KPM Berlin: The Royal Porcelain Pioneer

Founded by Frederick the Great, KPM Berlin has been a pioneer in the manufacture and design of porcelain over the course of over two and half centuries.

Photos © Lempertz (detail)
Photos © Lempertz (detail)

In 1763, the Seven Years' War came to an end and King Frederick II of Brandenburg-Prussia now had the leisure and money to focus on nicer things. One of them was the founding of a prestigious porcelain manufactory in the same year, similar to those that had existed in Saxony and in the recently defeated Austria for some time. In 1751 and 1761 there had been attempts to found a porcelain factory in Berlin. Both projects had also been funded by the king, but money became short when Frederick had to finance a war from 1756 onwards.

Amphora vase, KPM Berlin, 20th century, with scepter mark and red imperial orb mark. The imperial orb mark has been used as a painting mark since 1803. Photo © Epli
Amphora vase, KPM Berlin, 20th century, with scepter mark and red imperial orb mark. The imperial orb mark has been used as a painting mark since 1803. Photo © Epli

On September 19, 1763, however, the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin (translating to the Royal Porcelain Manufactory Berlin and commonly shortened to KPM Berlin) opened its doors after Frederick bought a porcelain manufactory founded in 1761 from the merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (1710-1775) for 225,000 Reichstaler. The royal scepter from the electoral Brandenburg coat of arms was chosen as the trademark. 

Related: Collecting Like a King: Meissen Porcelain 101

Just as Augustus the Strong had been the main patron of his Meissen manufactory, Frederick the Great was now the best customer of his own KPM Berlin manufactory. The king ordered 21 table services for his palaces, including the New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, which was also built in 1763. The services could include up to 500 items and were usually designed for 36 people. The patterns were called Reliefzierat, Neuzierat, Rocaille and Neuosier and some of them are still produced today. 

Tea service "Relief decoration with cartouches", model by the Gotzkowsky manufactory, KPM Berlin, around 1765. Photo © Koller
Tea service "Relief decoration with cartouches", model by the Gotzkowsky manufactory, KPM Berlin, around 1765. Photo © Koller

Another classic among the KPM patterns was created in 1790, when Peter von Biron, Duke of Kurland (1724-1800) commissioned the manufactory to create a service that was to mimic the design language of the emerging classicism. The result was a set with an antique theme that was given the name Kurland, which is still in use today.

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As was the custom at the time, Frederick also gifted products of his manufactory to royals of other countries to show that one could produce a great product and to cultivate friendships. In 1770, the Prussian king sent the Russian Tsarina Catherine II a dessert service for 120 people.

"Kurland" form service with polychrome floral painting, KPM Berlin, late 18th century. Photo © Christie's
"Kurland" form service with polychrome floral painting, KPM Berlin, late 18th century. Photo © Christie's

After the death of Frederick II, his nephew Frederick William II ascended the Prussian throne, and he made sure that KPM Berlin was state-of-the-art by having the capital's first steam engine put into operation there. The epoch of classicism that followed was a heyday in which important artists such as Johann Gottfried SchadowKarl Friedrich Schinkel and Christian Daniel Rauch designed for the manufactory.

Rare service with micro-mosaic painting, gold background in relief and Pompeii red background, KPM Berlin, around 1815. Photo © Lempertz
Rare service with micro-mosaic painting, gold background in relief and Pompeii red background, KPM Berlin, around 1815. Photo © Lempertz

In fact, Schadow designed what is probably the manufactory's most famous figurative object: Prinzessinengruppe (Two Princesses), which depicts the sisters Louise and Frederica von Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Louise had married the heir to the Prussian throne Frederick William III and her sister Frederica married his younger brother Prince Louis Charles in 1793. Two years later, Johann Gottfried Schadow received the royal commission for a life-size marble double portrait of the enchanting sisters, which KPM also executed in smaller biscuit porcelain versions. Eighty eight individual parts are required, which are painstakingly put together by the skilled KPM modelers in order to present a flawless appearance.

Porcelain version of Schadow's "Group of Princesses" in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Photo public domain
Porcelain version of Schadow's "Group of Princesses" in the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Photo public domain

In the 19th century, veduta painting with views of Berlin became a specialty of KPM. These decorated vases and amphorae served to cultivate the image of the Prussian capital as cosmopolitan and modern. The increasing demand from the wealthy bourgeoisie was met by the opening of the first shop in 1855.

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Vase with views of Berlin, gilding and Prussian blue background, design by Carl August Menzel based on models by Carl Daniel Freydanck and Johann Christian August Walter, KPM Berlin, around 1838. Photo © Lempertz
Vase with views of Berlin, gilding and Prussian blue background, design by Carl August Menzel based on models by Carl Daniel Freydanck and Johann Christian August Walter, KPM Berlin, around 1838. Photo © Lempertz

KPM Berlin was always on the lookout for new technologies and often acted as a pioneer among the porcelain manufacturers in Europe, especially after it collaborated with a chemical-technical research institute in 1878. The director of the institute, August Seger, introduced a new soft porcelain (known as Seger porcelain) and new colored glazes, which helped expand the repertoire of the manufactory.

Related: Rosenthal: Art at the Table

KPM was also among the first to embrace the Art Nouveau style that emerged in the late 19th century. One of the highlights of this era is the Ceres service by Theodor Schmuz-Baudiß (1859-1942), who was artistic director of the manufactory from 1908 until his retirement in 1925. It is considered one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau services ever.

"Ceres" tea service, based on the model by Theodor Schmuz-Baudiß from 1913, KPM Berlin from 1993. Photo © Eppli (detail)
"Ceres" tea service, based on the model by Theodor Schmuz-Baudiß from 1913, KPM Berlin from 1993. Photo © Eppli (detail)

The figurative centerpiece Wedding Procession, which the sculptor Adolph Amberg designed in silver in 1904 on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia to Cecilie von Mecklenburg-Schwerin, also dates from this era. It consists of a jardinière, two fruit bowls, two candelabra and 20 individual figures. The figures represent people from different regions and epochs, as well as the bridegroom as a Roman warrior on horseback and the bride as Europa on the bull. However, the latter was too daring for the imperial-royal court, because Europa was modeled topless. Four years later, KPM made the ensemble out of porcelain and received the gold medal for it at the 1910 World Exhibition in Brussels.

Related: The Schwarzburg Studios: Porcelain, Foxes and Female Creation

The bride as Europa on the bull, based on the model by Adolph Amberg, KPM Berlin, 1911. Photo © Lempertz
The bride as Europa on the bull, based on the model by Adolph Amberg, KPM Berlin, 1911. Photo © Lempertz

After the First World War and the abdication of the House of Hohenzollern, the young Weimar Republic took over the company, which was renamed the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin (State Porcelain Manufactory Berlin). However, the KPM brand and logo with the Brandenburg scepter remained in existence.

The Bauhaus and New Objectivity now found its way into the design language of the manufactory. Among the KPM artists, Trude Petri (1906-1998) made a name for herself with her Urbino table service, which is based on the perfect shape of the sphere and was awarded the Grand Prix at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris.

Related: Bauhaus: A New Guild of Craftsmen

"Urbino" coffee service, KPM Berlin, 20th century, based on a design by Trude Petri. Photo © Eppli
"Urbino" coffee service, KPM Berlin, 20th century, based on a design by Trude Petri. Photo © Eppli

After World War II, KPM returned to its buildings in Berlin-Tiergarten in 1957. In the 1990s, the collaboration with the Italian artist Enzo Mari (1932-2020) became a success, especially with his BERLIN service which appears like a blossoming flower when stacked.

Today, KPM Berlin is proving that it understands the current zeitgeist without forsaking its traditions, as the famous Kurland pattern from 1790 adorns the rim of the company's environmentally friendly mug. On the market since 2018, the mug has become the manufactory’s most commercially successful product since it was founded.

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