By: Alvaro Tavares Ramos
With a history spanning almost two centuries, Vista Alegre, the prominent Portuguese porcelain and crystal brand, is recognised by connoisseurs as a name synonymous with excellence, but also as one of the few in the world that remains true to its roots. However, despite keeping tradition alive, the house has been paving a notable path that ensures it keeps its doors open to the future.
Founded in 1824 by José Ferreira Pinto Basto, the company went through some troubled times over the course of its long history, which culminated in 2009 with the sale of the Vista Alegre Atlantis Group to the company Visabeira. After avoiding bankruptcy following a drop in demand in the last recession, Vista Alegre has managed to adapt to the market with a new direction and has taken its rightful place once more as one of the biggest international leaders in porcelain and crystal.
“Besides the fact that the sector isn’t easy, due to the high production costs, Vista Alegre had several changes in shareholders, mistakes were made and its various layers ended up creating a serious financial problem,” says company director Nuno Barra, in conversation with Essential. While many suggested that the only way to save the company was to relocate the manufacturing, Nuno Barra believes that keeping Vista Alegre in its place of origin (Ílhavo, centre of Portugal) was one of the pillars of its recovery. “We wanted to keep our DNA, the identity of the product and the know-how. Our employees still speak fondly of the founder, despite having never met him. It’s a factory with soul; it’s not just the numbers that count,” he adds. “Unlike various international brands, which no one knows where they are produced and present products of dubious quality, Vista Alegre has won over the market because of its identity. We are very different from the others; we cover all areas, hand-painting to sculpture, hotels, tables and limited editions.” Having built its fame around its classic porcelain services – used by various European royal houses, the White House and the best international hotels –, in the last few years, Vista Alegre has accomplished the difficult balance between classic and contemporary. “In 2010, the company was the mirror of the last 30 years. It withdrew into itself and focused completely on a classic style, and the younger segments didn’t relate to the brand. You couldn’t touch the products in the stores, everything was inside glass cases; there was a total mismatch. We managed to demystify Vista Alegre,” notes Nuno Barra.
This approximation to the younger markets has been a formula for success and, actually, a return to the brand’s roots. “If we visit the Vista Alegre Museum (also in Ílhavo), we can see that it was always very bold; it kept up with the artistic movements, without fear or worry of challenging or raising awareness. A good example is the cubist animals,” says the director. Besides the porcelain, Vista Alegre has also developed notable work with crystal in its Alcobaça factory. Although Atlantis as a brand was extinct and now bears the Vista Alegre name, the know-how of the artisans and technicians has been harnessed to develop surprising pieces in this material, having garnered several international design prizes in the last few years.
Through collaborations with international designers such as Jaime Hayon and Marcel Wanders, Vista Alegre has been able to bring new energy to the brand. They still work with the existing service methods, but reinterpreted with the unique style of each designer. While Hayon dived into the company archives and presented a collection based on popular Portuguese culture and its own colourful style, Wanders re-imagined the ancient Delft pottery through a service with cobalt blue decorations. All of this, as always, with the monitoring of an internal design team and with a clinical eye. “The first collection that Wanders presented was all vetoed; it didn’t relate to us at all,” reveals Nuno Barra.
Despite these impressive collaborations, among which is a collection from the Christian Lacroix Maison, innovation within the brand has come from another initiative created after the group was acquired in 2009: the ID Pool. Consisting of artistic residences in the factory, lasting between three and six months, of young designers from various places around the world, ID Pool has been an important factor in bringing a new dynamic to the factory. By combining the curiosity and imagination of the designers with the savoir-faire of the artisans, this programme has taken production capacities to the limit, resulting in some of Vista Alegre’s most successful products, such as the most commercially successful service – Transatlântica – designed by the Brazilian Brunno Jahara, or the pieces from Lebanese duo david/nicolas, who picked up prizes such as the Red Dot, Wallpaper and German Design Award. “When designers arrive, we give them a briefing of all the products we need in the collection. They walk around the factory, speak with the technicians, ask about the reasons behind things and pose challenges. If the developed product has quality, we produce it and give it exposure. All areas of the company should have this type of initiatives; it’s the only way to stay connected to modern-day needs, with what is going on. We don’t want to be reactive, we don’t want to focus on ourselves again and then see that the world around us changed,” concludes Nuno Barra, who is confident about the future of Vista Alegre.