on a mezzanine floor of the factory, with the porcelain painters sitting above it and the management and trainees below. It is bright and light; a wall has just been broken through so that he has more space for his designs, which he is working on with an assistant and an intern. Wenzel prefers to speak standing up, walking around, leaning on the edge of the table and picking up his latest notes. He is currently working on his LAB BERLIN series, a collection of pieces with clean lines and shapes, inspired by the laboratory porcelains from bygone times that are still in the factory. He reinterprets them, adapts them to contemporary table culture, and also designs products for the kitchen such as the mortar with a heavy pestle or a lemon squeezer that looks like a sculpture and which he will probably continue to work on for a long time until it can be produced .

Wenzel was born in Gera in 1963, attended the University of Applied Arts in Schneeberg and then completed his training as a porcelain painter. In 1989 he came to KPM in Berlin; before that he worked at Meissen. The 54-year-old has now been working at KPM for more than half of his life. He advanced from a porcelain artist to a master painter and finally became chief designer in 1998. The KPM was actually just supposed to be a stopover for him, but then he got stuck “because there was so much to do here,” he remembers the first few years. At that time there was no in-house development. That was about to change with Thomas Wenzel, who has headed the KPM's artistic development department since 1993. During this time, the internationally renowned designer Enzo Mari also came to the factory for five years. It was a good and educational time for Thomas Wenzel, during which he and Mari brought the Form BERLIN – later awarded the iF Design Award – onto the market.

In addition to the famous currywurst bowl with KURLAND relief and the KURLAND muesli set, the KURLAND service BLANC NOUVEAU also goes back to his development work. He designed it on the occasion of the 250th KPM anniversary. That was in 2013. There was always resistance from such innovations from regular customers who, for example, had difficulty with the latte macchiato cup in the KURLAND look. Wenzel doesn't mind:

The best products are the ones that are discussed the most.

He calls his way of working “solution-oriented”, for example with the idea of ​​producing colored masses. About four years ago he noticed that “pastel colors are a very beautiful theme.” He spent a long time tinkering and thinking about the methods and limitations of the material until he was able to implement double mass casting with white and mint-colored porcelain. The porcelain is not glazed in color, but rather fired in colored porcelain and then glazed. With this so-called bicolor process, which he likes to use in the LAB series, he succeeds in two things: maintaining the high quality and standards of KPM porcelain and at the same time achieving another unique selling point within the product range. He also came up with another innovation: to no longer hide the striking KPM label with the blue scepter at the bottom of the cups, jugs or plates, but to make it visible and showcase it as a design element.

Thomas Wenzel hardly works on the computer. When he thinks of something, he draws it quickly by hand, first a rough sketch, then more detailed drawings. This is how the double-walled thermal coffee filter was created, which was awarded the internationally coveted iF Gold Award in the “Product” category in 2016. That surprised even him. “I didn’t expect such appreciation,” he says. Thomas Wenzel's functional and visual overall concept convinced the jury. Their reasoning states: "It's great to see that the Royal Porcelain Manufactory Berlin is back in the game - with a completely new and innovative perspective on a low-tech product like the coffee filter."

And indeed, the KPM is back in the game. For a few years now, something has been moving in the porcelain factory, which can look back on a tradition of more than 250 years and has always made great efforts in the past to preserve and continue the old, from the classicist KURLAND service to shapes inspired by the Bauhaus such as URBINO or ARKADIA. But now there are the first signs of a move away from the Prussian strictness towards contemporary forms that fit into the 21st century. This is partly due to Jörg Woltmann, who saved KPM from bankruptcy a good ten years ago, but also to Thomas Wenzel, who enjoys Woltmann's trust and understands how to walk the fine line between the legacy of the past and the path to the future to balance the future. Who starts where others give up.

Text: Heike Glasses

Wenceslas' works

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