Danish craft traditions are at the core of production and marketing at both Royal Copenhagen and Holmegaard Glassworks. But what role do the craftspeople play? FOKUS met with Creative Director Niels Bastrup of Royal Copenhagen and Managing Director Peter Normann Nielsen of Holmegaard to talk about branding, product development and the conquest of new markets in a global world where designer names might make a difference.
By Anne-Marie Gregersen
They are both part of Danish history as national heirlooms that everybody knows - and which most connoisseurs love. Generations of Danish children have dined on porcelain or faience from Royal Copenhagen and sipped their milk from Holmegaard glasses, and adults have raised their glasses in celebration of the crystal-clear qualities of the excellent craftsmanship. But Royal Copenhagen, where Niels Bastrup is the creative director, and Holmegaard, where Peter Normann Nielsen is both managing director and co-owner, are also professional international companies with strategies for shaping their future in a global world.
Royal Copenhagen has a strong presence as a world-renowned brand. Both Japanese and American consumers recognise the three waves at the back of the classic dinnerware, from the legendary Flora Danica and the blue fluted pattern, the mainstay of Royal Copenhagen's production, to the bold renewal of traditions - like the bestsellers Blue Fluted Mega and Black Fluted Half Lace, which are becoming megahits in their own right. At the international design fair Ambiente, which takes place in Frankfurt, Germany, 8-12 February 2008, Royal Copenhagen will follow up on the success of these two innovations, but until then the new designs will remain a well-kept secret. The group, which has its headquarters, factory and modelling workshop in Denmark, now has subsidiaries in other countries, including Germany, Japan, the USA and South Korea.
In 2006, Holmegaard, which so far is mostly known within Scandinavia, opened "The Living Glassworks" following renovation of the old factory buildings in Fensmark outside Næstved. The new learning centre, which features a museum, exhibitions, design shop and a wide range of activities, has become a popular tourist attraction, where visitors can learn about the history of the glassworks and crafts traditions. The centre offers entertainment for the entire family and also presents products by younger designers, including Cecilie Manz and Louise Campbell, who are invited to Holmegaard to try their hand at glass design and challenge Kähler's ceramics traditions.
Crafts are a key component in the self image of both companies. But how do Royal Copenhagen and Holmegaard use crafts in their marketing efforts?
Niels: Crafts are the mainstay of Royal Copenhagen's production; they are widely used in our marketing, and we will continue to emphasise this aspect in the future, as there are still many who don't realise the key role of crafts in our porcelain. We always try to visualise the craft aspect in our campaigns in order to underscore the essential understanding that Royal Copenhagen is about the handmade, hand-painted product. We promote the craft of handpainting in shops-in-shop abroad as well as Danish retail by arranging for a porcelain decorator to demonstrate the craft in practice. For example, we often send porcelain decorators to Japan to give the customers a first-hand experience of this traditional craft. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly visually interesting to customers in the large parts of the production process for porcelain that takes place behind closed doors in the hot kiln.
Peter: Holmegaard's concept manual also states that crafts should be emphasised throughout the production process - both in the craft process and in the artistic design process. We see this as one of the ways that Holmegaard can stand out, by emphasising that this is a glassworks that employs real, live people with unique craft skills and knowledge.
Both Holmegaard and Royal Copenhagen work with craftspeople. How do you include them in your product development and marketing efforts?
Peter: Before we decide which categories we want new designs for, we review Holmegaard's entire product line. Then we work out briefs for selected designers - for example Cecilie Manz and many others - who match our desired expression in the given categories.
The designers that we work with today don't necessarily know that much about glass, and in my opinion that can be an advantage. We already have so much in-house competence concerning glass and its properties. There are lots of craftspeople and technicians who can describe the limitations and properties of glass, and designers are able to pose new challenges with new and contemporary expressions and their seemingly impossible requests for "an elliptic glass that goes like this". We are forced to try to push the envelope as designer and technician together embark on the process of finding a solution that satisfies them both.
The reason why Holmegaard no longer establishes permanent partnerships with selected craftspeople is simply that we want to avoid the situation we once had, where Holmegaard's products were associated with individual artists' particular style, typical of a given time. We want to ensure that the Holmegaard brand is always associated with "modern glass in superior quality", so we have to keep changing our expression in order to keep up with consumers.
Niels: Royal Copenhagen continues to have a large production in Denmark, where we also have a modelling workshop with a staff of six as part of product development. During the design process they engage in a close dialogue with the designer.
Royal Copenhagen may take a slightly different approach from Holmegaard's in terms of briefing the designers, based on more than 230 years of experience with porcelain. The constraints of the material mean that there are some things we may as well rule out as unfeasible from the outset. We accept demanding challenges, but in many other contexts than the craft-based, and instead of asking five or six designers to present their ideas for new dinnerware, our strategy is to work closely with one designer on a solution where we have defined our expectations very clearly beforehand.
Instead of using the word modern in our product development, we talk about evolution. It is essential to maintain a high degree of recognisability in the products to make it evident that Royal Copenhagen is behind a given porcelain item. Unlike glass products, where - no offence - it may be a bit of a challenge to tell whether a vase is from Finnish Iittala, Italian Venini or Danish Holmegaard, even though they are all products of outstanding quality.
Peter: Yes, this is quite true, and it is a huge challenge for a glassworks such as Holmegaard. We don't have a distinctly recognisable stamp ... it is something more immaterial - a customer expectation of superior quality and products in a modern style and a contemporary colour scheme.
Danish craft products are in high demand outside Denmark. Are you good enough at tapping into the potential held by Danish crafts right now?
Peter: At Holmegaard, the bulk of our turnover stems from the domestic market, so we might be exaggerating our own situation if we said we had much of a brand outside Scandinavia. Thus, we have a major challenge when taking on export markets. We do have subsidiaries in Germany and Norway, where we work strategically at building exports. In Norway, we have something resembling a brand - and we do see convincing growth rates there. But it is not the Holmegaard brand that is the attraction in the export markets. We have to build our success on the strength of the products themselves. The designs have to be so great that customers in the countries we approach are willing to pay the price.
Niels: In places like Japan or the USA, it is definitely important for Royal Copenhagen to refer to Danish design - Made by Danish designers in Denmark! In many cases, the customer likes to be able to see a portrait of the designer behind the product, and the Japanese in particular are fond of Royal Copenhagen, which they associate with their notions of Denmark as a country with lots of light, lots of blue and lots of ocean - wonderful related values that are associated with Royal Copenhagen, and which we use in our marketing, of course. This is also reflected in the three blue waves of our brand - and fortunately, we are difficult to copy.
Many manufacturers use major international designer names - also to boost their marketing efforts. Is this an element in your long-term strategies?
Peter: If the occasion arose, I would not rule out that Holmegaard might build on a hot, contemporary designer name, but it is not an element in our strategy. Danish designers are world-class, and we have to get better at communicating this point to foreign markets. Of course, a trendy international designer name has an effect, but the effect won't last if the product isn't up to snuff. In that case I would prefer a good product by an unknown designer.
Niels: Royal Copenhagen does not work exclusively with Danish designers. But designers from other counties are also asked to interpret Royal Copenhagen and the tradition we represent. The Royal Copenhagen brand is more important than the designer, and in terms of our product line, the key issue is whether the product has staying power. But what does it mean, anyway, to be a Danish designer? Does that include a Dane who trained in England? Or an Australian who graduated from a Danish design school?
In furniture design and fashion, there is a trend moving away from mass production towards a more unique and customised expression. What are your thoughts on one-offs and mass production?
Niels: It's fine that there is an international niche that can afford customised designs and one-off pieces. But aiming for this market involves the risk of cutting oneself off from the commercial market and the general population, I think. Royal Copenhagen has always had a small production of one-off pieces. We collaborate with artists with the purpose of producing pure art products in limited one-off series, produced in connection with exhibitions. However, one-off pieces also act as a release valve for creativity or dynamics that need not come from the external sources, but which easily arises in-house as part of the creative process. And every year, we work with an external artist to produce the annual ‘Harald', the teaching award at the University of Copenhagen, and that usually involves a one-off production and an exhibition.
Peter: Today, we do very few one-off pieces at Holmegaard. We are considering how we might approach this in the future, but it will probably be in the form of collaborations with artists, not with designers. Holmegaard's learning centre has a large exhibition venue that features varying exhibitions of glass art, paintings and ceramics that aren't necessarily produced at Holmegaard. Clearly, the commercial angle here is to associate the Holmegaard brand with the world of art, but I would be kidding myself if I said that I expect any great increase in sales from this initiative. We want to use this venue to present Danish crafts, and perhaps someday Niels will visit with an exhibition on Royal Copenhagen? He would be more than welcome.
Why did Holmegaard acquire the ceramics factory Kähler in Næstved, and what are your plans for this old family business?
Peter: Well, that's a relatively straightforward matter of business development. We considered whether we should keep Holmegaard a big player in a relatively small market where we would then have to do our growing - or whether we should use the Holmegaard brand to take on new categories, such as metal, plastics, porcelain or ceramics. We agreed that the latter risked compromising Holmegaard's position as the Danish consumers' foremost glass brand. But we do have some experience with revitalising an older brand, so when Kähler came on the market, we saw that we could apply the same approach, the same analytical model, etc. Kähler has a strong history that we can revitalise, with old products that offer a link to tradition combined with relatively new things, like the classic tea set Storia, which we have relaunched, and Louise Campbell's Fiducia series with candleholders and vases.
What does it mean for "the good crafts story" when production takes place, for example, in Germany, Portugal or China?
Niels: In terms of branding, it makes no difference today where things are manufactured. Royal Copenhagen continues to have a large production in Denmark, which the company wants to maintain - and this production goes hand in hand with the things that are produced in other countries. We live and work in a globalised world, and it's not just lower costs but also the availability of competencies that makes it necessary for us to collaborate with other countries, provided of course that the ethical and appropriate conditions are in accordance with international conventions. It may come down to something as prosaic as a machine that we don't have but which is available in a factory in Portugal. It's been a long time since Denmark was a manufacturing society that invested in production, so there are some competencies, for example in the area of crafts, that we have to look for elsewhere on the planet.
Peter: I agree totally with Niels. Today's world is one global venue. The consumer looks for a "Made by - brand" - and not "Made in Denmark"! The situation for porcelain, glass and ceramics is the same as for clothes: If the product or the brand is relevant to consumers, they will buy it. I make no secret of the fact that Holmegaard has a large production outside Denmark, and it is evident that this makes no difference in our world. That said, I would like to see a lot of people being willing to pay DKK 1,500 for a vase, so that we could produce it in Denmark. That would be a lot easier!
How do you feel about your Danish competitors - Normann Copenhagen, Rosendahl, Menu, Muuto and the small, nimble design that are so successful and have high growth rates?
Niels: We have an excellent relationship with our competitors, and the small, nimble design firms are great, they add some spice to the business as they emerge and begin to unfold. But once they reach a certain size, they're going to find what we have found: New players come along that are a little faster, a little cheekier, with an expression that may be a little more spot-on. You have to accept that if you are in a creative business, and I find it good and proper - it's a positive supplement.
Peter: Our relationship with the competitors is fine. Basically, our philosophy is that competition is a healthy feature that keeps us on our toes. We have a history behind both our brands that hardly any of our competitors can match. That leaves room for differentiation, and that is something that we will attempt to utilise even more in the future.
Besides, I agree with Niels that the underground is really, really important. They're great. They also help challenge the consumers' perceptions, so it's not only important to have these sorts of players - it's a real benefit. In fact, I wouldn't mind seeing more of that. But it is a difficult market to manoeuvre in.