It’s a cold wintry morning in Paris as I briskly walk across Place des Vosges. Lined with 17th-century hôtels particuliers (townhouses) mounted on top of vaulted stone arcades, the square’s alluring beauty pulls passers-by to a halt to take in the surroundings. As a ray of sunshine pierces through the dark swirls of grey cloud, they pause to watch the light caress the slate rooftops and the bare gnarly trees. A stone’s throw away on a quiet backstreet, master craftsman François Roger is hard at work finishing off a special order of whimsical ceramic palm-leaf candlesticks and life-size cabbage soup tureens for Bergdorf Goodman, the Manhattan luxury department store.
François, who took over his grandfather Jean’s bold brand of handmade ceramics two years ago, welcomes me into the historic workshop. Tucked inside a listed heritage building, the atelier has a faded manufacture de caoutchouc (rubber manufacturing) sign painted above the door and windows that hang in weathered wooden frames, pointing to its past life.
Stepping over the threshold is like travelling back in time to postwar France. It smells of the earthy elements used to cast Jean Roger’s trademark creations such as the oversized jovial-looking frogs, golden hued pineapples, spiky red lamp bases and other more pared-down items that sit on shelves lining the entire space.
François is dipping algae-shaped candlesticks in a basin filled with spinach-green enamel silica mixed with feldspar. “Using enamel on the clay base means we can cook the items at low temperature but also that the colour lasts longer,” explains François.
Wiping his hands, he takes me through the turning room where an intern is kneading a large lump of clay before it goes on the potter’s wheel behind him. We sit on paint-splashed chairs in a room crowded with earthenware ready to be sent abroad, for word’s got around and the Jean Roger client base spreads far and wide, with the United States topping the charts.
The company was founded in 1947, making it one of the oldest Parisian ceramics brands still in operation today and François Roger is the third-generation ceramicist of the maison. While ceramics weren’t always in the cards for him, he is now dedicated to perpetuating his forefathers’ creativity and adding his own touch to the two collections he plans on launching every year, as well as with a new Jean Roger boutique that opened in the upper Marais in December.
The thirty-something craftsman looks around and sighs – probably at the idea of the late nights ahead to finish a big order as he works alone. A former sommelier, it never occurred to François that one day he would take over the family business. “All I knew was that being a sommelier wasn’t for me. Taking over the workshop from my father really came up in 2008 – I instantly knew that I would prefer making things here than continue in the wine industry. So I got stuck in and it felt good.”
A famous ceramicist, Jean Roger made his name thanks to his combining artisanal techniques with equipment allowing him to produce his creations on a large scale. Also, at a time when ceramics were not in vogue, he brought the art back, always going against convention. His fifties-inspired creations were a hit worldwide with the aristocracy and fashion houses such as Dior and Chanel. In 1968, Jean handed the reins to his son, Jean-Jacques, who was the first to create trompe l’oeil lacquer on ceramic, reinventing the brand. “I think our products are popular because people want ceramics that have a strong identity. Ours were never created according to trends, but their unique style has remained fashionable throughout time,” says François.
“It’s difficult to get attached to the objects I make as I reproduce them so many times,” says the craftsman. Bringing out his phone, he shows me a picture of a bird. “I’d love to have more time for creating new ranges, artworks too. I’d love to make a life-size Japanese crane bird for instance. Or focus on developing marine-themed creations, which works really well at the moment.”
His eyes drop as he puts his phone away. “But my aim right now is to finish making every single piece of the Jean Roger range – there are lots of my grandfather’s designs from the fifties that clients still haven’t seen!”
Jean Roger Paris boutique: 18 rue Perrée; Jean Roger workshop: 23 rue des Tournelles, Paris; jeanrogerdecoration.com.