Ubaldo Grazia: the world’s most ancient ceramic factory is five centuries old

DERUTA – There is a reason why a heap of famous people, those we call “VIP” or the protagonists of Hollywood’s star system, from Mel Gibson to Andy Garcia, from Francis Ford Coppola to George Clooney, to Paul Simon and the billionaire Randolph Hearst, buy ceramics in Deruta.

And the reason is that Ubaldo Grazia, last heir of the world’s most ancient majolica factory with its 500 years, decided already 40 years ago that the reference market was the American one. And in the United States it is a guarantee of quality and distinction to see his name written behind a plate, under a vase or a bowl.

As such, in the United States, you can find the majolica signed by the factory from Deruta at Tiffany’s, in the shops of the Fifth Avenue, at the great stores such as Bergdorf & Goodman or Saks and in the store chains spread all over the 50 states of the Union.

Ubaldo Grazia celebrates his 74th birthday on June 10th, but even if the crisis starts to affect also a successful business, he doesn’t stands still “… I certainly not stay here waiting for clients. I already booked a flight to New York and go where the dollars are to talk to a person who manages 4 thousand stores. To convince him we have patented our own system to paint porcelain, which is more resistant than majolica, by glazing it with a special system. Majolica remains our strength, but to tackle the market of hotels and restaurants we had to find something innovative, because it damage after some cleanings in the dish washer. So now we have a resistant product painted by the masters of Deruta.”

The relation with America starts far away, with another Ubaldo Grazia, the grandfather of our interlocutor: “He launched again the company at the beginning of 1900, building this factory in place of the old one that was in the city center since the 15th century. Our family arrived from the Emilia region, after the great plague, because the cities had been decimated and they offered us to emigrate and start a business. A dating that was certificated some years ago by a research of The Economist, placing us on the thirteenth position in the worldwide ranking of the family run businesses which are still operating. I was talking about Grandfather Ubaldo, he was indeed a real innovator, a forerunner, almost a magician when I think how he reintroduced the lusterware, a characteristic manufacturing of the majolica, together with Alpinolo Magnini, a very good potter and ceramic art expert. They invented a method through which the majolica remained in kilns without oxygen where brooms and horse nails were burned. It was a secret and every time the kilns were destroyed and then rebuilt. Magnini and my grandfather can really be defined the fathers of all potters from Deruta.”

So Ubaldo Grazia senior was a real forerunner, “a kind of small Umbrian Adriano Olivetti. The first 60 workers of the factory, all associates, were former soldiers and veterans from the 1915-1918 war which were so reinserted to work. It was the ‘20s but here there was already a gym, with Swedish wall bars, rings, climbing poles and ropes. The workers, even 160 in the time of main splendor, made gymnastics and could even took a shower, in a time, it is good to remember this, in which there wasn’t bathrooms in the houses yet. The turning point arrived with Alice Mc Dougall, an American billionaire owning a café chain in the United States with a passion for Italy. She often came to look for furniture and food and she discovered our ceramics. She made a huge order for that time, more or less a million Euros of our days, with which our grandfather built an entire wing of the factory. There are still the photos in black and white of the hundreds of wooden barrels in which the ceramics have been packed and stowed. The barrels were then loaded on mules and carts till the train, an entire train, leaving from San Nicolò di Celle to Livorno and then by ship to New York. The barrels where so heavy that embankments were built to make them move by rolling them. And so started our American adventure.”

And you have increased it from 1973 to today: “At that time I put apart my degree in Law and as my father Gaetano retired, I took over the business, in my way, also rising up my voice. The first thing I did was to cut out the American wholesaler who hindered us a little bit with the prices, and went directly, three-four times a year, to take part in all trade shows and exhibitions. It was a kind of necessity because in that time the Perugina factory closed its 46 shops in Italy that we supplied, and this was almost half of our turnover. I started to go to San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, New York, where I stayed also for a month, to meet people and introduce myself. I spent 33 Thanksgiving Days, their most important day, there. For a certain time I sold only the samples, than the orders started. At the beginning our classics: Ricco Deruta, Raffaelesco, Arabesque, Decorated. Then we had to go further, they always asked Ubaldo, “do you have something new?”. And I had to invent something, I couldn’t bluff. The idea was to go to the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, the most famous art school of the United States. I met Jackie Rice, a teacher for ceramic arts and told her about our factory. She came to Italy, sat down in one of these rooms and designed an entire collection, a modern sample that made the Americans go crazy. After her, hundreds of other artists, that opened the market to me. My shelves were full of their works, often unique exemplars that maybe one day would be worth to be shown.”

Then, almost by enchantment, one day the works for the Hollywood stars arrived, but pay attention not to mix things because, as Ubaldo Grazia explains “each one has its own history and they are all objects on order. The most demanding? The Way of the Cross for Mel Gibson’s private chapel in Malibu. He ordered it through his wife Robyn Moore, when they were in Italy for the set of The Passion. Fourteen small moulds 60×60, each one composed by nine tiles and a frame of wrought iron, also hand-made. Two years of demanding work but, I admit, very well paid. As the dinnerware set for 16 people for George Clooney, showing all the masks of the Venetian Commedia dell’Arte, or another tableware set and a gigantic emblem of Cuba for Andy Garcia, lots of things for my friend Paul Simon, plates showing grapes and wine leafs for Francis Ford Coppola, who is not only a great film director but also owner a famous wine cellar in Napa Valley, California.”

The museum

In the factory building you can see 690 ceramic works at the Grazia Museum, founded in 2001 on the base of a preexisting building, that document through samples of the last century’s production, the ancient origins and the development of the Grazia factory.

There are five sections:

1) An essential selection of works from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th century by the painters Giuseppe Grazia, Angelo Micheletti, Alpinolo Magnini and Ubaldo Grazia which have been promoters of the recovery of the ancient artistic traditions of Deruta.

2) Ancient ceramics of Deruta: collected in place in the first twenty years of the 19th century by Ubaldo Grazia for study purposes, iconographic and technical research. They are, except from some rare intact evidences, fragments of ceramics of Deruta from the 15th to17th century coming from ancient kiln sewers, placed on panels and exposed in the painting hall for the training of employees or to study ornaments and models to be introduced in the production.

3) The experimentation regarding lusterware, through the works by Ubaldo Grazia, in the first years of the 19th century. The ancient Grazia kilns participated at the founding of the Società Cooperativa per la Fabbricazione delle Maioliche (Cooperative for Majolica Manufacture) in Deruta till the foundation, on May 1st 1922, of the new factory with the company name “Ditta Grazia Giuseppe Deruta. Riproduzione Artistiche in Maiolica”.

4) Ceramics from the Grazia Factory (1922 – 1990): many examples of the models and decorations realized by the Grazia factory in the eighty years of activity. Mostly adopted from the traditions of the Renaissance and the 16th century regarding the forms (albarello, jars, vases on high base, jugs, bowls, plastics, tableware and pharmacy supplies) as well as the decorations (Ricco Deruta, Grotesque, Arabesque, Calligraphic) through a selection of works of the most important artistic directors and masters that have worked at the Grazia factory between 1922 and 1960: Ubaldo Grazia, Americo Lunghi (1884-1952), Feliciano Mariotti (1899-1981), Serafino Volpi (1897-1963), Francesco Mari (1906-1967), Antonio Barbetti (1908-1982), Luigi Vincioli (1909-1997), Virgilio Spaccini (1916-1996).

5) Artistic ceramics: including a small part of ceramics produced at the factory of Virgilio Retrosi about 1926 as well as a selection by a significant capital of works designed by Giuseppe Sebesta in 1965.

The museum is therefore strongly linked to the factory’s activity whose production takes place in the same establishment built in 1924 by Ubaldo Grazia and the other partners of the business, maintaining unchanged the production cycle as well as the decor, representing a quite rare case of factory museum. The path through the museum was wanted by ceramic art expert Giulio Busti, the fitting is thanks to Architect Enrico Da Gaii. The museum is included in the museum net of the Region Umbria. Free entry to the museum.

(22th May 2013)

Info: www.ubaldograzia.it

10 June 2013 Redazione UT

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