Anyone who knows me knows I don’t drink tea. I just can’t. I have simply never fancied it. But despite my disinclination towards the brew, I somehow find the various paraphernalia that go along with the tea-drinking process (especially the teapots) endlessly enjoyable to examine. In a way, I think I am drawn to teapots because they cannot serve me. Or, more precisely, without any expectation of ever personally using one for its predominantly intended use, my perspective is moulded by pure imagination and external fascination of a class of objects seemingly so malleable in form and creation.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London boasts a wide collection of assorted coffee and tea services originating from various times and places. In its Silver Galleries (Room 68, Case 5, Shelf 2 to be specific), however, sits the inspiration for this article: a particularly compelling specimen called the ‘Easi-Nest’. The four-piece set (comprising of a teapot, a hot water jug, a sugar bowl, and a milk jug) has been attributed to the design of Cyril Shiner, an influential silversmith who also taught at the Birmingham College of Art and Crafts (now the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) in the mid-twentieth century. What captured my attention is deftly expressed in its title. As explained in its catalogue entry:
‘Every aspect of the design has been very carefully thought through. The recessed lids allow each element to stack neatly one on top of the other so that the Easi-Nest service can be stored as one piece in the restricted space of a commercial hotel pantry. In addition the lids swing back 180 degrees allowing the pots to drain easily when stored on drying racks.’
In contrast to the elaborate, sprawling tea services especially popular among the European elite of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the components of the Easi-Nest are designed to be organised vertically rather than horizontally. The minimisation of the lateral space occupied by the tea set allows not only for easier storage (as mentioned above) but also in its transportation from place to place. Yet as much as its sections may be easily stacked into a tower, they can just as easily be ‘un-stacked’ and arranged on the same level when desired.
Thus the Easi-Nest presents an excellent example of a ‘designed system’ that can be equally considered as a whole and in its separate (separable) parts and sub-parts. Shiner and the manufacturers at Slade & Dolphin Ltd. were designing a system that anticipated how a prospective user might manipulate or configure the components according to the requirements and context of a given situation. If, for instance, the milk jug is not needed, it can be excluded – the stack and the system can still carry on together as a complete entity. The individual containers are able and moreover meant to fit with each other and only with each other, often in a very specific sequence or order (perhaps even in a set hierarchy, as suggested in the V&A’s catalogue photographs). They correspond and match not only in shape due to the sizing and placement of the rounded foot-rims and raised brims, but also materially and aesthetically to create stability and balance among asymmetrical entities.
The paradigm of stacked teapots and tea sets has grown in popularity, with one of the most ubiquitous designs being the ‘tea for one’ model. As implied, these compact vessels hold enough volume to serve a singular cup of tea: namely, the cup that is paired underneath the teacup. Like the Easi-Nest, the main portions of the set maintain a vertical relationship when nestled together. But unlike the older model, the order of this teacup and teapot (at least the one pictured) cannot be reversed to achieve a similar visual effect. This is because when seen from afar and with the handles orderly aligned, the ‘tea for one’ design recalls and resembles the globular shape of a large teapot.
This however gives rise to more questions and ways we can think about these objects. In both cases, the teapot (literally) constitutes the base of the overall systemised structure. Is the Easi-Nest therefore the really a tea set? Or is it in fact merely a teapot with added appendages? Does the number and/or nature of the other non-teapot modules affect our possible interpretations?
As much as the teapot in each of our examples could be perceived as the star of the show, I think it gains its appeal and benefits only from the proximity and relationship with the supporting cast of other components. The real mystique arises when all parts are collectively combined into a whole, since (as we may observe) when disassembled the fragments turn lacklustre, unremarkable, and no more significant than an ordinary non-interlocking tea set. However, when arranged in their totality according to their prescribed logic, we can recognise how the overall effect of all elements in systematic unison is what gives each of these two designs their alluring power.
Though I may continue to be socially ill at ease and ignorant about sophisticated blends, my appreciation for teapots, teacups, and all their relatives equally persists. Even if I cannot part-take in tea-drinking rituals, my reluctant detachment has afforded me a valuable observer status allowing me to understand how such designed systems (no matter how minute) truly interact.
 To stipulate, I have in my lifetime indeed prepared tea for others (to varying and unexceptional success). If beseeched or implored, I have absolutely no objections to doing so although all may be well cautioned.
 ‘History’, School of Jewellery, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (http://www.schoolofjewellery.co.uk/about/history)
Emmerson, Robin, British Teapots & Tea Drinking, 1700-1850 (London: HMSO, 1992)
Miller, Philip, Teapots & Coffee Pots (Speldhurst, Kent: Midas Books, 1979)
Tourtillott, Suzanne J. E., 500 Teapots: Contemporary Explorations of a Timeless Design (New York: Lark Books, 2002)
Andrea Tam –
I study histories. Specifically, I am interested in how interpretations and representations of the past are affected by their visual, material, and digital dimensions. My current research involves a case study on Horrible Histories, from which I will develop a theoretical framework to broaden our understanding of historiography, branding, and communication more generally. Having received my BA from McGill University in Canada, I am now completing my MA at the RCA/V&A.
© Andrea Tam, 2013. All Rights Reserved.