An instinct for what’s right

KPM Head Designer Thomas Wenzel manages the balancing act between the modern and the traditional, and in the process comes up with potatoes and the beauty of weeds

Thomas Wenzel © Elke A. Jung-Wolff

If you want to understand Thomas Wenzel a bit better, you’ll have to take the detour via the potato. Because the Head Designer at the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin (KPM) is a modest man. He doesn’t like talking about his successes – and if he does, then with the caveat: „But you’re not going to write this, are you?“

When the 300th anniversary of Frederick the Great was coming up, Wenzel didn’t want to design the umpteenth portrait of the king, whose insignias adorn the Berlin porcelain manufactory to this day. Wenzel wanted to break through the Prussian melancholy and do something humorous – and came up with the potato and the many stories revolving around the vegetable, „Old Fritz“ and Voltaire. Then, in an aside, Wendel says: „The potato in itself is such a wonderful vegetable. For me, it has nothing but good qualities: it lies beneath the earth and doesn’t show off with any fancy colours. But ultimately it conquered the world.“ Perhaps Thomas Wenzel is also one of these potatoes. He doesn’t show off, but what he does appeals to the taste of the populace. Since 1989, the man from Thuringia has been working behind the scenes at the manufactory, designing forms and decor, and collaborating with major designers on new services. „We have always benefitted from our location. Berlin is a cultural metropolis that attracts artists,“ says the 49-year-old. The company has been situated in Tiergarten since 1871, where every day Thomas Wenzel faces the challenge presented by working in a traditional company like KPM: the balancing act between the traditional and the modern.

The enormity of this task is obvious to anyone who takes a tour of the display cabinets in the exhibition rooms. You experience a phenomenon: of strolling alongside the past while always remaining in the present. Because what you see here is timeless. The plates, vases and bowls from centuries long past seem just as contemporary as the Bauhaus Urbino tableware or the „Berlin“ service by Enzo Mari from 1996. And if anything should appear a little too dusty, it’s Thomas Wenzel’s job to reinterpret the old values. He’s not afraid of giving old classical amphorae a new coat of paint.

In the process, Wenzel goes his own way. When he is assigned the task of looking at what others are doing, he obliges. But then he does something completely different. Creative people are also disrupters, to an extent. People who break down our way of seeing things, argue and assert themselves. „Which is why the creative person quickly gains the reputation of being a little crazy. However, time usually proves them right,“ says Wenzel, quickly adding that he doesn’t necessarily mean himself here. But this is exactly what he does.

For example, he has managed the balancing act between the modern and the traditional with his „Berlin“ service. When the experts got wind of this, they were appalled: flower painting on Enzo Mari?! However, the result was convincing. Here, Wenzel also followed the way of the potato: where others would have picked roses, tulips and narcissuses, the designer decided on daisies, yellow clover and dwarf snowbells. He discovered the beauty of the weeds and of the small and humble. Wenzel explains: „You need an instinct for what’s right. It’s like this: when someone steps on the accelerator and everyone says, we’ve got to speed up too, then maybe it’s right to say, ‘Wait a moment, let’s hit the brake’.“

Which is not to say that Thomas Wenzel isn’t capable of speeding things up too. One of his projects actually had quite a lot of horsepower under the bonnet: in collaboration with Bugatti, KPM designed a car with porcelain elements – both exterior and interior. Worlds collided: industry and manufactory, steel and porcelain, and precision with a living material. „The engineers had a completely different way of thinking. For them, everything was always very simple, but for us the material moves once again when it’s baked,“ Wenzel explains the special quality of porcelain, which contracts during vitrification. „It rises up again.“

Among other things, the tank lid, skirting and central console are modelled in porcelain. The latter can even be removed and used as a bowl for a picnic basket. However, it’s designed for holding caviar – in this case the potato really would be too modest.

Susanne Hörr
Kluge Köpfe 2013