I almost certainly do not need to remind you that Nymphenburg, Munich’s Palace of the Nymphs, is an actual palace – built not for nymphs but for the altogether more substantial Wittelsbach family, the historic overlords of Bavaria. It is justly admired for its frontage, which is apparently wider than that of Versailles, and for its romantically landscaped grounds, which are large and leafy enough to hide half a dozen or so additional mini-palaces. Nymphenburg is also the name under which a world-famous brand of porcelain has been produced, in a factory opposite, since 1761. And now it is the name of a particular house on the same site, the Nymphenburg Residence, which is managed by the Langham hotel group.
The Residence is one of 10 outwardly identical buildings along a broad crescent facing the palace. They are at once grand and discreet – a very Munich kind of trick, to be simultaneously splendid and unobtrusive. This one was originally occupied by the director of the factory. Later it passed into private hands, along with several of the neighbouring structures. Having been unoccupied since 2010, today it is once again in Wittelsbach possession. Prince Luitpold of Bavaria, who owns it as well as the factory, appears to believe – correctly, I would guess – that it will appeal to visitors with an interest in art and history, and especially the art and history of Nymphenburg porcelain, but also anyone with a fleeting desire to stay within the gravitational pull of one of Europe’s great houses.
The interiors have lately been transformed by Munich-based firm Mang and Mauritz in a wild diversity of styles. No two rooms are alike: ostrich-feathered Belle Epoque; ebullient Barnum & Bailey circus big-top; cool monochrome-contemporary. I suspect this eclecticism will delight some guests and perplex others. Personally, I adored it. I decided immediately which rooms I liked and basically ignored the others. Partly due to the presence of a butler, a chef and a bottomless supply of Bavarian cakes and ales, the kitchen quickly became a natural hub of sociability.
What unifies the whole, of course, is porcelain. There is porcelain above your head, beneath your feet, at your fingertips, on your lips. If you are in the slightest doubt about the composition of any object in your field of vision, it is safe to assume it is made of porcelain. But this is more than a three-storey, four-bedroom showcase of Nymphenburg wares. It is a teacup time machine that transports you back to the birth of porcelain in China around 700 ad before returning you to the present via the Porzellankrankheit or porcelain-mania that swept through the courts of Europe during the 18th century and allowed Nymphenburg to flourish.
The Residence is moments away from the factory. I say factory but really this is more like a place of worship. A place of exceptional serenity and beauty. And expertise. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that the creator of Nymphenburg’s essential ingredient, its porcelain paste – the only man entrusted to blend the paste for the only brand in Europe still to make it by hand – should be a hulking, long-haired, thunderously scowling fellow called Zeus. Truly. Dieter Zeus. Look him up.
To spend time with Zeus and the other gods and goddesses as they go about their labours is a rare privilege available to guests of the Residence. Here is a living repository of esoteric knowledge. Here was contrived an 18th-century teacup with a delicately flared lip, thus formed not merely to please the eye but to direct the tip of the drinker’s tongue so as to create an illusion of sweetness at a time when sugar was difficult to obtain. I would happily have swapped my plush bed for a sleeping bag on the floor in the factory’s painting room. A bit fumy, yes, but when the fumes are scented with turpentine, clover oil and hints of rose and lavender, that is hardly a criticism.
Creative collaborations have always been an essential part of Nymphenburg’s ongoing ‘relevance’. I have never cared much for relevance. In my opinion, relevance generally takes care of itself – good design is always relevant. As it is here, for instance in the fine pair of Damien Hirst mythological horse sculptures, or the Commedia dell’Arte figurines resplendent in outfits by Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood, or Nick Knight’s statue of a winged Kate Moss in erotic cruciform pose above the bar in the main living room. I loved the more conventional creatures too – the owls and the pussycats, the ravens, rhinos, macaws and Dalmatians. I wanted to spirit away the Rachel Feinstein colour chart I saw in the painting workshop, a plate turned into an artist’s palette, its bright brushstrokes as marvellous as a rainbow.
No doubt there will be those who come here with a long-standing and incurable case of Porzellankrankheit. They will need no persuading about the wonders the house and factory contain. Others may arrive believing themselves immune to any such affliction. Yet they are likely to leave, as I did, with a touch of it. There could be no better introduction to this curious, enduring, fussy, magnificent art form than the Residence.
One example. In the bathroom off the master suite is a sauna. An immaculate little custom-made walnut-panelled sauna. On one wall, slotted into the wood, is a plain white rectangle, perhaps four feet long, neutral, pleasant, unremarkable. In fact, that plain white rectangle is a piece of – what else? – porcelain, sculpted using the lithophane technique. Lithophane is a means of creating etched gradations of light and dark by altering the thickness of the material on one side – thin equals light, thick equals dark. Seen from the front in normal conditions the surface appears blank. Switch on a light behind it, however, and an intricate, quasi-photographic and almost three-dimensional image is revealed. The effect is magical.
When I turned on the light behind that particular plain white rectangle, it became a sepia-toned panorama of a nearby lake, Tegernsee, so utterly convincing and weirdly alluring that I wanted to step to the water’s edge and jump right in. I will never look at a piece of porcelain in the same way again.
The Langham Nymphenburg Residence is available to rent from about £31,110 per night (sleeps eight). langhamresidences.com
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