Breaking the rules
Exactly ten years ago, FIFTYEIGHT Products manufactured their first line of TASSEN porcelain bowls with smiling faces, bright eyes, and quirky expressions. Like everything at FIFTYEIGHT, the hotel-quality bowls were based on computer-animated characters, which the Frankfurt-based company creates for commercial clients under the FIFTYEIGHT Animation label.
But making the leap from computer-generated, three-dimensional models into “real” haptic products proved a lot harder than expected, especially from such a time-honoured and complex material as porcelain. We asked company founders Timm Osterhold, Marc Eckart and Max Zimmermann about the long road towards creating porcelain with a new level of detail and their favorites from FIFTYEIGHT Products history.
What inspired you to make little porcelain bowls with smiling faces on them?
In 2004, FIFTYEIGHT created an animated video clip sent out as a holiday greetings email to clients, friends, and family. The main stars of the video were two cheeky coffee cups with lively facial expressions, constantly squabbling and getting on each other’s nerves. That video really struck a nerve and went “viral” even before Facebook was around. It was re-sent and forwarded thousands of times. We had a big hit on our hands and the little cups, called “Tassen” in German, emerged as our brand mascots. We kept creating more videos until someone said: “Hey, why not make real porcelain cups, just like the ones in our videos!?”
Was it hard to create “real” products according to your vision?
We were in for quite a reality check. It actually wasn’t that simple to transform our 3D-models into porcelain counterparts. At least not at the high level of quality and detail we also apply to our digital animation. Although we had the key advantage of creating our characters as full-fledged three-dimensional computer models, transferring this data into the real world is an arduous process. And working with porcelain is its own art form.
What did porcelain experts say when you went looking for manufacturing partners?
When we showed them the complex 3D-models for FIFTYEIGHT’s characters, they responded: “Absolutely impossible!” Because any regular porcelain bowl or cup may have the occasional edges or ornaments. But when it comes to rendering the kind of facial details envisioned for our quirky characters in porcelain, the verdict was that it cannot be done, also because porcelain cups traditionally have the same thickness throughout, and our products with their indentions, sculpted eyes and details are just the opposite. Well, after some trial and error, we were all the more happy to welcome the first successful prototypes of TASSEN bowls to the world in 2007.
Today your products are sold in over 60 countries and your community is growing. What were the milestones along the way?
The breakthrough happened in 2011, when we joined up with BHS tabletop, Germany’s largest porcelain manufacturer that produces over 40 million pieces of quality porcelain each year. Their marketing expert, Ralph Engelmann, believed in the potential of our TASSEN bowls and worked with his porcelain design team to solve all the challenges for getting into mass production, while retaining the original emotional character.
Over the years, our line has grown from just a few bowls and espresso cups to a full range of over 40 porcelain pieces in different colors and sizes, including everything from salad bowls, tea pots, mugs with handles, and our new line of flower vases that has received a great response. Our porcelain line is now as important as our animations business, and of course we also keep making zany videos featuring our little characters that get millions of hits on YouTube.
FOUR favourites from ten years of porcelain design…
- “Kissing” Bowl in Red | One of our first designs in color, the red “kissing” bowl has a special place in our heart. The puckered lips and red colorway just work together, creating more than the sum of its parts. We have also created cutting boards and postcards featuring the “kissing” bowl. With 500ml capacity, it’s perfect for crunchy cereals, warming soups, fresh salads, yummy pasta, nuts and much more.
- Tea Pot | At 1.2 liters capacity, our tea pot is big in every way. Big on capacity, big on emotions with a huge smile. She is the star of a number of fan-favorite YouTube videos and we also made her a small sidekick, our little jolly jug. From a manufacturing standpoint, the tea pot is one of the most complex products we ever created from porcelain, due to her elongated shape and curvature. And that’s also the reason why we choose “Made in Germany” manufacturing – you just don’t get that quality anywhere else.
- “Grumpy” Mug with Colorful Eyes | Our fans had been asking for mugs and bowls with colorful eyes for a long time, just like in our animated videos. Making it happen was super resource-intensive from a production standpoint, since you cannot simply paint the eyes onto the porcelain. It needs to be fired into the porcelain in order to be food-safe and able to withstand several thousand runs in the dishwasher. We can still only make these mugs – available in two versions, plus two bowls with colorful eyes – in limited runs and they sell out in a few days every time.
- “Laid Back” Flower Vase | Another milestone, the arrival of our vase marked the first product not dedicated to serving food. With its adorable smile and elegant shape, the “laid back” vase expands our line of home decoration products. Of course we had to add a special “something” to the mix, so the vase has a small mouth opening for a single flower, which our fans have loved and posted amazing photos on Instagram. In 2017, we added the second flower vase crafted from porcelain and are constantly playing with new ideas.
Frankfurt, Germany | www.58products.com | Instagram @tassenworldwide | +49 69 48 000 55 80 | email@example.com