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Visiting Germany's Ceramics Center

March 15, 1987|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Design Critic

METTLACH, West Germany — "It may be a little out of the way, but if you like ceramics and bargains, by all means go there," said a British friend suggesting that my wife and I visit the small factory town of Mettlach in West Germany.

Ah, those British and their understatements.

Tucked deep in the Lower Saarland near the French and Luxembourg borders, Mettlach turned out to be very much out of the way.

But as the site of an exquisite ceramics museum and the home of the world-renowned Villeroy & Boch ceramics works, the town also turned out to be quite rewarding.

Going east from the Rhine Valley where we had been staying, it took us nearly a day to wend our way over the steep hills and through the verdant valleys of the Lower Saarland, a rural and picturesque region that reminded me of West Virginia.

We, of course, could have taken a faster route--Germany does have an efficient roadway system. But we wanted to see the countryside and on the way stop for a leisurely meal and taste-test the area's famed sausages and beer. This type of touring tends to be slow, and enjoyable, and is encouraged by the Saarland back roads.

Quality Ceramics

At a sharp bend of the swift-flowing Saar River lies Mettlach, for the last 200 or so years of its 1,300-year history a center for the production of quality ceramics. Much of that history is focused in a rambling three-story baroque building on the east bank of the river.

The imposing building, a former Benedictine abbey constructed around 1730, is the centerpiece in a town that in the Middle Ages had been both a farming and religious center. That history changed abruptly in the 1790s when troops stirred by the French Revolution drove out the monks and plundered the abbey.

Fortunately, they did not do much damage to the building, and fine detailing remains, such as the window keystones in the form of grotesque masks and its double flanking columns marking the main portal.

In 1809 the Boch family that had been producing dinnerware in the area for nearly half a century with great success bought the abbey and converted it into a factory. About 30 years later the Bochs merged with the Villeroys, more success followed, and today the company is a world leader in the ceramic industry. Modest Mettlach and the recycled abbey remains its headquarters.

As a venerable institution proud of its products, Villeroy & Boch displays them well in a fascinating exhibit at the abbey. The exhibit is free and open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 12:30 and 2 to 5 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.)

Figure of the Founder

The introduction to the exhibit is something called "keravision," and features a lifelike figure of the founder of Villeroy & Boch, Peter-Joseph Boch, who becomes animated under the play of lights to deliver a history of the company and its production process. Helping are 16 TV monitors in front of which sits a costumed Boch, gesturing, smiling, winking and nodding.

Viewing the slick, Disney-like production seemed a bit incongruous in an ancient abbey, in a factory town founded as a cloister in AD 690 deep in the Lower Saarland that as a borderland has been buffeted by war and politics for most of its history.

Nevertheless, for those like myself interested in how table and crystal ware, and tiles and ceramics, are made and decorated, the presentation was quite informative and an excellent preview for viewing the exhibits and later considering purchases.

While Peter-Joseph Boch might be unreal, very real are craftspeople, who at various times come from surrounding factories to work at benches in the exhibit hall. They include tableware decorators, copper engravers, glass cutters and mosaicists. Also, a potter crafts vases and other objects as was done a century ago. Peering over shoulders is encouraged.

Then it is back to fantasyland, Villeroy & Boch style, for a wedding party where life-size, life-like plaster newlyweds and their guests sit at a table on which place settings change styles under the subtle play of lights.

Of course, this all increases the appreciation and whets the appetite for the company's products. Some select items can be bought in a gift shop in the exhibit hall. For a wider selection, and some bargains, there is a tableware shop called Fundgrube, and a ceramics shop, the Baltes, in the Mettlach marketplace a few blocks from the abbey.

Bargains Abound

We found it impossible to leave Mettlach without buying something, and were very glad we did when we later saw what the items were selling for elsewhere. This included a teapot that had cost us about $15 in Mettlach selling for $35 in Paris.

For those interested in collector items a shop called Sammlerborse, also in the Mettlach marketplace, is worth a visit. The shop also is interested in buying historic pieces, and if you have one, will appraise it.

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