At Copenhagen’s Noma and other highly ranked Scandinavian restaurants, the avant-garde cuisine isn’t the only thing that’s new and Nordic – so is the rough-hewn crockery in speckled earth tones on which the food is served. Uniquely handcrafted – no two exactly alike – these dishes are produced with the utmost care by father and son Aage and Kasper Würtz.
The two operate the family business from a converted cowshed in the village of Hatting in eastern Jutland, a region of Scandinavia with a longstanding crafts tradition. As a long-haired teenager, Aage followed his sister into an apprenticeship at one of the many potteries then thriving in Jutland, soon becoming foreman of a studio producing ceramic lamps and then starting his own tableware workshop in 1981.
But by the late 1980s the home design aesthetic shifted. As minimalist white porcelain came into favour, Danish studio pottery sank into decline and Aage took a decade-long career detour, teaching social studies at a primary school. In 2000 he returned to the wheel, joined by 18-year-old Kasper. Sensing an opportunity in a resurgence of pottery, they turned out teacups and attendant dishes for home design and hardware shops.
The Würtzes are specialists in the wheel-turning, glazing and firing techniques that ceramicists have employed for centuries. The only differences are in the aesthetics – shape, size, proportion and colour – distinctive with every artisan. The Würtzes are unique “in producing utilitarian pieces that are more than their humble materials”, says Nina Hertig, co-owner of Sigmar, the London home design business that sells their wares.
Würtz-ware is at the forefront of an emerging mealtime protocol with an emphasis not on matching sets of ornate china but on durable crockery that caters for the New Nordic mingling of ingredients and flavours. The plates are all slightly concave – a shape chefs often find better suited to their cooking style.
Aage, 59, and Kasper, 31, aren’t the only ceramicists who are producing rough-hewn earthenware these days but the strong shapes and spotted surfaces differentiate their products from the rest. Dishwasher-friendly, all their dinner plates weigh exactly 800g. “Anything less is too insubstantial; anything heavier is too much,” says Aage. In the words of chef Matthew Orlando, the owner of Amass in Copenhagen, “Würtz is built to last”. Today Würtz-ware has become known as the alternative fine-dining crockery, used at a contemporary restaurants worldwide such as Fauna in Oslo, Fred in Rotterdam and Luksus in Brooklyn. Some designs, tailored to new menu items, are developed during Kasper’s frequent trips to Copenhagen. A commercial selection is sold to several home design retailers: H Skjalm P in Copenhagen and Izumi Furniture in Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Isahaya, as well as Sigmar. Despite keeping an artisanal approach to their craft, KH Würtz sold more than 15,000 pieces in 2013.
The Würtzes recently joined forces with Copenhagen architect Morten Emil Engel to build the world’s first glazed concrete coffee table, a project that shows they’re about more than just plates and bowls – though they may have to consider getting a bigger kiln.
Kasper says he and his father “aim to mimic the organic and the natural. At every step, from wheel-turning to glazing and firing, it’s about controlled randomness”. This is how each piece gets its own personality, he says. “It takes all our efforts but we do it because the results are beautiful. That’s why we’re so glad to be working with chefs. Like us they’re intuitive. And like us they approximate an organic aesthetic.”
Once materials are selected from sacks of stoneware and jars of powdered glazes, the clay takes shape with a hardy kneading.
Firing and drying
Once shaped, the clay is left to air-dry for up to 14 days. Then come nine hours of bisque-firing followed by 12 hours of cooling.
After pigments are mixed dishes may be strewn with crystals or iron filings before they are dipped in a bucket of glaze.
Eight to 10 hours followed by a full 12 hours of air-drying – a cool-down that prevents cracking.