The craft of building terracotta fireplaces by hand was almost forgotten by the early 20th century
In 1906, over a century ago, the Medias terracotta factory was set up by Transylvanian Saxon Gref Iulius. For almost 80 years, between 1938 and 2015, it changed many hands, among them the Romanian state. After 111 years and many social, political, and economic changes, Teracota Medias makes the same painted terracotta tiles, using the old kilns, with the original mixture of clays, and the same hand glazing and hand painting techniques as always. Starting in 2015, the factory came to be owned by another Transylvanian Saxon entrepreneur, Uwe Draser.
Terracotta tiles are the ceramic pieces used to build the outside of fireplaces, which come in five types of elements, with additional purely ornamental types.
Radu George Stelian, manager of the factory in Medias, told us about this timeless craft:
“We are trying to carry the tradition forward, we are working right now with the same recipe for clay that we used in 1906, we use the same kilns, and we are trying to explain to all our customers the difference we make, because we do actual manufacture, there is a great difference between hand pressed tiles and mechanically made tiles, made by all other players on the market. It was an insane wager, most definitely. This makes it very hard to resist in this marketplace. Just to get an idea on the difference, one of our employees who makes hand pressed tiles makes about 800 of then a month. If we had mechanized the factory, we could have made 7,000 to 8,000 a day, which is a humongous difference!”
The craft of building terracotta fireplaces by hand was almost forgotten by the early 20th century, when modern heating systems started to take over. In spite of their many advantages, these systems can never match the beauty of painted terracotta fireplaces, with the special atmosphere they create in living spaces. It is said of these fireplaces that they are some of the most representative artifacts of Romanian civilization, able of rendering changes and events at all levels of life. Radu George Stelian told us how he was able to make it in the current state of the marketplace:
“We tried to do something different. We managed to gain customers who wanted to make their own contribution to the building of a fireplace, to have their own little part in them, meaning that they were able to press their own tiles, and paint them as well. If, for instance, we have a family come in, mother, father, and three children, and they want to have their own fireplace, we can press the tiles, glaze them, and then each of them can come over at the factory and paint their own individual tile. We have many people who want to do this. Another thing that we did different from any other producer was to cater to another kind of customer. If they bought a house and found there an old fireplace, we can go there and restore it piece by piece just as they were initially. There are also people who come with a tile design drawn on a piece of paper, we make a mold of it, and when we build the fireplace we apply the molds and make a unique fireplace. This is the niche that we tried to grab to make it on the market. It wasn't easy, but we managed to make great partnerships, one in Bucharest, one in Viscri, another at the Astra Museum in Sibiu, another here in Medias. Now we have an exhibition at the fortified church in Viscri. We are trying to show people that terracotta is not just about a fireplace, it can be about art.”
In the archives f the factory they keep a collection of tiles and Transylvanian tile molds, including rare reproductions of fireplaces found at the Astra Museum in Sibiu. Here with details is Radu George Stelian:
“We have in our archives over 300 new patterns of tiles. We have an intern here who is studying towards her graduate degree. We have our own tiles, and we are also reproducing old tiles from the Astra Museum, in addition to many other museums throughout the country. We have a wide palette of patterns. The customer can pick and choose, even depending on the area of the country they live in. If we have customers from Bukovina, we can provide them with old patterns from that area, if they come from Transylvania, we have those too, or provide modern patterns in the old style. You have to realize that right now the terracotta fireplace is no longer the classical model. We can deliver fireplaces that are in fact central heating units, able to feed 10 to 15 heaters. In addition to the fact that they are special, and they look great, they can act as central heating. In the Transylvania area we have white tiles with blue patterns. In the Bukovina area we have more intricate patterns, with greens, reds, even yellows.”
Every month, the factory sells around 30 central fireplaces and around 100 prefabricated fireplaces, made by the 30 employees there. They are always open to visitors. Tourists can see the entire manufacturing process, and they can even make their own miniature tiles to take home.