The Zsolnay brand has stood for tradition, individuality, artistic value, and constant renewal for over 150 years. Throughout its long history, it always managed to create something new and of fundamental importance to the current era. It has played a pioneering role both technologically and with regard to artistic techniques, and managed to attract the most renowned contemporary scientists, artists, and architects. As a result, people such as József Rippl-Rónai, Ferenc Martyn, Victor Vasarely, Ödön Lechner, and many more have contributed to the work done at the factory.
The story of Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktúra Zrt started in Pécs, in the year 1853. It was then that Miklós Zsolnay turned the hard tile manufactory of Lukafa into Zsolnay Hard Tile Manufactory. After the company was incorporated, Zsolnay transferred the company to his son, Ignác, in 1854, and had the original articles of incorporation amended. The workshop that Ignác Zsolnay led for 10 years had rudimentary equipment, and was designed to utilize manual power. It employed impoverished potters (around 8 to 10 of them) who had produced their wares for the local market, and were unable to compete with mass-produced goods. The company made stoneware dishes, architectural ceramics, and water pipes.
The workshop was struggling with lack of capital, development, and automation, and it had all but failed in the face of stiff competition on the market. It was saved from being sold off at an auction by Ignác’s brother, Vilmos Zsolnay, who took over the company in 1865, after spending a year as a silent partner. After that, the workshop developed into a world-famous factory. In the mid-1870s, the company had between 15 and 20 labourers. The main driving forces behind its development were foreign experts and the Zsolnay family. Both Vilmos and his children, Teréz, Júlia, and Miklós took an active part in improving the quality of the products, expanding the range, and establishing and maintaining customer relationships. Experimentation and development became continuous, and the workshop became so much a part of the family’s life that they even built their own homes on the premises. Thanks to their relentless efforts and the perfect technique and beauty of ivory glazing and high-fired decoration, the company soon caught up with the best in contemporary ceramics industry, and became the first factory to produce artistic ceramics in Hungary. The Hungarian and Persian style decorations designed by Teréz and Júlia Zsolnay in 1874 remained the most characteristic patterns used by Zsolnay until the end of the 1880s, and they boosted the reputation of Hungarian ceramics both within and outwith the country. Miklós Zsolnay took over the management of the company in his father’s death in March 1900. He was a highly skilled and well-educated businessman who spoke several languages, and he redefined production in the factory to ensure maximum utilization and to guarantee the maximum possible profit. Thanks to the new business he attracted, the Zsolnay factory managed to solidify its position on the domestic and international markets thanks to the addition of lucrative architectural ceramics and industrial porcelain products to range of the decorative pieces, which were less profitable. Although 1,400 new patterns were developed between 1900 and 1902, along with several new forms of glazing, Miklós’s period of management was characterised by the predominance of industrial production. By 1910, the production of artistic and decorative objects received a lot less attention. To satisfy the demands of contemporary infrastructural developments, the factory focused on the production of architectural ceramics, stoves, pipes, and insulation. During World War I, the production of decorative objects and architectural ceramics all but stopped completely. They were replaces by industrial porcelain, especially electrical insulation, which was used by the army. The global economic crisis and impoverishment that characterized the period after the war, along with the loss of raw material sources as a result of the new political and customs borders had a very adverse effect on the Zsolnay factory. The problems were exacerbated by Miklós Zsolnay’s illness, which was becoming increasingly more serious. When Miklós died in 1922, the factory was taken over by his nephews, whom he had adopted, and who had filled managerial positions for several years by then. The post-war period was characterized by slow development, a complete reorganization, and the systematic introduction of electrical machinery. This coincided with phasing out of porcelain faience and the launching the manufacturing of porcelain. The company’s survival was secured by converting to the production of porcelain, so porcelain kitchenware was soon added to the range of porcelain insulation products. In the first few years of government control, the primary focus was on renovating the buildings damaged in the war and ensuring the continuity of production. During the first five-year plan, the ‘Zsolnay’ Porcelain Factory Nationalised Company of Pécs, as it was then known, made mostly industrial porcelain. Thanks to electrification and industrial development efforts, the production of utility and ornamental dishes was resumed in 1953, and the firsts steps towards designing a new kind of pyrogranite were taken. In 1955, the stove and architectural ceramics businesses were revived. In 1963, the company lost its independent status, and was merged into the National Company for Fine Ceramics under the name of Pécs Porcelain Factory. The Zsolnay name and brand returned to the company with the approval of Margit Mattyasovszky-Zsolnay in 1974, and the company won its independence once more in 1982. The scale of dish production was then increased, which was an important development. As demand for ornamental products was growing steadily in Hungary, a number of specialist reseller outlets were opened in the provinces, and the Zsolnay factory continuously expanded the group of countries to which it imported, including the United Kingdom, Austria, Italy, the German Democratic Republic, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Greece, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, and Iran. In 1989 and 1990, both the domestic and the international markets shrank. The catastrophic economic state that Hungary was in, along with the increasing importance of market orientation caused a great deal of uncertainty in the life of the factory. The company became a joint-stock company at the end of 1991, and was privatised in 1995. Its largest shareholder was the Hungarian Investment and Development Bank. The new owner was determined to make the historic company, with its rich traditions, into a profitable enterprise, without changing the structure of the product range. Three profit centres were set up within the company: the Dishes and Decorative Objects Division produced porcelain faience tableware, accessories, decorative objects, and eosine ceramics; the Pyrogranite Division was responsible for architectural decorations and interior ceramics, stoves, and fireplaces; and the Industrial Porcelain Division made porcelain products for technological applications, such as insulation. In September 1999, Zsolnay Porcelángyár Rt was emerged into three companies. The Industrial Porcelain Division became an independent business organisation but remained within Zsolnay Porcelángyár Rt. The latter was responsible for obtaining raw materials and energy, and renting out properties that were not listed as historic monuments. The Pyrogranite and Dishes and Decorative Objects Divisions were merged to create Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktúra Rt. The third company, Zsolnay Örökség Kht, was set up to manage and renovate the listed buildings situated on the factory premises. All three companies continued to operate from the original Zsolnay Porcelángyár Rt base, and were owned by the Hungarian Development Bank and ÁPV Rt. In 2006, Porcelángyár Rt merged into the Manufactory. The Zsolnay Group is currently owned by the Local Authority of the County Borough of Pécs and Manufaktúra-BefektetÅ‘ Kft. The latter holds 49 per cent of the shares, and has two priority voting shares.