Tin-glazed Joy: How Delft Blue Revitalized Dutch Households
Here's a look at Delft Blue, a design element that the Dutch invented back in the 16th century–and how modern-day graphic designs still use it.
Delft Blue’s eye-catching qualities are rooted in a process of production that came out of the Renaissance in Western Europe, specifically in the Netherlands. Though it first appeared in ceramics some 500 years ago, you may even have some of this blue and white pottery in your home right now; this aesthetic carries over seamlessly to all kinds of graphic design, illustration, and creative work.
Delftware was Europe’s answer to the fancy Chinese imports from the East. The elaborate, fine artwork that was consequently produced by Dutch artisans was in high demand in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, this style enjoys a revival that makes it popular again with both locals and tourists. It’s a symbol of Dutch pride and comparable to the masterpieces that great artists like Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn produced.
Read on for a deep dive into Delft pottery—the driving force behind this style.
The History of Delft Blue
To understand this compelling style, you have to recognize the sea change that was underway in Western Europe at the time, as the early modern period of history was beginning to take shape. This was marked by the beginning of the Renaissance, as the Middle Ages began to give way to a new approach to thinking and doing things.
Some of the beneficiaries of this change were the artworks produced during this time of upheaval.
Delftware originated in its namesake city in the Netherlands—which was known back then as the Dutch Republic—approximately in the 16th century. Today, this word is generally used to mean tin-glazed earthenware from Holland, which is also a type of faience (a catch-all term for finer, tin-glazed pottery). Much of the arguable artworks created and sold as Delft Blue pottery are traditionally blue and white in color—hence the name—but the term is now broadly used to also refer to pottery with different colors and made outside of the Netherlands.
The first forms of tin-glazed pottery were actually fashioned in Antwerp, Belgium but, after the Sack of Antwerp by Spanish soldiers, the knowledge behind these artworks spread to northern Holland. By the late 16th century, there were already various production centers of this pottery popping up in places like Haarlem, Middleburg, and Amsterdam. The finer artifacts of this style were produced in Delft, yet more mundane pieces were routinely being created in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
By the early 17th century, this earthenware and ensuing design technique were increasingly popular. The 100 years between 1640 to 1740 would be the heyday of production for this style of pottery, as the Dutch began exporting Delftware all over the European continent, with some exports even reaching Asia. To differentiate their style from other wares that were being produced around the same time, such as English delftware, Dutch producers introduced unique factory marks and personal monograms in their artifacts.
Here’s a look at some modern-day graphics that use this design element for inspiration:
By this time, Delft Blue potters were looking for bigger facilities to produce their craft. In 1654, as the brewing industry in Delft was seeing a decline, a huge explosion in the city leveled many existing breweries, thereby freeing up their workspaces for potters looking for more space.
A lot of diverse objects fell into the category of this earthenware, such as:
To accommodate the rise in popularity and production of this crockery, The Guild of St. Luke started to admit more master potters to its ranks as the decades wore on. For example, between 1610 and 1640, just 10 master potters were admitted, yet from 1651 to 1660, 20 master potters joined the guild’s ranks. The Guild of St. Luke was an association of artisans that was named after St. Luke, one of the Gospel’s authors, since he is the patron saint of artists.
Interestingly, the Dutch East India Company—which was one of the world’s earliest examples of what could be termed a “megacorporation”—enjoyed active trade with the East and so imported a lot of Chinese porcelain during the early 17th century. However, when these imports to Europe were disrupted in 1620 with the death of the Ming Dynasty’s Wanli Emperor, craftsmen in the Netherlands saw their opportunity.
Since many in Holland admired the imported Chinese porcelain—even if few outside the wealthy classes were able to afford it—Dutch artisans tried their hand at producing a cheaper alternative. Constructed from low-fire earthenware, this “imitation” Chinese porcelain, which was covered in a white, tin glaze, became the latest style of Delft Blue that potters created and sold. It made the usually pricey porcelain quite affordable for a change, and it was in demand alongside European styles of Delftware for the next century.
Dutch potters tried the same tactic with Japanese Imari ware, vibrant earthenware made in Japan’s Arita and exported to the West. They replicated traditional Japanese pottery designs, such as vases on terraces, encircled by panels with cranes and pines.
Nonetheless, when Chinese porcelain started to become available in the country again, the Delft spin on Asian ceramics waned in popularity.
Perhaps surprisingly, in a contest of one-upmanship between artisans, history also records Chinese and Japanese artisans creating their own porcelain versions of the famed Dutch export—and then exporting it back to the European mainland.
In spite of the runaway success of this industry, 1750 turned out to be the turning point. Things began to go south in terms of the quality of the pottery produced in this style’s namesake city. Simply put, after a prolific run of about 100 years, the artists behind this faience started to struggle with creativity and keeping things fresh. As a result, critics contend, the pottery after 1750 was typified by unoriginal designs that were ephemeral and lacked inspiration. Perhaps it was no surprise that the once-mighty Delft Blue potteries started closing their doors as the 19th century approached, the victim of their own overexposure.
Nonetheless, Delfts blauw (the Dutch phrase for this style) continues to reign today in various digital assets:
Another development also hastened Delftware’s downfall: more and more of the market share for wares of this type was being taken over by the English, who had started making their own porcelain artworks, as well as the newfound popularity of all-white earthenware.
In fact, by the mid-20th century, only two potteries dealing in this Dutch tradition remained: Royal Delft (the only remaining and original earthenware factory left in the city) and Makkum’s Tichelaar factory. Both are still open to this day, but that’s quite a decline from the sheer proliferation of potteries during the aesthetic’s heyday in the 17th century.
These days, if you want to be sure that you’re buying legitimate Delftware, you have to exercise good judgment. There are many fakes in the marketplace, as in those not made in the original city or by the original company that was around right from the start of this aesthetic craze.
The Techniques Behind Delft Blue
Constructing these earthenware artworks requires a good deal of skill and technique. They’re initially treated with a white glaze and then decorated with metal oxides. Cobalt oxide in particular is what gives these wares their trademark blue and white colors. Delft blue pottery is also known for being able to resist high temperatures, therefore permitting underglaze decoration — painted decoration gets applied to a surface prior to it getting covered with a translucent ceramic glaze and then heated in the kiln.
One method that really empowered the artisans of the Netherlands to aggressively produce these ceramics is the use of marl. Marl is a calcium compound-rich kind of clay. Their overall techniques refined, Dutch artisans succeeded in creating finer pottery thanks to marl. In addition, the typical composition of the clay body of Delftware included a mix of the following:
- Local clay
- Tournai clay
- Rhineland clay
Potters also began to innovate their techniques the longer they worked to produce delft blue pottery. For instance, by the early 17th century, they began to cover their wares thoroughly in white tin glaze, as opposed to coating just the painting surface while covering the remainder of the pottery with transparent ceramic glaze. As their next step, they layered said tin glaze with a clear glaze; this resulted in their Dutch earthenware resembling porcelain due to the newfound smoothness of the cobalt blue colors and the additional depth of the fired surface.
You may be surprised to learn—given the fact that the blue and white motif is the most common—that these tin-glazed ceramics also came in other colors. This experimentation was part of the expansion of the popularity of this product during the Dutch Golden Age. Naturally, this also meant that different techniques had to be tried to produce new colors.
To create various effects and even shades, artisans relied on underglazing. Take the color red, which was present in some wares. It was a struggle to produce this color on earthenware, so the potters were forced to apply the red color only after another process was complete. They had to fire the Delft Blue pottery once while carefully leaving some space to later on apply the red color. After the first firing concluded, they put on the red color and fired the ceramic a second time, but this time at a lower temperature.
In another technique twist, some examples of this earthenware showed signs of gilding. Gilding is a method for applying a decorative touch to ceramics by way of a thin layer of gold on a solid surface. While the most such common surface would have been metal, porcelain, stone, and wood were also other choices.
Some of the more exquisite—and, therefore, more expensive—examples of Delftware featured this golden, decorative touch. To achieve this, potters would have had to fire the wares an additional time.
Design Characteristics of Delft Blue
Whether as part of actual ceramics or applied to graphic design, the creativity and motifs behind this Dutch color range from simple to elaborate. Over the centuries, in the minds of tourists and locals alike, Delftware’s telltale patterns have epitomized Dutch culture and history, as well as the unique Dutch contribution to art.
Besides the big element that strikes you right off the bat—the blue and white color scheme—there are numerous, other design quirks that you should take note of.
Here are the unmistakable qualities you’ll often see in creations that feature this element:
- Minimalism (plain white or scarce decorations)
- Religious motifs
- Illustrations showing scenes of typical Dutch life (windmills, seascapes, landscapes, hunting scenes, fishing boats, etc.)
- Lyrical typography (words written on plates; after meals, songs would be sung)
- Copious white or negative space as a framing element
- Themes of nature
- Themes of royalty
- Symmetry and balance
- Flora and fauna references
- Ornamentation as opposed to utility (in some cases)
Real-World Examples of Delft Blue
While ceramics featured this design element most prominently, they were not the only ways to see and admire this timeless blue and white pattern. It turns out that this element can sometimes pop up in the least expected places.
Let’s first take in some prominent examples of Delftware proper.
The tulip vase serves mainly as a decorative showpiece and originated in Holland in the 17th century, at the height of this tin-glazed trend. It was mostly adorned with either Delfts blauw or Chinese-inspired decoration.
These vases are sometimes stacked on top of each other for a very unique look. This resulted from the potters’ failure to fashion the vase out of solely one piece (it would tend to collapse in on itself while being fired).
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
They come in an assortment of sizes and shapes, including oval, square, and round. The largest ones are stacked more than 1.5 meters tall and possess multiple “floors.” At every level of a tulip vase, it’s possible to insert flowers into spouts for an even more decorative look.
Tulip vases came into prominence in the late 17th century, thanks to Queen Mary II of England. She had flower-vase collections, which she stacked tall to impress her guests.
The armorial dish is a 17th century piece of earthenware that’s attributed to Willem Jansz Verstraeten, the famed, tin-glazed maiolica potter working out of Haarlem.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Looking at this piece of art, we see right away that it’s an example of the more minimalist type of Delft Blue pottery. It features great balance in the frame, with the main focal point of the design being in the center of the dish, surrounded by white space. It sports the typical blue and white colors of this style, along with the natural themes of flora and fauna.
Boar’s Head Tureen and Stand
For a more extreme and unorthodox version of Delftware, we go to this piece from the mid-18th century. This tin-glazed ceramic is really a serving dish for food like stews and soups—albeit quite a distracting one. If you look closely, you can see the line near the top of the boar’s head, which is where you’d take the cover off to serve the food.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Quite the conversation piece, this artwork takes a marked turn away from the expected blue and white colors that are synonymous with Dutch pottery. Instead, the artisan opted for a stark depiction of the hunt, complete with earthy colors, a good amount of color contrast, notable visual texture, and a fair bit of shock value.
British Airways’ Ethnic Tailfins
Airlines’ tailfins—though overlooked by most passengers who are simply looking to get to their destination on time and safely—are an underrated focus of design and, with regard to British Airways in particular, Delft Blue design.
The airline commissioned Dutch creative Hugo Kaagman to come up with something relevant that would celebrate Holland’s unique contribution to the world of art. In response, Kaagman applied the Netherland’s traditional, blue and white colors to the tailfins of the airlines’ planes.
Image Credit: Street Art
The end result was an iconic design that paid homage to the past while updating this style’s sensibilities for the future. Kaagman mixed native Dutch illustrations and patterns from across the globe with contemporary icons to produce a one-of-a-kind composition.
Forgotten somewhat in the focus on ceramics is the fact that this design element also appears on tiles. In fact, during the Dutch Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries, an enormous quantity of tiles were produced. In the 21st century, many Dutch houses even still have some tiles that were fixed centuries ago.
Here are some noteworthy examples of tiles.
Nymphenburg Palace’s Swimming Pool Tiles
Located in Germany, Nymphenburg Palace sits in Munich and is considered one of Europe’s foremost palaces. Serving as a summer residence for Bavaria’s former rules, it’s now open to tourists and gets about 300,000 of them per year.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In the palace’s swimming pool, we can see the typical, blue and white pattern and colors of Delft Blue in the wall of tiles. When filled with water and in use, it would have been quite the sight to see, with the shades of light blue shimmering beneath the water’s surface.
Braemar Castle’s Windmill Tile
Next, we head to Scotland’s Braemar Castle to glance at a highly detailed example of Delftware used in construction. In this tile, located close to a fireplace in the castle, scenes of typical Dutch life as was common in the Middle Ages can be seen.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
You have the traditional scenes from farming life in the foreground, while, in the background, the windmill and scenes related to Holland’s seafaring lifestyle can be seen. The tilemakers even took care to depict wispy clouds in the sky.
This is a fantastic example of the level of complexity that artisans of the time could create.
Blue and White Design
Still a source of cultural pride for the Netherlands to this day, delftware has stood the test of time and continues to be in demand all over the world. Its artistry and refinement reveal great creativity and artisanal skill.
As a pure design element, Delft Blue itself is very versatile. Though its origins lie in the potteries of 16th century Holland, it enjoys wide usability today in all sorts of graphic design projects and campaigns, where striking colors and patterns are necessary.
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