June 15, 1997
The delight of Mildred Mottahedeh is that she is, as she describes herself with an irrepressibly sly grin, "a character."
She is also a woman of substance: co-founder of one of the world's leading companies in the dinnerware and museum-reproduction business; an absolute authority on Chinese porcelains and the owner of a vast collection that dates to 5,000 B.C.; winner of a United Nations award for her work to improve the lives of Third World people by teaching marketable skills; and a deep believer in the Baha'i faith who says her proudest accomplishment is "a life of service."
Mottahedeh, 88, visited Milwaukee recently to present a slide talk on porcelain at George Watts & Son, 761 N. Jefferson St.
She opened an interview at her University Club suite with two questions:
"Would you like coffee or tea?"
"Do you want to hear a joke ‹ a nice clean joke?"
(Eve said to Adam, "I love you." Adam said: "Who else?")
She sprinkled a conversation on the history of porcelain (going back to the development of eating implements), with tidbits about how she met her late husband, Iranian archaeologist and businessman Rafi Mottahedeh; how four men have proposed to her since his death, but that one wonderful marriage is enough; and how she grew up in a world of privilege: "I was raised like a spoiled brat."
For the last five years, she has served as a consultant to Mottahedeh & Co., having sold it to fellow Baha'is Grant and Wendy Kvalheim. Now, she's retiring in order to focus full-time on the Mottahedeh Foundation, which has founded and sponsored projects in Uganda, Zaire, India and Micronesia.
Founded in 1958, the foundation is an extension of philanthropic work that she and her husband started in 1929, when they began their 49-year marriage. Living in an apartment in Greenwich Village, they were better off than many, she said.
"We felt so sorry for all the poor kids, all the starving people. We felt a sense of obligation."
Once a month, they rented a double-decker bus, filled it with children, drove to clothing and candy wholesalers,dressed and treated the kids, then took them to the Baha'i Center for a meal.
Baha'i was founded in the mid-19th century in Iran. Its main tenets are the unity of all religions and the unity of humankind.
During World War II, the Mottahedehs became antiques importers and wholesalers, which was her idea. She did the research and documentation of items at home.
In 1945, they founded Mottahedeh & Co., eventually producing porcelain dinnerware and museum reproductions in porcelain, enamel, glass and other materials. They worked with 31 museums and 15 castles and mansions, including the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; Winterthur in Wilmington, Del.; Historic Charleston; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
She counts her married life as double ‹ 98 years instead of the actual 49 ‹ because "we were together day and night."
Their philosophy, which remains hers, is: "I'm not in business just to make money, I'm in business to make people's lives better."
In 1943, the couple was asked by the wife of the late Prime Minister Nehru to help India's starving people. That was the start of what became known as the 100 Village Project.
They traveled to India and went to work in four impoverished villages.
"First, we washed everybody and gave them basic clothes," she said. "Then we made everyone over the age of 4 go to school and learn to read ‹ everybody, from 4 to 104." They also established medical clinics and taught trades in the decorative-arts business, such as working with brass and silver. She provided the designs. Over time, 96 other villages joined the program.
This effort could hardly have been more removed from her childhood, where her home was staffed by servants. That life of privilege continued into her first job, as an assistant interior designer at a posh decorating firm in Manhattan in the 1920s.
"We were such damn snobs," she said of herself and her colleagues. Clients were accepted only if they agreed to spend exorbitant amounts per room on redecoration, and were listed in the social register. (The firm was flooded with clients.)
Mottahedeh's consummate command of the history of porcelain ‹ and how it documents mankind's mastery over materials and their refinement ‹ delighted an audience of about 80 at Watts.
She began, well, at the beginning: "You can eat with your hands, but they leak." She discussed the effort to make clay less porous by the addition of minerals. This occurred from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D., she said.
She traced the use of cobalt and gold designs on Chinese porcelain pieces to the development of trade routes and the Christian missionary movement. In addition to religion, 16th-century missionaries also introduced gold to the Chinese, she said. And the religious European also introduced angels, which started appearing on Chinese porcelain designs after their arrival.
She described the forces that caused Europeans, specifically in Meissen, Germany, to start making porcelain.
She gave tips on identifying antiques from fakes: Because of its chemical composition, porcelain grays as it ages. Also, the bottoms of antique porcelain pieces typically were not glazed.
She also said, with regret, that the art of pottery-making wasn't transferred from generation to generation in China. Chinese officials have asked her why Mottahedeh hasn't established porcelain manufacturing plants in their country.
"Because you don't know how to make it anymore," she told them.
The Tobacco Leaf pattern produced by Mottahedeh & Co. is being featured in an oval self-rimming bathroom basin and an oval undercounter basin by Kallista, a division of Kohler Co.
©Copyright 1997, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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