In the shadow of a mossy outcrop in a village 20km south of Norway’s second city of Stavanger sits the factory of Figgjo. The firm – known in the Nordics for its chunky vitreous porcelain – has resisted the urge to move manufacturing abroad and is stacking up international orders because of it.
It’s a squally day when Monocle visits and as the rain lashes the window of the airy showroom, Anne Kristine Rugland, the company’s CEO since 2016, is explaining why Figgjo still fires its flatware at home. “In a globalised world you need to find your market. Our products have value because they’re Norwegian and handmade; we just needed to find the customers who value our values,” she says confidently. “Our target was to be viable,” she adds, referring to her family’s decision to buy the then down-at-heel factory back in 1994. “It’s how we keep the space and all these people in work.”
In the main factory below the showroom 100 staff, many of whom have worked here for decades, are overseeing the production of cratefuls of crockery for the firm’s budding export business, which now accounts for half of its sales. Some are heading for ritzy hotels in Davos, others are bound for golf clubs in Dubai and a few are destined for the prime minister’s residence 530km away in Oslo. In 2015, 50 pieces even found their way to Halden maximum-security prison 150km to Oslo’s south.
Today’s global orders – shipping as far as Portugal and the Middle East – are a far cry from the firm’s humble beginnings. Figgjo started as a homespun affair in the early 1940s and resisted the temptation to downsize or deskill when times got tough and orders waned in the 1990s. The understated firm still occupies the same (albeit renovated) premises in which it all started.
Although there are a few mumsy designs and a bit of kitsch decoration in the archive, Figgjo has projected a much more worldly and design-minded image of late thanks to an in-house team of three dedicated designers and a model-maker. The paint-flecked Skygge (meaning “shadow”) pattern and wavy, watery Flom (meaning “flood”) have reached new customers. Meanwhile clever catering collections, out-there tabletop ephemera and the ability to create small and experimental sample runs – at a minimum of 48 pieces – have appealed to markets beyond the Nordics.
Back on the factory floor, machines hiss and whirr as we pass from the original low-roofed factory to a large extension that was added in 2000. Overhead a track carries tray after tray of porcelain around the factory to dry before it is glazed and fired for a second time. Our guide Gunnar Hetland is a local who started working here in the afternoons while a student. “I’ve been here for 21 years but I’m still a rookie,” he says, beaming as he shows us a cup-roller machine. It’s feeding fat sausages of raw clay into a bowl-shaped mould and releasing twirling ribbons of loose off-cuts – to be reused – into a bucket.
Figgjo and the Rugland family behind it gambled that despite the cost, it could make a product that would sell abroad and outshine cheaper competition. Yes, there’s clay from southwest England, aluminium oxide from Germany and nepheline (a substance mined from volcanic rocks) and quartz from Belgium. But combined in the correct proportions in this small whitewashed factory on the shores of a calm lake, these ingredients make for a uniquely Norwegian dish. We’re preoccupied with the ingredients that chefs plump for but the provenance of their plates betrays plenty about their priorities too.
Fancy hearing the clink of Figgjo crockery without having to secure supper plans with the Norwegian PM first? Then visit the Re-naa restaurant in Stavanger. Expect delicate dishes from chef Sven Erik Renaa served on Figgjo’s pretty Undring plate: an avant-garde model designed by the talented young soul (and Stavanger native) Lars Tornøe.
Too many manufacturers make a meal of over-decorating their plates. We like the simple blue-rimmed Strøk collection. The name references the stroke of a paintbrush, which is how the edging is applied. The oversized cup is excellent for soups and the high-sided plates are a nice change from the theatrically flat ones that some restaurateurs seem enamoured with.
First we abandoned the table to eat on the couch. Then we decided that watching TV was not enough and that we should perch a laptop on our knees as we distractedly ate our dinners (some manage to have TV, phone and laptop all in play at the same time).
And that’s when something had to give but what got ditched was not the laptop but the plate. And in its place came the easy-to-handle bowl. Because while the plate demands two hands and lots of knee space, the bowl can balance on a sofa armrest. The bowl delivers freedom to do emails, social media and Google all at once.
Ask your colleagues and you’ll discover that plates are now for special occasions only; bowls are the real ceramic deal. The bowl’s ascendancy also aligns with some other tectonic shifts in our eating habits. The rise of Asian cuisine traditionally served in bowls, the dominance of pasta, the drift from roasts and pies to bite-sized stir-fried pieces of meat, the fashion for shared dishes (20 bowls on a table work; 20 big plates do not): all of these trends have helped to secure the curvaceous bowl’s youthful appeal.
With this has come a cutlery cull too: the knife and fork have filed for divorce, with the fork getting access rights to the bowl and the knife getting left in the drawer. Is there any chance of a return to flatware and two-handed concentration? Unlikely; we’re just too bowled over by our new way of living.