In Switzerland, crockery was often painted and decorated by hand, as here around 1940.
In Switzerland, crockery was often painted and decorated by hand, as here around 1940. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Langenthal is in the Czech Republic

Pottery was being made in what is now Switzerland as long ago as 3800 BC. Now, there’s no longer any industrial production in this country. But some big names have remained.

Bernhard Graf

Bernhard Graf

Bernhard Graf is a cultural mediator and has been living in Ticino for many years.

The history of pottery, which in its wider sense also includes tiled stoves, storage vessels and roof tiles, is a long one, and has always been a story of aesthetic and technical changes. Fashioning a bowl or cup was done initially by laying coils of clay on top of one another; the layers were blended and smoothed together, and then fired. The potter’s wheel, probably invented early in the third millennium BC, revolutionised the craft by making it possible to shape objects more quickly, and the result from then on exhibited the uniformity which we take for granted today – and which gives items such as plates their timeless and unvarying basic shape.
Bronze Age vessel in the shape of a bird.
Bronze Age vessel in the shape of a bird. Swiss National Museum

From one-of-a-kind creation to mass-produced article

Provided it has been correctly prepared, clay can also be pressed or poured into a mould, making the process of fashioning a vessel even quicker. This discovery meant large-scale industrial production ultimately became an option, turning the soup tureen, previously a hand-made, one-off item, into a mass-produced article. Industrial pottery production made it possible to keep an ever-growing population supplied with the cups, platters and jugs they needed. In earlier times, these items were joined by shaving dishes, ink sets and apothecary containers. However, changes in production processes and trading systems, and the associated transport of goods, meant that tableware production in Switzerland came to a standstill towards the end of the 20th century. Nowadays, utilitarian pottery products are created in the handicrafts sector; in day-to-day life, food is served and eaten on imported mass-produced items.

From middle-class stodginess to trendy ceramic treasure

For decades, the name Langenthal was synonymous with Swiss crockery. In terms of both the brand’s design and its manufacture, that held true for just over 80 years. The Langenthal porcelain factory, founded in 1906, supplied large-scale catering establishments and the hotel sector. Thanks to an efficient distribution system, the company’s products also found their way into most private households in every one of Switzerland’s language regions. Langenthal dinnerware can still be bought today, but Langenthal is now located, so to speak, in the Czech Republic – just as Ersigen, half an hour’s drive away, is in China, because the name Rössler, associated with Ersigen, now stands only for Swiss design. The porcelain itself is no longer produced in our country. It was a very different story in the 1960s, when breakfast crockery in light green, light blue and light yellow could be bought at affordable prices. 25 years later, these pieces were turning up by the score in second-hand shops. A couple of generations later, a rather younger buying public is happily shelling out substantial sums for Rössler’s apparently amorphous dishes – despite the fact that for a long time, the brand had something of a stodgy middle-class reputation. And the older generation is taking another look at that yellow coffee pot they grew up with, viewing it with greater historical detachment and admitting, albeit off the record, that it has some aesthetic qualities.
Langenthal soup tureen from 1930.
Langenthal soup tureen from 1930. Swiss National Museum
Rössler bowl from the 1960s.
Rössler bowl from the 1960s. Swiss National Museum

Solothurn cheerfulness on the dining table

By its nature, good crockery must meet certain functional criteria. Coffee pot spouts should pour in a nice smooth stream, salad bowls should stand firmly on the table, and hot teacups should be safe to hold. The ‘form follows function’ principle, established around 1850 and reiterated in the 1890s by American architect Louis Sullivan, still holds true today. The possibilities for aesthetic design, on the other hand, are virtually unlimited, and potters have always taken pleasure in decorating the bowls they make. Until well into the 19th century, pottery was produced at the place where the necessary raw materials were available; there was no sense in transporting clay over long distances. So every region had its own ceramic industry, and actual centres of production developed here and there. In the Thal district of Solothurn, for example, Aedermannsdorf and Matzendorf still hark back to a once flourishing porcelain industry. From the late 18th century until after 1850, these regions produced tableware characterised by a simple rural elegance, sometimes conveying the impression that life is a perpetually easy and cheerful affair.
Soup tureen from Matzendorf, around 1800.
Soup tureen from Matzendorf, around 1800. Swiss National Museum
Soup tureen from Kilchberg-Schooren, 1775.
The Kilchberg-Schooren porcelain factory also offered soup tureens, such as this specimen from 1775. Swiss National Museum

Tableware and stove tiles

The Lötscher family’s factory in St Antönien, Graubünden, active over five generations from 1875 onwards, shows that pottery workshops produced more than just tableware. The Lötscher factory also made water pipes and, in addition to stove tiles, items such as ink sets and even enema syringes were produced there. The combination of tableware and stove tiles is not uncommon, and is found in many factories in those areas of Switzerland where tiled stoves are used. It goes without saying that the materials used and the basic principles of manufacture are identical. And the job title Hafner (for the craftsperson who makes the stove tiles) takes a term from the potter’s product range. There is often no clear linguistic differentiation between Töpferei (a potter’s workshop) and Hafnerei (a stove-fitter’s works). Incidentally, the Hafner Lötscher in Prättigau supplied households with soup tureens that are an interesting addition to the array of other examples: a specimen has survived from 1841 in which the lid has no knob, and can be used as a plate when turned upside down.
Ink set made from clay, Andreas Lötscher, 1813.
Ink set made from clay, Andreas Lötscher, 1813. Swiss National Museum
Bowl by Andreas Lötscher, 1808.
Bowl by Andreas Lötscher, 1808. Swiss National Museum

Pottery styles go walkabout

If striking regional characteristics catch the eye when we look at everyday tableware, there are often stylistic parallels as well. Admirers of mid-19th-century pottery from Berneck in the Rhine Valley in St Gallen are struck by an obvious affinity with examples from Heimberg, 254 kilometres away. Initially, attempts to explain this similarity attributed it to the influence of the female decorators of pottery migrating from the Bern region into eastern Switzerland, but on closer inspection it was concluded that it was the actual potters themselves who, on their travels, passed on their own aesthetic tastes in addition to their manual skills. From the opposite end of Switzerland, pottery workshops are known from the area around Lake Geneva to the immediate vicinity of the city of Geneva. The workshop of Abraham Baylon from Nyon, whose products appealed to an urban middle class, was located in Carouge from 1802 onwards. The factory continued working into the 1930s, but the product range changed over time from dinner services in varying degrees of quality to porcelain that was sought after by community clubs, at private functions and for military awards or sports trophies.
Bowl from Baylon, early 19th century.
Bowl from Baylon, early 19th century. Swiss National Museum
Soup tureen from Heimberg, around 1800.
Soup tureen from Heimberg, around 1800. Swiss National Museum

Further posts