Founded in Lisbon in 1849, Viúva Lamego remains a proud exponent of traditional Portuguese ceramics. But this landmark company is far more than an artisanal tile producer, although it does manufacture exquisite small format plain and decorative tiles in its unique facility in the Sintra district. The company is better viewed as an ambassador of Portuguese culture, due to its close collaboration with numerous artists, interior designers, and architects; and its key role in a myriad of iconic public art and architectural projects across the globe.
Viúva Lamego’s factory is a place for artistic creation, that both challenges – and is challenged by – a pool of talented and iconoclastic collaborators. While the company is justifiably proud of its past, it uses this ceramic heritage as a point of embarkation for contemporary projects and designs. There can be few tile/ceramic factories in the world that provide studio spaces where artists and product designers can develop their ideas in 3D glazed ceramics.
It is easy to see why this would be an attractive work environment. The space is a rich source of inspiration, crammed with working prototypes, photography of completed projects, mood boards, glaze libraries, development samples, working drawings, project sketches, mosaic templates, and much more.
But more than that, Viúva Lamego offers immediate access to its most valuable asset: the priceless skills of its experienced and dedicated workforce. From moulding pug clay to slip casting; sculpting and carving; hand painting, dipping, and waterfall glazing; colour matching and reactive glazes; this is a company with the artisanal expertise to take almost any ceramic dream and turn it into reality. As a result, Viúva Lamego is all about looking to the future, with the constant development of new approaches and techniques, and a focus on innovation and sustainability.
Myriad examples of Viúva Lamego hand-painted tiles can found in and around Lisbon, the rest of the Portugal, and in some high profile projects abroad, including in the UK. Some are less conspicuous than others, while other adorn some of the most important Portuguese projects of the past few decades, such as the Expo pavilion designed by Alvaro Siza Vieira 1998 in Lisbon.
You catch glimpses and physical reminders of these projects as your tour the factory; from skilled decorators painting tile by hand in exquisite shades of blue, to a stack on plaster moulds, kiln cars ready for unloading, through to a glaze library featuring ceramic tones from the past. All these objects are a constant reminder of the relationship between tradition and innovation.
It is vital that Viúva Lamego remains relevant as an artisanal company, and passes on the accumulated bank of ceramic knowledge, because ceramics is such as central cultural, social, and economic influence in Portugal, dating back 300+ years before Viúva Lamego’s foundation.
Thankfully, Viúva Lamego continues to work with some of the most creative minds in the fields of art, architecture, and design, who appreciate the beauty and versatility of tile, and see Viúva Lamego as a space in which they are free to realise their most daring dreams. The list includes Bela Silva, Manuel Cargaleiro, Erró, Alvaro Siza Viera, Joana Vasconcelos, Maria Emilia Araujo, Rem Koolhaas, Zao Wou-Ki, Philippe Stark, Sean Scully, Raj Rewal, Frederic Was, Guy Rombouts, and many, many more prominent names from Portugal and across the globe.
Recently, a project to really catch the eye involved Joana Vasconcelos. Called The Wedding Cake, this 12 metre high, three-storey sculptural pavilion by Vasconcelos was opened in Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, in June 2023. Located within a grove of trees beside the 19th-century Dairy, this is a playful continuation of the history of fanciful buildings at Waddesdon, that already boasts an ornamental Dairy, and a gilded Rococo-style Aviary.
Part sculpture, part architectural garden folly, this extraordinary structure is a celebration of love, and joy. It was inspired by the exuberant Baroque buildings and decorative ceramic traditions of Lisbon, where Vasconcelos lives and works.
Thousands of gleaming, icing-like ceramic tiles and 3D sculptural ceramic pieces – all glazed in pale pinks, greens and blues – were used decorate the cake. Viúva Lamego’s standard 140 by 140mm tiles determined the size of the overall structure of Wedding Cake, whose 11 metre diameter is said to be the smallest circle that can be made using whole tiles.
Every piece was hand-made in the Viúva Lamego factory; the baroque decoration informed by the architecture of the main house and designed to complement the collections inside it; notably a world-renowned collection of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain. Covered in intricate finials and ornaments, the Wedding Cake is a monumental and immersive sculpture that combines elements of architecture and patisserie. It is rich sensory experience, amplified by waterfalls and a lighting system.
“I want people to have three different approaches to it: looking from the outside, enjoying the surroundings from the different levels or balconies and rising to the top, finally completing the artwork with their presence. Above all, I always thought of it as a temple to love,” explains Vasconcelos.
Viúva Lamego also offers a portfolio os standard tiles. This includes Nord, designed by Nuno Grade. This range was inspired by shape of a dome or cúpula. This architectural form features elements that are circular, internal, and concave. As well a featuring in the built landscape in bridges and church porticoes, it is also seen in nature in the waves in the sea, sand dunes, hills, and even the moon. Other ranges include the delicate glazes of Azulejos Vidrados Lisos, and the earthy matt effects of West Coast.
It is fantastic that Viúva Lamego is starting to be more widely appreciated beyond Potugal and, particularly, Lisbon. Today export sales account for 40% of the companies turnover, the strongest markets being France, USA, Switzerland, Belgium, and Spain; alongside the UK. The company’s website introduces you to the many designers who have worked with this fantastic company, and some of the impressive projects that feature Viúva Lamego’s tiles. Glazed inspiration indeed!
A new post by Joe Simpson, Diary of a Tile Addict, October 2023.