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This Cfile.Daily vault post was originally published in December 2016.
LONDON—Designer Ian McIntyre showcased a project that was like Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species but with design. His subject for the London Design Festival this fall studied the origins and development of the Brown Betty teapot, a ubiquitous piece of design that has undergone more than 300 years of refinement.
The scale is important to understand: tens of millions of Brown Betties have been produced over the years. Tea drinkers swear that it brews better than any other teapot. McIntyre argues that form married with centuries of ritualized use has caused the teapot to ascend into an ideal. Brown Betty: The Archetypal Teapot was his research project for the first year of his doctorate, in partnership with Vitsoe. More than being about the Brown Betty, McIntyre argues something fundamental about design: something can work so well you barely take note of it.
Featured image: The Archetypal Teapot. Photographs by Glen Stoker, courtesy of Vitsoe Gallery.
When we think of man-made objects in our lives and homes, those that perform their true purpose without any glitches in functionality or the need for constant intervention tend to be the ones we rarely notice. Probably because when things work well, we generally take them for granted.
This sets us up for a surprise: seeing the mundane in a wholly new way. A simple thing like a teapot can be packed full of brilliant, but understated features. We imagine that designers think this way all the time, every day they work, but to an outsider this realization can be profound. In the end this appreciation helps us understand why this design is so ubiquitous. The context clues give this seemingly inconsequential object greater meaning.
The process of designing and developing one of the most manufactured teapots in British history spans a surprising 300 years. Crafted from Staffordshire red clay, the Brown Betty’s iconic proportions are the result of natural evolution, with refinements being made by generations of craftsmen.
Every element has been engineered to improve the teapot’s performance, from the ergonomic shape of the handle, designed to protect knuckles from burning on the pot, to the rough-cut spout – which looks poorly finished to the untrained eye, but in fact cuts the flow of tea to prevent dribbling. Even unsightly drips or chips are cleverly disguised by the tea-coloured Rockingham glaze. Such considerations have resulted in a completely familiar, rational design that has become an emblem of home, comfort and stability.
Garth Clark, Cfile.Daily’s editor in chief, sees McIntyre research as a significant attempt to explore the mystery of achieving iconic status and how the quality and refinement that goes into such workmanlike objects is often taken for granted, unexplored and without any formal analysis as to why this vessel has with us and kept its potency since 1695:
I have never lived without a Brown Betty in my home. It is a working class icon, not an object from haute design, for me a huge part of its charm, even if it is now gathering retro-chic status for design mavens. I see it, perhaps fancifully, as growing organically from the ubiquitous small brick worker’s row houses in Stoke-on-Trent where, early on, weak tea was brewed from the costly but spent leaves passed down by their employers.In the homes of the wealthy the Betty would be downstairs for the staff, while bone-china teapots would be used upstairs.
Yet it’s more than just a vindication of working class common-sense, minimalist aesthetics and low-cost production. It combines sturdiness, austerity, confident acceptance of gravity and a robust elegance while dispensing liquid solace. If we deconstruct this into emotional terms, one is talking about a profound exchange between a thing and a being, providing comfort (which is defined as “a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint”) and at times, yes, even sympathy. Via Betty-users, this ritual has been experienced by hundreds of millions of people.
We have few such centuries-old survivors in our day-to-day life, objects so perfectly attuned both in appearance and utility that they have remained unaltered and unimprovable. Our tendency is to seek novelty, which results in designs (and in particular teapots are a target) that are trendy and temporal. Moreover they fail adequately to perform their single purpose in life. It ism for me, the most romantic and empathetic of all Western pots, a triumph in proto-modernism that Ian McIntyre has given a long overdue salute.
UPDATE: The Re-engineered Brown Betty Teapot was nominated for Beazley Designs of the Year 2018.
About the Designer:I studied MA Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art 2008–2010 and established my studio in East London in 2011. With a background in product design and applied art, I employ a mix of industrial design and craft skills within my work. My output spans the fields of art, design, research and curating. I produce exhibitions, installations, studio editions and designs for production. I have lectured at both Kingston University and the Royal College of Art, and currently hold a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Manchester School of Art, York Art Gallery and The British Ceramics Biennial.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of Cfile.Daily.
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