New lease of life for Portugal's booming ceramics bastion

A piece depicting cartoon character of everyman Ze Povinho created in 1875 by Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, at Bordallo Pinheiro Factory in Caldas da Rainha. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Thomas CABRAL

Caldas da Rainha (AFP) -- Ignoring temporary walls which point to ongoing large-scale expansion, workers burn the midnight oil at Portugal's byword for ceramic creativity to meet orders from around the globe.

For more than 130 years, Bordallo Pinheiro has been producing all manner of artistic glazed pottery, and business is booming again a decade after the company almost went to the wall.

From traditional azulejos tiles, multi-coloured fruit-shaped tableware, animal-shaped vases and ceramic sardines, to Mick Jagger and Pope Francis figurines, the factory is a Portuguese porcelain fancier's paradise.

That order books are crammed is a far cry from when the company, founded in 1884 in the western town of Caldas da Rainha an hour north of Lisbon, was bought out in 2009.

In the ensuing decade, sales have tripled and production has raced ahead 60 percent -- hence the need to ramp up capacity at the site in the town, also renowned for its hot springs.

Though some see elements of the firm's intricate wares as kitsch, for collectors, it is a pillar of Portuguese contemporary artistic culture. Sculptors make each mould by hand and the most complex require multiple moulds.

Bordallo Pinheiro's status was underlined in May when London's Monocle magazine for the high disposable income reader devoted several pages to it.

Today sees the company riding the Zeitgeist, with multimillion investments designed to lift production by around a third, as sales soar from Spain to South Korea and the United States.

It now plans to open its own stores, notably in Paris and beyond, rather than selling chiefly to other distributors -- quite a turnaround from its previously bleak outlook due to tough competition from China.

Layoffs, late payment of wages... Victor Formiga, a 56-year-old company veteran of 30 years, well remembers the "difficult days."

He currently leads the team making the moulds into which liquid clay, or slip, is cast prior to firing in the kiln.

Painting and dipping into clear glaze follow, before firing a second time.

"Today, things are going much better. We're proud of this expansion and I hope it will last," says Formiga.

Handmade

Even as the company, now based on the town's outskirts having converted its original more central site into a museum and shop, sets its sights still higher, it remains faithful to traditional, handmade manufacturing.

"Bordallo will remain a kind of giant workshop. We want to pay tribute to our history by turning out almost exclusively handmade products," says industrial director Tiago Mendes.

Save for a handful of items pressed mechanically, the remainder are made manually.

Many items require careful piecing together, such as a limited edition bunch of 70 bananas. Only 125 will be produced, each retailing for 2,100 euros ($2,400).

Portuguese industrial group Visabeira bought out Bordallo Pinheiro and has made good use of the distribution network of Vista Alegre which it also bought and is another internationally renowned Portuguese ceramics brand dating back to 1824.

"After a first phase of reorganisation, we are entering the growth phase," administrator Nuno Barra tells AFP.

The Bordallo factory employed 180 workers when it was bought out but is expanding the payroll to 255 to help cover teams working a night shift too.

By year-end, it hopes to have opened its first international boutiques in Paris and Madrid and aims to lift exports to three quarters from a current 50 percent of overall production.

'Creative genius'

"We place great value on brand and the quality of a product which continues to be made according to the notions of the artist originally behind it all -- Raphael Bordallo Pinheiro," Barra says.

Bordallo Pinheiro was a well-known journalist, caricaturist and ceramicist who founded the company in Caldas da Rainha after first being attracted by its therapeutic thermal waters.

"He was captivated by the alchemy of ceramics as he found in it a means of expressing his creative genius" in a region rich in top quality clay, as well as traditional craftsmanship, says current artistic director Elsa Rebelo.

His creativity was inspired by naturalist painters but also owes much to French Huguenot potter Bernard Palissy.

It was Bordallo Pinheiro who created the famous "andorinhas" swallow sculptures, manifestations of which adorn many Portuguese houses as a symbol of family and home.

Another notable creation was his Beethoven vase, a baroque-style offering, 2.6 metres (8.5 feet) tall, which stands outside Rio de Janeiro's National Museum of Fine Arts.

Bordallo Pinheiro invented the cartoon character "Ze Povinho", (literally Joe Public), whose anti-establishment, man-of-the-people mockery made him a popular favourite in newspapers and magazines.

When the firm was teetering, one of Portugal's leading artists, Joana Vasconcelos, stepped in with several orders and used some of the œuvres bought in her own work.

She would go on to become a guest-designer for the company, bringing its range to a younger, trendier clientele.


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