With his immaculate porcelain, artist and entrepreneur Francis Chen has reversed Taiwan’s stereotype as a place that only excels at manufacturing others’ work.
A butterfly rests on the lip of a teacup. Beautiful and graceful, its brilliant blue wings are tinged with exotic hues which complement the indigo saucer. Tulips and daffodils intertwine around the body of the adjacent teapot, creating an astonishing sight of natural vitality.
In a moment of poetic bliss, I stand surrounded by these exquisite pieces of pottery in the studio gallery of Taiwan’s Franz Collection Inc. It has been a long journey from Vancouver, Canada, to Taiwan, but the brilliantly-coloured porcelain vases and tea sets adorning the shelves have a way of lessening the distance and differences from life in North America.
“The beauty of nature and the harmony between heaven, earth and people transcends cultural differences between the East and the West,” says founder and president Francis Chen. His nature-inspired porcelain seems innately conceived from his 1950s origins, born in Taipei Botanical Garden staff housing. This successful and artistic entrepreneur is driven to revive the traditional art of Chinese porcelain.
“I love porcelain,” Chen admitted, whose affection for its smooth glossy texture arose when he was a young boy. “The production goes through a series of physical and chemical changes, before tempered by fire. Only at the moment of opening the kiln can one know the result. It’s like giving birth to a child. Only at the moment the baby is born can we truly know what he or she looks like. This uncontrollable characteristic is what makes the creation of porcelain so fascinating for me.”
He began to sculpt clay in senior high, taught by the legendary ceramic artist, Chao Sun. Exploring his career options, Chen majored in German literature at the Taiwan Fu Jen University. His professor nicknamed him “Franz,” which he’s fondly adopted today. Meaning “carefree and full of creativity,” it fits someone so imaginative.
Despite his talent, Chen did not initially choose ceramics as his profession, but became a business partner with his three brothers. Chen’s family made their fortune manufacturing giftware for a plethora of producers around the world, as original equipment manufacturers (OEM) in Taiwan. Franz went out on his own in the 1980s, expanding his company’s abilities by also working as an original design manufacturer (ODM) making plush toys and built a solid reputation working with the biggest names in the gift industry.
Then one day, Chen realized there was more to life than just accumulating wealth. Like many professionals, he was on a path which didn’t connect him with his passion. He had financial stability, yet his thoughts turned to doing something he truly enjoyed, something that would ultimately lead to a more happy, fulfilling life. Around this time, the Taiwan Trade Center was encouraging local companies to establish their own international brands. With new-found enthusiasm, Chen changed his business model and moved into designing porcelain.
In 2002, Franz Collection Inc. was born, with the vision to guide others into integrating art into everyday life with porcelain. One year after the brand was established and headquartered in San Francisco, its butterfly figurines won “Best in Show” at the New York International Gift Fair. Chen began to expand overseas. Currently, Franz Collection’s design and research center is based in Taipei, Taiwan. Production is closely supervised in Mainland China. The brand is sold in over 6,000 point of sale locations in 56 countries around the world. His whimsical yet highly functional porcelain pieces have garnered attention from celebrities like Barbara Streisand and Elton John and have been gifted from China’s President to other world leaders.
People who see Chen’s porcelain for the first time are often captivated by its intense colours and intricate shapes. They say it is different from the mild colours and simplistic designs of ancient Chinese porcelain. Almost every piece is connected to nature — from hibiscus flowers and orchids to birds and pandas.
“What I sell is not just porcelain, but the core of traditional Chinese culture,” said the 63-year-old innovator.
The Ladybug collection is a classic example of the brand’s marriage of Eastern aesthetics and Western art nouveau. Two dazzling crimson ladybugs crawl amid blue-and-white wildflowers in a celebration of the fresh late spring outdoors. Its marvelous textures are rendered in the finest flawless porcelain and hand painted to highlight every evocative detail. In Western culture, these little bugs with the red body and black dots bring good cheer and good luck to anyone they land on. Feng shui, the Chinese art of arranging spaces for optimum flow of energy, often incorporates the ladybug symbol.
In order to create a variety of styles in porcelain and to express the profound traditional culture in more brilliant colours, Chen has developed a series of patented techniques.
“In the past, porcelain was made by hand on a turntable,” explained Chen. “You cannot make complicated and irregular shapes this way. We sculpt on the computer first. After perfecting all the details, we produce a prototype on a 3D printer. No other porcelain brand in the world has such an advanced technology.”
Before departing, Chen reiterated his ultimate wish: for his porcelain brand to regain the esteem of ancient Chinese porcelain so that western consumers will love its exquisite qualities.
“We want to make our porcelain a luxury with deeper meaning. It is a great invention of our ancestors. While maintaining the classic essence, we have to be always innovative and progressive.”