The layers of a Blue Onion
The Blue Onion is to porcelain what a little black dress is to fashion. Since the time it appeared it won’t go out of style.
This evergreen is actually blue and it will never change its colour. Not time nor the dishwasher have the power to change it. How was this old Asian recipe able to survive centuries and the only way to get rid of it is to break it? Can we communicate through the way it is used? What happens when the market starts to look jaded? And what is the history of the Blue Onion pattern?
Let’s come back to the times when “made in China” meant a guarantee of the highest quality. This is where the main inspiration came from. The Chinese had started producing their fine quality porcelain in the eighth or ninth century. This continued through the late Yuan dynasty when its blue and white porcelain component was first produced with underglaze cobalt decoration, becoming integral to its design. During the Ming dynasty, the Chinese perfected these blue and white wares, and they soon came to represent the virtuosity of the Chinese potter. Jingdezhen became the centre of the porcelain industry, and blue and white porcelain became coveted by wealthy Hong Merchants, Buddhists, Emperors, Kings, Popes, Dutch Captains, and everyone in between. There were some special pieces created for the European market as well.
Europeans became extremely crazed in their efforts to reproduce the blue ware secret, and when they finally came up with the correct recipe, they mixed the design of its cobalt pattern and the inspiration from Asian patterns with the stylization that most closely reflected the European feeling for a style of that time (the rhythm and rules of rococo ornamentation). This blue ware, which is called “onion china,” was first manufactured by Meissen porcelain in the 18th century. It was copied by other companies through the late 19th century and in that time since almost all European manufacturers offered their version, complete with printed outlines that were still hand-painted. Nowadays Blue Onion is still produced and its design has changed very little since. Some rare dishes have a green, red, pink, or black pattern instead of the cobalt blue, but those never became popular as the ones created from cobalt.
So where did the “onion” title come from? The design has nothing to do with the onions motif. Only one of the decorative elements on the plate edges, the pomegranate, remotely resembles the outline of an onion. The whole design is a grouping of several floral motifs, with Japanese peaches and the pomegranates, in the centre of the product we find stylized peonies, asters and flowing curves around a bamboo stalk. As we mentioned above this decoration is an underglaze decoration, which means that the cobalt pigment is under a glaze and so this glaze is protecting the motif from any scratches…
Here are some versions of this decor:
Many designers, artists, and companies are still working with this traditional pattern. But nowadays, it doesn’t appear only on porcelain. How are designers and students dealing with their context and history today? And what are they trying to communicate?
Atelier Pelcl designed the Bohemia porcelain collection for Český Porcelán a.s. It’s admirable for its complexity and the usage of traditional decor in a new way. But at the same time, it’s quite sad that it’s one of the very few new designs produced in that factory.
We can see a different usage of Blue Onion in the piece “Ornament and Crime” by Maxim Velčovský, where he combines the famous Lenin’s bust and the noted Czech Blue Onion design. Velčovský called his work the same as the work of Adolf Loos. Blue Onion reminds us of a tattoo and quite a sad part of Czech history…
Another well-known design of his is this porcelain vase Waterproof (2001). The author says that he inverted Sullivan’s quote “form follows function” into “function follows form”, and therefore changed its context so that a rubber wellington, something designed to keep water out, becomes a porcelain vase to hold water in.
The next product is not connected directly with the onion pattern as it is inspired by Delftware. However, it similarly uses cobalt and depictions of Chinese scenes. Vivienne Westwood Barker Shoes Porcelain Slippers are working with a porcelain Orb design and are finished with blue piping.
Jana Kábrtová found her inspiration in the oldest ceramic statue of a nude female known as Venus of Dolní Věstonice, which she dresses up with a Blue Onion collage. As one of the students at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague, it was her task to create a local souvenir.
Another student project of this studio was a seminar work of Barbora Šimková. Barbora was working with shape and decor of the cup known as “BABIČKA” (Granny), originally produced by Český porcelán a.s. She worked with deformation proportions and decoration. As Barbora says, the cups represent grannies – short, thin, tall or plump ones.
The bowl set “VEGet” was created by Aylin Erhanova Irfanova at the JEPU in Ústí nad Labem. The project is nicely dealing with the prejudices we used to have about the onion pattern tableware. At first glance, this set of salad bowls resembles a “traditional” Blue Onion (that has nothing in common with onions as we mentioned above). But from up close, we see that the decor is composed of usual salad ingredients like onion, tomato and other vegetables…
Lastly is a student project created in the same studio by Katka Borovcová. It uses a form of traditional Blue Onion by Český porcelán a.s. and goes three dimensional with it. The relief itself is not very visible until we pour a substance in the bowl (some oil or balsamic) and suddenly we see a surprise waiting for us after finishing our dish. Katka shows that to refer to a tradition it is not necessary to copy its form. To see the pattern, we need to use the bowl!
We can say that the Blue Onion story is a story of a quotation of a quotation and an adaptation of an adaptation. Somehow it seems that the layers of the Blue Onion will probably never stop evolving through the years and will be again adapted to the different cultural styles and the age we live in… And so I dare to say that if not its forms, then the Blue Onion’s tale will never be démodé.
Author: Helena Patelisová