Mottahedeh & Company
In 1991, at the age of eighty-two, Mildred Mottahedeh determined to look for a buyer. At her advanced age, she was looking to pass on her views, knowledge and Love of Fine Porcelain China and associations with the various historical foundations. She was ready to make a change, but intending to continue working for as long as she was able.
The lives of Wendy Kvalheim and Mildred Mottahedeh converged at many points over the years but, never more than than their common Love for exquisite Fine China Porcelain Designs. Mildred was like a grand great-aunt to Wendy. She and Rafi were friends with Wendy’s grandparents long before she was born, and then with her parents through common bonds. It was this relationship and Wendy’s passion for creating fine china dinnerware reproductions from original antiquities for people to enjoy and use today that was the stimulus for Wendy to step in at the time Mildred decided to look for a buyer for her beloved company. It was agreed that Mildred would continue to work for five years. She would pass on her knowledge and collaborate in the further development of the then 68-year old company. The transfer of company ownership to Wendy Kvalheim took place in 1992.
With a degree in Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute of Fine Arts in New York, and a Bachelor of Arts from Mount Holyoke College, it’s understandable that Wendy is able to spot design directions and anticipate trends. “At Pratt I studied casting, glazing, and technical aspects of making reproductions from antique originals because I wanted to do museum work; I also wanted to be a sculptor.” With an artist’s understanding of color and a sculptor’s knowledge of casting, Kvalheim immediately understood the depth and complexity of Mottahedeh’s many designs.
Since 1992, Wendy Kvalheim continues to build on the company’s finest traditions, while forging new directions to ensure the growth and solid future of Mottahedeh. World renowned as one of the finest manufacturers of high-fire porcelain, Mottahedeh has been in business for over 84 years. Their reputation for fine museum reproductions and numerous historic licensing agreements is unparalleled. Yet, in the last several years, a number of new products have been introduced that expand Mottahedeh’s traditional standing. The vision is Wendy Kvalheim’s, and significantly extends Mottahedeh’s points of interest.
When Mrs. Mottahedeh retired in 1997, Kvalheim continued her role as Director of Design, as well as becoming the company’s CEO. While Mrs. Mottahedeh’s enthusiasm was for antique porcelains and museum quality collections, as an artist and sculptor, Kvalheim’s interests are broader and more eclectic. Subtly she has refocused Mottahedeh’s reputation from that of a company known chiefly for their historic licensing agreements and museum commissions, to a company whose forte, first and foremost, is great design.
A Little Romance and the Start of Something Really Big……..
Many people collect because it’s their nature to collect; it’s only afterwards do they discover their motivations. It is believed Rafi and Mildred Mottahedeh were such collectors. They were motivated by the hunt, which longs first for the known but rare objects, but then with experience, longs for the unknown but possible object. They were also motivated by the aesthetic pleasure to the eye and hand of having their collection surround them. Equally, they loved the sense of growing understanding in the fields in which they collected. The more they knew, the more the appreciated what they had.
A majority of their pieces reflect an interest in cross-cultural contacts because that was the story of their lives. Rafi Mottahedeh was born in 1901 in the central Persian town of Kashan, famous for its calligraphers, its rugs and its silk and gold brocade, the cloth that formed the heart of his grandfather’s business.
Mildred was the artistic partner with the eye for design and winning manner with people. She had been born in Seabright, New Jersey, in 1908. From her childhood she had been fascinated by the aesthetics of non-Western cultures. As a junior member of a prominent decorating firm, she went to Rafi’s office at 225 Fifth Avenue to buy some Persian “accessories”. It was at least affection at first sight, which became the full-blown love when they discovered that they were hopeless at ballroom dancing and shared a deep interest in objects.
After World War II, as taxes and death duties caused many European families to put their collections of porcelain on the market, yet again great quantities of porcelain passed through their hands. But it was the Chinese export porcelain that the Mottahedeh’s kept, ever winnowing out less interesting pieces and adding pieces that reflected their interests: animal figures, religious subjects, and subjects that went back and forth between East Asia and Europe.
By the late fifties, they had begun to make reproductions from their own collections. They scoured Europe, East Asia and South Asia looking for craft traditions still capable of reproducing the porcelain and other accessories from the 18th century. Not surprisingly, Mottahedeh offered the most faithful as well as the most interesting reproductions.
The sixties and early seventies saw the family firm become one of the most important sources for museum reproductions. Many curators knew the quality of Mottahedeh reproductions and sought Rafi and Mildred Mottahedeh – and particularly Mildred’s advice – on what to reproduce from their collections. Yet their business with reproductions never dampened their taste for collecting. They combined the catalogs of dealers and made more trips to East Asia, where they found not only examples of export porcelain, but also the basics for a fine collection of Chinese archaic art.
The Mottahedehs were learned collectors, manufacturers of faithful reproductions, and dealers who had gained a fingertip feel for their subject from the great variety of antiquities they bought and sold. These separate roles gave them a certain perspective on what they did. They believed that the universal need to eat was transformed by the arts of the table which could make eating enjoyable to the eyes and other senses. They also believed that, by reviving the best of the past through collecting and reproduction, they fostered the dialog between contemporary design and the past. In this last endeavor they were totally successful, as the great respect for both their collections and their reproductions shows.
About the President
Wendy Kvalheim is The design director and CEO of Mottahedeh & Company, a design firm specializing in antique reproduction in porcelain, faience and stoneware. Mottahedeh & Company distributes its tableware and decorative accessories to many well known retailers and interior decorators.
Ms. Kvalheim received degrees from Mount Holyoke College and Pratt Institute of Fine Arts. Prior to taking over Mottahedeh & Company, she worked as a sculptor in bronze. In her free time she enjoys entertaining for a few or a crowd. Ms. Kvalheim resides in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, Grant. They have three adult children, Dana, Lauren and Miles.
The Art of Ceramic Decoration
From the beginning, china decoration required hand painting. The color was either applied uniformly by dipping the piece in glaze or the colors were put on with a paintbrush. Each color was applied and then often the piece was fired several times in succession. Early pieces had fewer colors and later pieces often had a complex palette of hues and tones.
Eventually, a printing process was developed that gave the true look of a hand-painted piece and this is the process that is employed by most porcelain companies today.
It is a process using either waterslide decal transfers or heat release decal transfers. Both decal decorations are produced using a silkscreen printing process. The decorations have been designed to fit each porcelain shape and are laid out as individual motifs on a large piece of special paper. In this printing method, spot colors are formulated and laid down next to each other on the paper. When all the colors have been applied, each motif consisting of several colors is coated with a shellac that binds the colors into one inseparable image. There would be several images on the paper.
At the time of decoration, using the waterslide method, the paper is cut up into individual motifs. The paper is dipped into warm water and the image is separated from the wet and slippery paper. The paper is discarded. Then the image, which is now in the form of a decal, is laid on a piece of shiny hard porcelain and arranged for a proper fit. After it has dried, the porcelain item with the decal decoration on it is fired in a kiln. During the firing, the colors fuse into the surface of the porcelain and turn into colored glass. The shellac burns away in the high temperatures of the kiln and what is left is a colorful and shiny finished piece of porcelain.
In the heat-release method, the decal image is coated with wax to hold the colors together. The decal is transferred to the plate when it is picked up by a hot rubber ball that melts the wax and allows the image to be moved. The wax, like the shellac, is an organic material that is burned away in the high temperatures of the kiln, leaving only the oxides on the plate.
In this printing process, as with all types of automated printing, it requires the same amount of work to set up for a few printed sheets or a lot of them. Since ceramic decal firing requires that all the colors be applied at once, the hard work comes by determining the right colors to achieve the lovely effect and also to get them all to fire together in the kiln. For that reason, decorations for porcelain can only be formulated once the producer knows which factory will be making the product, as production cycles and temperatures vary from factory to factory.
It is normal for a new pattern decoration to take more than a year to develop. At each stage of development, when we want to see the actual fired colors, we make a printing and call it a colorproof. Each color proof is numbered so we can keep track of what we did previously. We keep testing the firings until the look is satisfactory or a problem is solved. When we are satisfied with the final result, this becomes the formula and sheet separations that are used for all production. In the antique reproduction business, this always requires some research and development. While we can see what to do based on the original, this was developed prior to these days of more advanced technology. It is normal for companies to make about four colorproofs before going to the finished firing. At Mottahedeh, we average about eight to eleven. The more colors that are used in the printing, the more effort it takes to balance the colors and the more tries are required to achieve the goal. This is an expensive process, but well worth the final result.
What beganwith stone litho printing later developed into offset printing. Companies eventually converted to silk screen printing and lately other newer innovations such as seven color dot matrix printing.