The Eccentric Teapot : A Design Narrative

A design narrative, the eccentric teapot is the story of teapot’s origin, its journey and evolution.

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This evening, just as I was drinking my tea, I read about the most valuable tea pot in the world which according to Guinness Book of World Records is valued at an astounding three million dollars.

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The Egoist

I looked at the teapot in a tray in front of me – a lovely specimen of blue and white delft pottery which I recently bought at an artisan shop in Amsterdam – hugely unlike the teapot on my screen which is made wholly of diamonds and rubies and is called “The Egoist” ! Indian-origin British billionaire Mr Nirmal Sethia designed & created this teapot in the loving memory of his late wife. After the initial oohs and aahs, I couldn’t help but wonder why would he call something he made for love an Egoist? Unless he is egoist about the love he had for her … hmmm, that’s very odd indeed. And why is it that Indian men – starting with Emperor Shahjahan – undertake these extraordinary projects after their wives are  dead and gone? Why not now, my dear men, whilst we are still living .. so at least we too can enjoy these wonderful tokens of your love?

Well, useless contemplations aside, the news of The Egoist led me to a couple of quick google searches and suddenly the glorious, fascinating world of teapots emerged! Its interesting that even though they all have the same elements – a brewing vessel, a handle, a spout and lid but at the same time they’re wildly different from each other, telling an extraordinary tale of trends, fashion and cultural sensibilities through 500 years of their existence.

In an ideal world I’d like you to make a cuppa tea and join me in this journey of teapots, but if you are pressed for time, no sweat – browse these links and enjoy express love!

(link) 15 Teapots & a collective wealth of over 10 million dollars : the most expensive tea-ware in the world

(link) Cool Hunting : 30 seriously cool teapots which caught my eye

Zisha clay the holy grail of teapots : from the first ever teapot to two million dollar teapots

The Chinese have been drinking tea for centuries and until about 500 years ago the tradition was to drink ‘whisked tea’ which involved pounding tea into fine powder, spooning it into a tea-bowl, adding hot water and stirring it in with a bamboo brush.

Perhaps it was a need for further refinement, or may be just the discovery of varieties of tea which tasted better with ‘second blush’ which led to the creation of a teapot. The closest inspiration for a brewing vessel was a wine-ewer which had all the desired elements – a handle, spout, cover.

The problem however was that clay, the only insulation material known at the time, would interfere with the delicate taste of tea. That is until a completely lead-free, mineral rich Zisha Clay was discovered in Yixing region. The porous nature of this clay became an even bigger advantage since the inner layers of zisha clay teapots would absorb the essential tea oils making every brew better with repeated use.

Yixing : the first “official” teapot (Nicolas Mass) Picture Courtesy www.theteapot.com
Yixing : the first “official” teapot (Nicolas Mass)
Picture Courtesy theteaspot.com

An integral part of day-today life, Zisha Clay teapots became a huge inspiration to poets and philosophers in China. They’d often make profound analogies of the properties of this clay and the teapots, with life at large. Which explains the exceptional appeal these particular teapots have with Chinese collectors who keep a keen eye (and cheque books ready) when Zisha Clay teapots enter auctions.

 On the aside, It was interesting for me to note that two out of five most expensive teapots in the world are Zisha Clay teapots from mid-20th century. Incase this tickled your curiosity, have a look at this list in the eyes on luxe section of this blog.

Teapot steps out of china, first to japan and then all over the world.

The Japanese were introduced to tea when a buddhist monk brought tea leaves as a gift for Emperor Saga in the 9th century. Much like the Chinese, the Japanese too drank ‘whisked tea’ until about late 16th Century when they imported Chinese artists to teach then tea-pot making method and Raku, a rough and dark earthenware emerged.

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Ancient Japanese teapot from Edo Period
Picture Courtesy The Met Museum, NYC

It was a matter of time before the Japanese artists started to paint their teapot with themes from nature and created a new trend of decorative teapots.

The Chinese in turn found porcelain and between these two nations, a healthy competition led to new techniques such as paper pressing, blue under-glaze, gold and silver inlay among others. By 17th century, teapots became not just decorative but also precious works of art.

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Decorative Teapot in under glazed blue
Picture Courtesy Shrewsbury Museum Service

When the Europeans first arrived on the Eastern shores in early 17th Century, they were mesmerised by tea and with this hard yet translucent glazed pottery which they started to refer to as ‘China’.

Even though the initial response of Europeans to tea was rather luke warm, it gradually picked up as high-society much preferred tea to coffee and by the end of the century tea-culture became a part of everyday lives in Europe. If you’d like to read more about tea-culture, here is a bucket list of vintage tea-rooms around the world

Design evolution of teapots : from baroque in 18th century to Bauhaus in 20th

By 18th century, the world was in love with tea. In most European countries, England especially, tea was prepared by ladies in their salons and drawing rooms (and not by servants in the kitchen). Tea-Service was now a symbol of social grace and genteel living.

With such fervent demand, Europeans were eager to make a breakthrough in porcelain production and it  came when Johan Bottger of Meissan in Germany invented a fine stoneware that was used to create the first ever teapots in European porcelain. Once porcelain was available locally, artists in Europe started to decorate them in their own, locally popular  styles – mainly Baroque and Rococo.

Its wasn’t too long before a play of varied materials – silver and gold inlay, semi-precious stones and ivory – in eclectic designs turned tea-pots into a fashion statement and as far as fashionistas were concerned a teapot design from a couple of years ago was scandalously passe, if you please.

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Teapot design evolution between 18th and 20th century

With the advent of French and American revolution, however, the mood of society became sombre and since tea-service was such an inherent part of social activity, teapots too became understanded with subtle designs.

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Subtle teapot designs post French and American Revolutions

19th Century, revival of opulence and the age of Neo-Rococco and Neo-Gothic

Between Industrialisation, opening of the New World, profits from the colonies the economy in Europe revived and flourished in the 19th century. More and more people had access to greater wealth and luxury of time and wanted to emulate the lifestyle of ‘high-society’. And tea-service reached the zenith of its popularity.

Whats also interesting is that with new techniques like silver and gold plating it was now cheaper to create an opulent look. Neo Rococco, Neo Gothic and designs inspired by the colonies championed tea-service across Europe.

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Neo Rococco, Neo Gothic and designs inspired by the colonies

20th Century and the beginning of new forms and shapes

There is however, Dresser’s bold geometric teapot which he designed after visiting Japan and being inspired by ‘minimal design’ that threw open the doors of 20th century Bauhaus and and Art Deco trends.

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Christopher Dresser’s geometric teapot
Photo Courtesy Design Museum

Art Deco, Bauhaus movements inspired legends such as Jean Puiforcat, Marianne Brandtt to design some spectacular teapots, some of which are still in production.

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Art Deco teapots

21st Century: Teapots & Me

As technology progressed and new materials discovered we in 21st century have a teapot to suit any occasion, any price, any size, mood or style. Nice.

On a personal note, writing this post has been a fascinating experience with teapot as my unusual yet definitive guide to ‘society’ over the last five centuries. I have to admit that as much as I love modern comforts, at heart I do prefer the by-gone era. I’d like to step back in a time when one would wait patiently for tea to brew, to pour it gently from the teapot into the cup as if it was art in motion. When society was in pursuit of living better (different from richer) and people made the time to enjoy simple pleasures of life.

Alas with modern convenience and tea bags came ‘rushed’ tea – one that’s often seen when friends gulp down breakfast, drink while walking to work, to avoid coffee etc etc. Ironic, isn’t it that with hundreds & thousands of teapots to choose from, we haven’t got the time to actually use one!

T’ien Yi-Heng said “Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world”. I wish us all such a cup of tea. And just in case you can’t find a teapot which suits the mood of your tea-affair, I’ve browsed the shops to find you 30 seriously cool teapots.

With that, I leave you to  tea, love, life and all things spinning…..

Author: Chanda Chaudhary

Aesthete. Storyteller. Wanderer. Chanda is a lover of design, craftsmanship and individualistic style. She’s best known for hosting long champagne lunches filled with stories and tales of adventure, living life on her own terms and making the ordinary, extraordinary. She lives and works in Goa, India.

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