Germans go back to basics for enduring quality

For almost three decades, Manufactum has been fighting the tide of built-in consumerist obsolescence with a range of beautifully curated and stylish traditional goods

 

Whenever something breaks in my hands – a dynamo, a pen, a pan – a German friend pops up from nowhere to lecture me that “Billig gekauft ist zweimal gekauft”: buy it cheap and you’ll buy it twice.

Since 1988, Germany’s Manufactum has earned a fortune – and a fiercely loyal following – by fighting the inbuilt-obsolesce of our modern-day, made-in-China consumer hell.

Manufactum preaches a hopeful gospel that “the good things in life still exist”. And its apostles follow happily, buying these good things in large quantities.

From Viennese coffee pots to horn hairclips, Manufactum sells you made-in-Europe products that, in the best retailing tradition, you never knew you even wanted.

Its mesmerising merchandise range operates on a second level: promising, with each purchase, a Proustian return to a lost time that may not be your own but is filled with Downton Abbey devotionals.

Visitors to one of its eight stores in Germany have one of two reactions. Some emerge hours later in a mood of nostalgic euphoria; others are dazed by what they perceive as obsessive objectophilia.

Regardless of your reaction, Manufactum was doing “artisan” and “curated” long before most retailers ever heard of the words, with a remarkable range of leather goods and a wallful of enamel kitchen equipment. But do you really need a €3,650 copper bathtub? Or a €359 wallet made from the fish skins that are “a byproduct from an ecological salmon farm in Ireland”?

Then again, who can argue with the German retailer for stocking fisherman sweaters from Aran Islands company Inis Meáin, which has been selling its wares through Manufactum for over a decade.

“Our products sit well with what they do, which we love: selling absolutely top-quality products in every area,” said Tarlach de Blacan, an Inis Meáin director. Each season Manufactum buys a small number of items from Inis Meáin’s new collection in a larger volume, a relationship that has made the German retailer a crucial client – up there with Barney’s in New York.

For de Blacan the success of the two companies, and their collaboration, are signs of the times.

“Since the downturn in 2008-2009, when retail took a hammering, people seem to want ‘Made in Europe’ more, and there is a huge emphasis on quality,” he said.

For Manufactum founder Thomas Hoof, a former Green party politician, his push for quality began after a frustrating encounter with a breadknife that didn’t cut.

Almost 30 years ago, he realised that the push to offshore manufacturing often had as drastic an effect on a product’s quality as its price.

With his new mail-order company he threw a lifeline to struggling manufacturers around Europe, often small family firms, who couldn’t compete with Asia on price. Instead his first mail-order catalogue, later supplemented by a website and a network of high-end stores, has emphasised quality over price.

It was also one of the first retailers to tell the stories of its products and producers, be they Davey Lighting in Britain, Solingen knives from Germany or Cavalieri Pasta from Apulia.

Convents and monasteries

There are natural cosmetics and soap-on-a-rope, alongside badger-hair shaving brushes for €113. Each spring brings a gardening season rush on English zinc-coated watering cans (€39).

And almost single-handedly, with no hipsters hurt in the production, Manufactum revived the old-fashioned Bakelite light switch and socket. Knowing a winner when he saw it, Hoof retained that product line when he sold Manufactum to German mail-order giant Otto in 2007.

The recent growing interest across Europe in responsible consumption, and ecological fashion, suggests that Manufactum was ahead of its time.

For Berlin sociologist Kai-Uwe Hellmann, there’s also a uniquely German streak to Manufactum’s success: a historical suspicion about being consumers.

“German upper classes in particular have been arguing against consumption for years and then along came Manufactum, offering them ethical, guilt-free consumption,” says Prof Hellmann.

With a differentiated retail concept and clever marketing, Manufactum has cornered the German market in what Hellmann calls “cultivated cocooning”.

These days, Germans have a love/hate relationship with Manufactum. Millions have embraced its long-wear products as part of a sustainability zeitgeist.

Another camp mocks Manufactum customers as “felt-slipper fundamentalists” who pay homage at post-consumerist temples of product fetishism. “Manufactum wants to be the department store of true living,” sniffed Der Spiegel magazine in 2014. “A stronghold against the alleged impositions of modern life . . . the multicultural . . . Aldi and €1 junk shop cities.”

Fussy dogmatism

Portlandia

And, among Manufactum’s well-heeled customers, it’s striking how often you encounter a fussy dogmatism usually reserved for lovers of the Latin Mass.

Love it or loathe it, most Germans would agree that Manufactum is an early indicator of where their country is going, with a slow intermingling of conservative and green ideologies that could yet give Angela Merkel a fourth term in office next year.

And if that’s too ideological for you, you can die happy after seeing Manufactum’s €189 enamel cat toilet.

See manufactum.de

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