The rural communities that have built on their craft heritage to stay relevant in an urbanised world.
Framed by snow-capped mountains and studded with church spires, the Alpine community of Aschau im Chiemgau is an hour’s drive from Munich Airport. Though it’s far removed from Germany’s commercial centres, entrepreneur and designer Nils Holger Moormann wouldn’t want to be based anywhere else. “Clients arriving here are automatically put in a good mood,” he tells monocle as he takes a seat on a wooden bench he designed and points at the sunlit fields outside his office window. “It’s an escape from their hectic lives. Here you have nothing, only the mountains.”
Moormann founded his eponymous furniture company in the small Bavarian community in 1982. The designer converted the former stables of the imposing hilltop castle Hohenaschau into a spacious office for his 45 employees. Where royal horses once rested, tables, shelves and chairs now stand side by side and leather bridles still hang from hooks, paying tribute to the building’s former incarnation.
Moormann’s desks, benches, lamps and everything in between are often the creations of young designers. “Of course, we’ve also collaborated with some big names such as Konstantin Grcic and I’d never say no to the Bouroullec brothers, although we’d have to call them Otto West and Otto East [so the prominent name wouldn’t distract from the product],” he says.
Celebrating talent over star power defines the Bavarian brand, where the furniture is never geared towards trends and is often too ambitious for the classic furniture-retail market. Grcic’s 1998 Hut Ab, an abstract wooden coat stand, perfectly captures the essence of Moormann’s philosophy: it’s mobile, minimalistic and inventive. Not unlike the classic fnp shelving units designed by Axel Kufus in 1989 or Moormann’s Holzklasse, a customised camper van fitted out with his characteristically angular wooden furnishings. “Design has a responsibility to offer solutions,” he says, noting that its sole concern shouldn’t revolve around creating a new look but around inventing better functionality.
For the production of his furniture, Moormann works with a handful of nearby workshops. “I like being able to drop by on my bike,” he says as he pays blacksmith Thedy Metzler a visit, with whom he’s collaborated for 30 years. “My grandfather was a blacksmith,” says Metzler, welding an iron element for Moormann’s Kampenwand garden-furniture collection.
Aschau has been key to Moormann’s success. It’s where he has become a force of the New German Design movement (which originated in response to functionalism) and has created furniture by harnessing the skills of this unique rural community. “Logistically speaking, being here isn’t practical in the least; it’s far away from everything,” he says. “But it’s so beautiful. It’s my world so you see, the company couldn’t be anywhere else.”
Date founded: 927
Key trades: 700 businesses and a strong tourism industry.
Cost of a house: €500,000, on average.
Key facilities: Kampenwand cable cars and ski slopes, 300km of hiking paths, two-Michelin-star restaurant Heinz Winkler, a train station and a variety of shops and retail opportunities.
Challenges: Retaining and safeguarding the historic character of the architecture – as well as the traditional businesses of the village – by discouraging aggressive building projects and the spread of chains.
As soon as you arrive in the picturesque village of Motoemachi on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu you immediately notice a curious and intermittent thudding sound. It’s the noise of karausu: soil being pounded by a long wooden hammer, powered only by water. It’s the start of a lengthy process that will result in a unique pottery clay. There are only 176 people in this hamlet but among them are 18 potters and six kilns, all making the same pottery – Ontayaki – that their families have been making for 300 years.
Longevity in craftsmanship is nothing new in Japan but the potters here stick resolutely to an all-natural method that, from the very start, eschews machinery, gas and electricity. “Everything – the shape, the pattern – begins with the clay,” says Takumi Sakamoto, a potter of 33 years’ standing who heads up the potters’ co-operative. Once a year the yellow soil is collected from the mountains. It is dried and milled, then filtered in a small water pit at the front of each house. Next it’s dried some more and kneaded into something workable before being shaped and fired.
Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei folk movement, came here in 1931 and was thrilled to discover the continuation of this old method. Today Ontayaki has become fashionable in Tokyo, where the Mingei style has had a resurgence. The name is somewhat misleading since the town of Onta is on the other side of the mountain but little Motoemachi, part of the bigger town of Hita, is where the pottery has always been made. Ask anyone for Ontayaki (yaki means “ware”) and they’ll know where you mean.
The village is quiet, with bamboo stands, rushing water and wooden houses. Pots dry outside, with some for sale. After a flurry of activity in the morning the streets are deserted and silent, apart from that thud. The one restaurant here, a cheerful soba shop, serves noodles in Ontayaki bowls.
“The way we make our clay here is the slowest and the most natural in Japan; a machine could do in 30 minutes what takes us a month,” says Sakamoto. In the background his son, So, 26 and very hungover, is breaking a sweat kneading solid hunks of clay. He and 21-year-old Takuma Sakamoto from the neighbouring kiln are the young blood, giving hope to the continuation of a tradition. Apprentices from outside aren’t welcome. Sakamoto says the potters only just make enough to support their families, never mind taking on employees.
For all the effort, Ontayaki clay is famously weak, which is both a good and a bad thing. Bad in that unless the pieces are stacked carefully in the kiln there are breakages; good in that the weakness has caused the development of a distinctive style where each piece is built up with coils of clay. The slip doesn’t sit well on the clay either, which is why it has to be scored and marked, giving it the distinctive Ontayaki pattern.
The kilns are lit – fired only by wood – about three times per year. Five families have their own kilns; another kiln is shared. When the firing is over you can see villagers with wheelbarrows full of pottery, transporting the pieces back home. The Ontayaki potters see themselves more as artisans than artists. “It’s only in the past 40 years that pottery has taken up all of our time; before then, 80 per cent of our time was spent farming,” says Sakamoto.
Change is everywhere but here at least there is an appreciation that some things are better left as they are. “We can’t introduce any machinery as it would upset the natural process,” says Sakamoto. “It’s true that if we added some soil from Arita [the famous porcelain town] our clay would be stronger but then it wouldn’t be real Ontayaki. It’s difficult doing it this way but we’re not going to change.”
Population: 176: 87 men and 89 women. A total of 76 people are older than 65.
Date founded: Not known but the making of ceramics is said to have started in the village in 1705.
Key trades: Agriculture (rice) and ceramics.
Cost of a house: Not known – it doesn’t seem like anyone is buying or selling.
Key facilities: Buses run between Hita city bus centre and Motoemachi three times a day.
Challenges: Ageing population and a shortage of successors to take over businesses.
A cluster of blue-and-white boats nudge against one another in the breezy harbour of Makkum, a fishing village of 3,500 people perched on the northwest coast of the Netherlands in the fiercely independent Friesland province. The scene looks fairly typical for a Dutch village, with children pedalling their bikes and elderly couples strolling the streets lined with neat brown-brick residences. But one structure stands out: an angular orange building that can be seen 200 metres along the main canal.
Inside, the factory floor of tile-maker Royal Tichelaar (RT) is bustling with activity; workers joke and music blares. One man places clay bars on a conveyor belt to be showered with a “curtain” glaze that will become dark bronze in the kiln; others dip rectangular tiles into a trough of pink glaze that will turn luminous gold. The bronze tiles are destined to clad Canada’s National Music Centre in Calgary, the gold an Amsterdam hotel.
Meanwhile, in the most prominent section of the room, hundreds of white rhomboid-shaped tiles dry in rows; they are a fraction of the 14,000 porcelain pieces that will coat the entrance courtyard and roof of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum extension.
All this hubbub reveals RT’s prowess as a tile-maker for ceramic-architecture projects around the world. Yet, in the grand scheme of the company’s history, collaborating with architects to make tiles for interiors and façades is a very recent enterprise. RT started as a brick-making company in 1572 – in fact, it is the oldest company of any kind in the Netherlands. Over the next four centuries it became renowned for glazed earthenware. Its original premises was in the centre of the village, an ideal spot for a ceramics business: the ground was filled with a distinctive yellow clay and its seaside location meant easy transportation of wares.
“At the height of our pottery business in the 1970s, boatloads of tourists would come from around the world to visit the shop,” says Hilco Vos, RT’s international business developer. The company – which at the time employed 130 workers, many of them from the area – developed a distinctive Makkum colour palette of seven different glazes, including brown, dark blue and yellow. “Any ceramicist would know that this comes from Makkum,” says Vos, picking up an old plate painted with a floral design in those seven hues.
Unfortunately by the 1990s “the market for traditional earthenware was drying up”, says Hans Marcuse, RT’s CEO. The company looked to other industries where it could apply its craftsmanship and competencies and landed on ceramic architecture. The transition meant downsizing: RT now employs 42 people, 12 of whom come from Makkum and 30 from the surrounding region. It also meant a change in mindset. “The company is totally different now: before it was business-to-consumer, now it is business-to-business,” says Marcuse. “But the art process, the glazing, is not different.”
The days of RT selling ornaments to tourists may be over but walking along the streets of Makkum will reveal the village’s long-held love affair with ceramics. The main canal is called Turfvaart (Peat Canal) in reference to what was once used to fuel kilns, while road names include Turfmarkt (Peat Market), Tichelwerk (Tile Work) and Kleiweg (Clay Road).
Above the windows of some houses, ornately decorated tiles combine to form crests and floral patterns in the seven Makkum colours; beside the front doors of others hang small ceramic placards emblazoned with family names or house numbers.
This deep-rooted ceramics presence explains why, when renovating its factory in 2007, RT opted to keep production in Makkum rather than upsizing to an industrial estate or outsourcing abroad. The rejigged building sums up the company’s mindset: it is simultaneously modern – with its sharp lines and bold colouring – and tied to tradition, with a vertical window structure that enables sunlight to stream through the roof, much like in the Dutch factories of the 1920s.
But of course its greatest nod to tradition is its location. “People are asking, ‘Why are you operating here and not in China where the wages are low?’” says Marcuse. “But Makkum is an important part of our heritage and our brand. We feel it ourselves: our roots are here, our history – this is where we built up our competence.”
Date founded: Between 1200 and 1300.
Key trades: Shipbuilding, fishing, tourism and ceramics.
Cost of a house: €200,000.
Key facilities: The Multifunctional Centre Maggenheim houses sports facilities and cultural spaces; there is also a harbour and the 170-metre-long De Vries shipyard.
Challenges: The village is difficult to access by public transport: it is only a 75-minute car drive from Amsterdam but takes more than three hours by bus.