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If you’ve ever coveted intricate, classically blue-and-white pottery, you’re not alone. There’s also a good chance the pieces you’ve been pining for are called transferware.
For some background: There was once a time where dishes with delicate, detailed graphics were reserved for only those who could afford hand-painted works of art. That all changed in 1750’s England with the popularization of a process called transfer printing.
Using an engraved copper plate, artisans would transfer a design onto monochrome paper, which was then used to transfer the design onto pottery. Thus, transfer printing allowed meticulous motifs of landscapes, nature, and animals to be reproduced endlessly. Just like the printing press made the written word available to the masses, transfer printing made gorgeous, elaborately decorated tableware (i.e. transferware) accessible to kitchens, and tables, around the world.
Gien: From English to French
One of the premier makers still employing this traditional method is Gien, a French faïencerie established in 1821. Taking its name from the Loire Valley city in which it settled, Gien was founded by Thomas Hall, an Englishman eager to expand the craft of faïence in France. Hall chose the location for his new company carefully: the Gien headquarters boasts all of the resources he required—from sand and water from a nearby river used to make clay paste, to wood from the neighboring forest to fuel the kilns. Since its inception, Gien has created its own mixtures using these same natural materials. The clay paste, plaster casts, and glazes developed and used at Gien are all secret recipes, but they will tell you it takes no fewer than 14 different types of earth to create a completed piece.
Methods of Decoration
Gien decorates its pottery in three different ways: hand painting, the aforementioned transfer printing (which is done by hand), and chromography, the application of decals onto white enameled pieces. Regardless of technique, Gien fires all of its pieces at low temperatures to enhance patterns and intensify colors.
The designs themselves have evolved over the years to include playful cartoons and Eiffel Tower depictions alongside the classic birds and florals. However, one of the brand’s best selling patterns has been around since the beginning. Prior to arriving in Gien, founder Thomas Hall worked at a Parisian faïence manufacturer called “pont aux choux,” which was also the name of their most successful pattern—cream colored dishes with delicate hobnail-like texture. He brought this design with him to Gien and it has remained popular over the years. To create new patterns and revive archival looks, Gien has an in-house artistic director constantly perfecting the brand’s look. Gien also collaborates with modern artists and designers like Pierre Frey Studio.
In short, whether you lust after the iconic, historic look or prefer a contemporary take on the original, this style of contrasting tableware is made readily available to us thanks to the transfer printing process made popular by Gien and other heritage brands. So, next time you’re face to face with a complex and ornamental dish, you’ll know exactly what it took for it to get there.