Practical Magic

Passing through the velvet curtain from designer Ted Muehling's SoHo jewelry boutique to the workshop that lies behind it is like stumbling into an avant-garde production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There are gnarled branches intertwined with pipes running up the walls; tables overflowing with seashells, birds' nests, and bone; and a birch-bark canoe suspended from the ceiling. In the midst of this whimsical collection of natural objects sparkle precious stones, pearls, and cut glass, soon to be transformed into earrings, necklaces, and bracelets. Between a carton of eggs and coiled metal wires, a Chrysler Design Award balances precariously on a pile of pencil sketches. A delicate porcelain statue overlooks the turmoil from her pedestal.

The Oberon who presides over this kingdom, Ted Muehling, has been designing delicate jewelry for more than two decades, and has recently added an exquisite collection of porcelain to his résumé after working for two years with the renowned Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory in Germany.

"I was always fascinated by the natural world," says the soft-spoken Muehling, who grew up in rural New Jersey and spent his childhood roaming the woods behind his house. "We would go up to Nantucket in the summers, and I'd collect seashells and stones. I was definitely a nature boy."

He still is, never having abandoned his interest in organic shapes and textures. Although Muehling holds a degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute, he is quick to point out that he "never really practiced much." After a part-time stint at an industrial design office that was working on a subway system in Mexico, Muehling soon realized that, as he puts it, "design by committee" was not fulfilling. He began dreaming up abstract metal shapes. With a single jewelry class at Pratt to his name, Muehling embarked on a new career.

"A friend of mine showed me how to solder and hammer metal," he says, "and when I got out of school I just started making things." Jewelry, he explained, was the easiest medium in which to combine abstraction and function. All of Muehling's designs have their roots firmly planted in the natural world. His egret clip, for example, elongates the bird's beak into the thin clasp; two minute pearls form his delicate rice-grain earrings; his seashell brooch threads a gold pin through the shell's spiral top. Exhibited in large wooden display cases at Muehling's boutique, the pieces are contradictory tours de force: simple yet complicated, man-made yet immersed in nature, abstract yet true to life.

"I love making things that amaze people," says Muehling. "I'm now approaching fifty, but I still feel a sense of excitement when I create something in metal or horn or stone that people see and say, 'Wow, that's incredible, how is it made?' "

Having worked with materials as varied as glass, plastic, wood, and metal, Muehling had desperately missed one: porcelain. "I always wanted to work with porcelain, but it's a very difficult medium," he says. "I took a class and realized that it would be years and years before I was able to make what I wanted to. So I was just waiting for an opportunity that would allow me to experiment."

Little did he know that this opportunity would come not in New York City but in southern Germany. Accompanying his partner, the illustrator Mats Gustafson, on a business trip to Munich in 1998, Muehling spotted a porcelain figurine in the window of a pastry shop. Its delicate features, pose, and craftsmanship fascinated him. It turned out to be a statue of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, done in white porcelain.

"I had never seen anything like it," says Muehling. After a few inquiries, he managed to find the statue's birthplace—Munich's own Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory, located on the premises of the majestic Nymphenburg Palace. The former summer residence of Bavaria's royalty—famous for its Rococo interiors—the palace presides over a 500-acre park near the western edge of the city.

The small porcelain manufactory, established in the 18th century to supply the court with tableware and decorative figurines, moved to the Cavalier's Lodge on the property in 1761, where it has remained until today. While touring the ancient workshop rooms, many of which have views of the palace, Muehling was smitten by the small yet impressive production process of Nymphenburg. He met with the manufactory's new managing director, Baron Egbert von Maltzahn (who was in the process of searching for designers to introduce "new blood" into the collection), and invited him to come and see his work in New York.

Soon after, Muehling found himself with the task of adding several pieces to a 250-year-old German collection, designing in a medium he was not familiar with, and collaborating with workers whose language he could not speak. "It was a little bit daunting at first," he admits, "because I felt a responsibility. Here was a place that had this amazing tradition, and I wanted something that would add to this continuum."

The Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory's techniques are centuries old. Water from the palace's canal supplies the energy that is used to spin the pottery wheels. The clay mixture (which is known as "slip") is poured into selections from the 30,000-plus molds (accumulated over the last two centuries) by workers, many of whom have spent two or more decades perfecting their craft there.

In the course of one day, Nymphenburg produces anything from 18th-century tableware to Art Nouveau sculptures to Rococo figurines (all from the original models). Down to the last painted flower, the pieces are made entirely by hand—actually, by hands, as every item finds its way through five separate departments before completion. Even now, in the 21st century, mass production at Nymphenburg is unheard of—a concept quite dear to Muehling, who makes most of his jewelry himself, assisted by five workers. Even though he describes his discovery of Nymphenburg as "a fluke," it seems more like serendipity—a chance meeting of kindred spirits. The Bavarian manufactory and his own workshop share a rare commitment to the limited-edition piece, a dedication to uncompromising quality, and an old-fashioned appreciation for the handcrafted object.

Over the next two years, Muehling worked on and off at Nymphenburg, making, he says, "little messes to see what was possible," and familiarizing himself with the temperamental material. Porcelain consists of three basic elements: kaolin, a pure, white clay; feldspar, a group of minerals; and quartz, which provides the strength and shine. After the elastic raw material is formed and molded, it is fired at such high temperatures that it becomes vitreous (and easily collapses without the proper internal structure). Finally, when it emerges from the kiln, it is extraordinarily hard and durable, allowing for precise, paper-thin designs. "I cut stone at my workshop in New York," Muehling says, "and I can cut through a piece of quartz easier than I can drill through a Nymphenburg cup with a diamond drill."

The porcelain's fragility masking its inherent strength reminded Muehling of natural objects he had admired since he was a little boy: seashells and eggshells. Their shapes and lines became the basis for the collection. His volute bowl, for example, with its folded edges and sweeping curves, begs the viewer to pick it up, press it to an ear, and listen for the ocean. The ovoid vases are glazed with matte colors imitating the blues and celadons of birds' eggs. His tall, perforated vases recall coral; they sparkle, he says, "like the night sky" when a candle is lit inside them.

"Of course, none of these pieces could have been realized without the technical virtuosity of the workers," Muehling adds. The coral vase, his favorite, is fired in an eight-part mold, and every impression and perforation is produced with painstaking handwork. "I can't think of another company that would have spent so much time and energy to make that one piece," he says. But Nymphenburg's priority is the time and energy invested in the pieces, whether it's a large seashell bowl or a tiny 18th-century figurine. "What they produce can't be knocked off at Pottery Barn," says Muehling. "You pick up a Nymphenburg cup and you feel the difference. It's probably the thinnest, most exquisite cup you'll ever hold."

Observing and learning from the German artisans also highlighted cultural differences: "They still have a system of apprenticeship in southern Germany," explains Muehling. "Fifteen-year-old kids come here and spend four or five years painting flowers or making molds. Everyone in America wants to be the designer, while at Nymphenburg there are people who are just incredibly skilled technicians. It seems like an archaic system, but it's also the reason these things are still being made."

In the manufactory's showrooms, Ted Muehling designs and Nymphenburg's traditional tableware now stand side by side. "They all share the incredible quality of the porcelain," he says, "and they exploit what the material can do. My translucent egg lanterns, although abstract, look beautiful standing beside a detailed and realistic Nymphenburg raven."

Back in his SoHo workshop, the graceful statue of Diana that caught Muehling's eye and led him to the manufactory stands among the collected corals and rocks, the branches and leaves, the raw materials and finished bracelets. Nearby, his porcelain pieces are displayed along with the jewelry in the boutique. This year Muehling will revisit Nymphenburg and create more pieces to augment the collection.

Whether forming new shapes from clay or hammering an earring from sheet metal, Muehling insists that his vision remains consistent. "It's a continuum," he says. "I endlessly repeat myself in the course of my career. It doesn't matter whether I am working in metal or porcelain or glass or wood. All of these things come from the earth, and they blend in together."

Muehling's designs inspire and challenge the viewer's imagination: A branch grows into the stem of a spoon; strings of pearls evoke raindrops. "An abstract piece can have the essence, shape, and beauty of a shell. But when people look at it they see the shell in a new way," he says. "I love confusing the eye . . . and thereby delighting it."

Porcelain: $125-$670. Jewelry (in gold, gold plate, and silver): $100-$6,000. Ted Muehling; 27 Howard Street; 212-431-3825. Select pieces are also available at Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Avenue; 212-753-7300) and at Moss (146 Greene Street; 212-226-2190).