Lladró porcelain is famous for capturing the beauty of a fleeting moment.
Wearing a dress as delicately coloured as one of her family’s trademark porcelain figures, Rosa Lladró Sala nestles into a restaurant’s leather banquette near a roaring fire, high above the Toronto skyline. She’s just flown in from Spain the day before, and is leaving for Guatemala the following day. Such is life for the president of Lladró, a company launched over 41 years ago by brothers Juan, José and Vicente Lladró in their backyard in Valencia, Spain.
Sala embodies the combination of classic and contemporary that Lladró has come to signify. Her dress and gold jewelry may be ladylike, but a glance down reveals a metallic pair of lace-up running shoes. They no doubt help her keep pace with the modern demand for an ancient craft. What started out in 1953 as porcelain production in a humble Moorish kiln has grown into a global luxury brand. And despite its growing roster of stores around the world, including new shops in Miami and Panama, Lladró still centers its manufacturing in Valencia.
Sala studied fine arts and still paints in oils, but that’s a personal pleasure. She started training at the firm when she was 21 and still works with the sculptors, but her strength is her vision. “I travel most of the time, so I bring back ideas. My approach is [to think about] what my customers would like. I know many of them personally.”
Although the company has a creative director, new pieces are overseen by a weekly meeting of the Creativity Committee. Sala, her sister and father are all members. “We talk with the sculptors and see everything in progress. The sculptors also travel, that’s important since they always come back with inspiration. What they do is very free. We do the market analysis, but you have to let them create something original. For us this is very important — it’s risky but interesting and surprising.” It’s a triumph of the atelier over the pie chart.
The company’s success rests on its wares’ depiction of universal images: babies, mythological figures, animals, athletes, even Ghandi and Cleopatra. “The first thing that gets your attention with Lladró sculpture is the emotion,” Sala explains. “Then you start thinking, is this well done, is there quality? If you love horses you might look at an Arabian stallion and then notice the handpainting on the saddle. But the most important connection is emotion, otherwise it’s impossible to choose. We have 600 models and typically release 100 new figures a year.”
Another facet of Lladró porcelain’s appeal is that, unlike bone china which is fixed and rigid, it starts as a liquid so it has a natural fluidity. “We have different types of porcelain, but the process is the same as 1,000 years ago. No one can do it any other way. It will be like this forever,” Sala emphasizes.
A master sculptor carves the sculpture in clay first, then creates a plaster mold from it. Porcelain is poured into molds and the fragments are joined by liquid porcelain to create an exact reproduction of the original model. A mid-size figurine may require between 15 to 20 molds while some large sculptures can contain as many as 300 complex pieces.
The final figurine retains quicksilver flow and graceful lines. You almost expect a face to turn and speak to you, or a writhing dragon to flick his tail and blink an eye. “Each piece has something new. Only Lladró can make it move and flow. What you see before your eyes is the emotion in motion.” In its At the Derby piece, the musculature of race horses is deftly rendered, complete with flared nostrils and pinned ears, and the jockey’s whip is poised in mid strike. That’s why Sala knows when clients buy their first piece, it won’t be their last.
Supported by her family’s strong involvement and reverence for age-old techniques, the Lladró daughter continues to explore new avenues.
“There are many ladies now in the company, and I am a lady too! We need something to wear,” laughs Sala.
“We have almost 4,000 different colours and finishes with glazes — so many different materials that by now we can do whatever we want.” Lladró was known for its pale pastels, but now its new richer reds are easily apparent in pieces like Auspicious Red Dragon.
A trio of dancers in Ballet Backstage remains a personal favourite of Sala’s father, Juan, now 87. The figures convey the delicate, winsome beauty that made Lladró a global luxury brand. “I think that the faces of our figures display a very sophisticated movement, and expression,” notes Sala. “We really work on themes that connect with people. You can recognize yourself — and your family — in many pieces.”
Photo by Chloë Ellingson