A Century in Ceramics
It’s an understatement to say that Anfora is an institution in Mexico. Founded in 1920 in Mexico City, its high-quality professional and at-home dinnerware can be found all over the world. From independently-owned restaurants and boutique hotels to those that are part of international chains, Anfora works with many of them, not to mention Starbucks and retailers like Pottery Barn. They even make sanitaryware: sinks and toilets for the building construction industry.
Before we go any further, East Fork CEO and co-founder Alex Matisse recently got a virtual tour of the Anfora factory, which you can watch here.
By its own estimate, Anfora has employed thousands and thousands of people over the past century. It currently makes 7.5 million pieces a year and as many as 400 different shapes in a given month at a factory that covers 800,000 square feet. (To put that vastness in perspective, the East Fork factory is 15,000 square feet, and if we made the same number of pots every month that we did in January 2021, we’d still make less than 300,000 pots in a year.)
Not that we’re competing! How could we? But we certainly have a true admiration for Anfora. What’s more: they can work small, too. In 2012, the company launched Anfora Studio, a design division whose employees work side-by-side with individuals—visual artists, fashion designers, chefs, architects and tattoo artists to create small collections of as few as 600 pieces. Anfora Studio’s mission is to promote the best young Mexican designers and keep the initial model cost so people who perhaps never thought they’d see their designs on a plate or cup can see it come to fruition.
Hans Kritzler, director of Anfora, answered a few questions and shared with us the names of a few ceramists who are making great work in Mexico.
Can you tell us about the Anfora facilities in Pachuca?
The factory today encompasses 800,000 square feet, out of which the production facilities use up 400,000 square feet with the rest being open space. The factory was built by the Mexican government in the oil boom of the early 1980´s and had 1.8 million sq. feet of land, out of which 900,000 sq. ft. were production buildings. The government never actually fired it up, unbelievably enough, until 1994 when Anfora bought it. Remember that Anfora was founded in Mexico City in 1920 in a 400,000 sq. factory, a site that ended up smack downtown in the city. Manufacturing became way too expensive in the 90s, which made the combination of a high real estate value appreciation with an abandoned factory an hour away especially attractive.
Ceramics is usually a long-term business, so a factory that might be located miles away from a city center can see itself surrounded by suburbs after a couple of decades of growth. In fact, for some factories the real estate valuation can become a huge benefit for the third or fourth generation, thus creating a challenge as to what is more important…
To what degree is your workforce made up of people who come from generations of Anfora employees? What does that mean to the company?
Today we do employ several second and third generation members, although with the move from Mexico City to Pachuca we lost quite a lot of the older potter families. I would guess that we have about 20% of families inside the factory, with many workers asking to bring in newer generations.
For us it is a proud sign that we care for our people, although at the same time it can also lead to negative (or rather tricky) situations. Imagine that you need to fire somebody for a major issue, like sexual harassment. If the aggressor has family members inside the factory, you might end up having maybe four or even six disgruntled team members at the very least, going all the way up to having to let go a team of people for the sins of one. Family loyalty is one thing we do understand and value, but some situations can be thorny.
Quick example, we had two women fight inside the casting area, with a snowball of sorts of unfired teapots over one guy. Turns out, one was his wife who learned that the other one was his lover! All three had to go, as well as several broken teapots along the way.
Last year, you were quoted in Forbes magazine, saying that in Mexico, Anfora symbolizes "sharing at the table, that place where love, gratitude and togetherness interact." That is a lovely sentiment, one that we at East Fork share. It's such an honor to have our pots on our customers' tables and in their lives. I bet you feel the same way.
True! We love characterizing our company not as a “factory that does plates,” but rather as a symbol of sharing on the table. As East Fork does, our products have a prominent spot at our customers’ houses, one that many kids will end up identifying with their family meals, with the discussions at the table at large friend gatherings, maybe with the Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. Growing up, those generations will see an East Fork piece in the future that will take them back to that special place of love that cannot be bought or traded.
True story, our local competition once ran an ad saying that Anfora was “your grandmother's china.” At first I got actually angry, but slowly came to realize that it is an honor and pleasure that yes, I do in fact cherish the memories at my family table when I see her pattern on the table. Rather than being stuck with an old-fashioned pattern, the core of what we do is to gain the trust of so many people to be a part of their daily life.
Over the course of our 100 year history, Anfora products were present in about 70% of all homes in Mexico, maybe in the early 80's when the country was closed off to imports. Once the borders came down and the cheap imports from China flooded the market, Anfora pulled back on home dinnerware and started to focus more on restaurants and hotels, where the prices were not as cutthroat as in retailers like Walmart. Sadly, Mexico is still very much a poor country, with about 50% of the 130 million people living at or below the poverty line. This means one plate (a soup plate usually) per person in a household. One large soup spoon in one hand and a tortilla in the other can be the norm. A full china set is still very much a luxury for many.
What do you think will help East Fork endure for a century, like Anfora has?
What amazes me about East Fork is the attachment that so many of your fans express over their (your!) favorite mugs, or their bowls or particular color combination. In order to become known coast to coast, or country to country(!), this element of adoption through a solid story and standing behind what you guys believe is a sure sign that it will be but a matter of time to gain that spot at the table, pun intended.
Why is Anfora Studio important to the company?
Being a 100-year-old company, the need to innovate and explore new ideas becomes crucial in the renewal of designs. As generations evolve, so do the tastes in color and shapes. Especially when you think about dinnerware—companies with a long heritage like Lennox or Villeroy & Boch tend to stick with their traditional patterns that made them successful in the past, but passing up the replacement volume that can muddle actual trends away from new items.
Anfora Studio is our experimental space where new designers, many of them with no previous background in ceramics, can go wild with their ideas. Since the volume is quite small, this allows us to have an independent space which does not pose a risk in diverting from the larger day-to-day production at the factory. The factory guys are focused on achieving volume, taking care of costs and hitting the PO dates, so they don’t necessarily like to hear “experiment,” “a couple of new glaze mixes” or “how about if…?” We need this kind of carefree mentality–one that is not bound by production schedules or internal pressures—to bring in new air and ideas into new product designs.
As an added benefit, allowing talented Mexican artists to have the run of the place at the early stages of their careers kind of is like placing bets on future major artists. Maybe 9 out of 10 will not develop into a major art career in the future, but the one who does will remember us for a long time to come. Plus, many of them are involved in interior design and architectural projects, which in turn open doors for us in new hotels, restaurants and larger custom runs.
Mexican Ceramicists You Should Know
Jorge Pardo Cerámica Suro exterior in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo by Shana Nys Dambrot via Flaunt.com
Cerámica Suro is a family-owned third-generation studio in Guadalajara, a city that is well-known for the ceramics produced there. Founded in the 1950s, Cerámica Suro got its start making tile and dinnerware for luxury restaurants and hotels. Today, under the direction of José Noé Suro, the son of the studio’s founder who is also an art collector and restaurateur, Cerámica Suro’s employees, some of whom are third-generation artisans, create custom tiles and dinnerware for restaurants like Mexico City’s Pujol, hotels like the Ritz-Carlton in San Jose del Cabo and for private clients around the world. The studio also produces fine art sculpture fabrication made in collaboration with artists from around the world like Ghada Amer, Reza Farkhondeh, Eduardo Sarabia and Jorge Pardo.
Credit: Manuel Jiménez
Adan Paredes is a renowned ceramicist and sculptor who specializes in large format installations such as a ceramic horse that stands 13 feet high for a ranch in Avandaro, Mexico, and a commission that resulted in 14,000 individually handmade ceramic pieces placed throughout the Chapulin Restaurant in Mexico City. While studying archeology, Paredes forged a connection to the soil and its history. You’ll see his reverence for Mexico’s clay artisan traditions and for the earthen materials he uses in repeating patterns that evoke brickwork and clay in natural colors. Paredes has exhibited his work throughout Mexico, as well as in the United States, Canada, China and in many countries in Europe. He lives in Santo Domingo Barrio Alto, Etla, in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he works in his studio, Los Alacranes.
Taller Experimental de Cerámica
Credit: Taller Experimental de Cerámica
Hans Kritzler from Anfora called Alberto Díaz de Cossío “an absolute grandfather of Mexican ceramics.” It all started in 1962, when Díaz de Cossío set up a small ceramics workshop in the apartment he shared with his father. Within a few years, he and his four kilns had outgrown the space. He found the land to build Taller Experimental de Cerámica, which was among the first workshops in Mexico to produce ceramics that are fired at high temperatures. Taller Experimental de Cerámica is an institution that endures to this day. Its dishes can be found in homes as well as many Mexico City restaurants. Alberto and his daughter Adriana create functional and decorative ceramic objects that are for sale in the studio shop. The workshop offers day-long workshops for pottery students and welcomes guests. It’s a well-known destination for visitors to Coyoacán, the Mexico City neighborhood known for its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, Museo de Frida Kahlo and artisan markets.