Crafts Manufactories in Germany: Between Tradition and Modernity
Whether luminous stars for Christmas, coloured vases, top quality shirts or good quality oil – there is also another side to Germany’s industrialised production, where handmade products are still manually assembled, hand painted, hand sewn or pressed.
There are more than 2,500 of highly specialised German crafts manufactories, and it is thanks to them that old cultural skills and techniques are passed down, making it possible to maintain qualified jobs in rural areas, far away from the big cities. Initiatives such as “Handmade in Germany” organise international exhibitions to make these craftspeople and artists more well-known. The associated platform “Deutsche Manufakturenstrasse” (Route of German Manufactories) now bundles 700 of these small scale manufactories to form tourist routes across Germany.
They range from the Swabian Alb, where the company Merz beim Schwanen makes shirting fabrics on old circular spring needle machines with techniques used at the beginning of the the 20th century, to Marvitz in the State of Brandenburg, where ceramics of classic elegance have been fired since the 1930’s in the workshops Hedwig Bollhagen-Werkstätten, up to the company Herrnhut that is domiciled on the Czech border. Here in the Oberlausitz district is one of the most famous and, indeed, most romantic German craft makers. Luminous, ready-to-assemble Herrnhut stars have been manufactured on this site since 1897, and they continue to gain popularity, not only in Germany. 86 employees produce over 400,000 of these stars every year. Some 60,000 visitors come to the exhibition workshop every year to see how the triangular points of the star are punched out, folded and then put together – all done by hand, of course.
Many German crafts manufactories have adopted this idea of demonstrating how an item is made using traditional means. Also in Brandenburg, in the workshops of Master ceramic artist, Hedwig Bollhagen, whose timeless aesthetic designs reflect affinities with Bauhaus. Here there are popular and regular tours through the workshop. The facilities have been modernised every now and again, including the installation of state-of-the-art kilns, nevertheless, each visitor can immediately sense how, since the 1930’s, ceramic blanks have been cast and turned, then fired, painted or scratched before being fired a second time.
There are other small intermediary stages, such as brushing or the constant quality control of the items after each cycle. All of these steps demand skilful and elaborate craftsmanship and are also very time intensive – it is therefore not easy to compete with the cheap earthenware sold in big chain stores: “We try to show visitors that here in our workshop we don’t simply throw a lump of clay onto an assembly line, that then comes out as a painted plate”, says sales manager Benjamin Schmidt during the guided tour. In many areas he is surrounded only by professional craftspeople. For the calm, concentrated brush strokes, or the even more intricate scratch decorations, experience and practice are essential, as well as time.
Attempts to make triangular points
The work performed in most crafts workshops looks ever so easy, although it is actually extremely difficult. This is something visitors to the Herrnhut workshop can try out themselves: in an attempt to make the point of a star, most of them give up. “It takes almost a year before a new colleague can complete this task satisfactorily”, says marketing manager Jaqueline Schröpel, and mentions an aspect of crafts manufactories that customers are no longer familiar with: sometimes articles are simply sold out if there is great demand.
The manufacturing techniques have to be passed on in detail and with great care – this is something that doesn’t happen over night: “We can’t just increase and decrease the production capacity, as in industrialised branches”, Jaqueline Schröpel adds. It is possible to prepare for peak periods, such as the pre-Christmas season, and in this respect modern sales processes are in place here, and at Hedwig Bollhagen. “Although our workshop is traditional, our sales and marketing channels have to be state of the art, otherwise we cannot survive” comments Benjamin Schmid. This approach is underscored by the modern sales room in Marvitz, and also by the presence of the ceramics in New York’s Guggenheim Museum Store.
Between Tradition and Modernity
The regional approach always remains important, but in order to reach customers the craft makers have to go one step further. The shirts of Merz beim Schwanen, for example, are made and packed on the Swabian Alb, although the headquarters of the company are in Berlin Mitte. In this way, they can directly engage with the hip urban customer who is looking for quality products and a commitment to sustainability.
A similar path has been followed by Frank Besinger and Sabine Stempfhuber of “Ölmühle an der Havel“. These top quality oils, pesto sauces and teas all boast a regional, ecological and sustainable origin, but are showcased and sold in attractive shops in Berlin-Kreuzberg, and in Potsdam. Also here in the city the customers can experience the actual production process, and for this purpose the oil mill is set up in the sales area. Frank Besinger considers this very important: “When it comes to crafts products, and particularly food, I think people are attaching more and more importance to understanding where a product comes from and what it is made of.”