Teapots: Steeped in History (I know, I know)

Teapots: Steeped in History (I know, I know)

Anna Hoffman
Sep 3, 2009

September is Artwork, Crafts & Collections month at Apartment Therapy, and in honor of this theme, let's talk about teapots, which I've always wanted to collect. Teapots are fascinating objects. No, seriously. They are functional, and nearly all have the same few elements: handle, spout, lid. But within these parameters, teapots vary wildly, reflecting the styles and fashions of their age.

Tea was introduced to Europeans in the early 17th century by Portuguese and Dutch traders (At the time, Portugal and the Netherlands were totally winning the wealth and power race in Europe because of trade with the Far East). Because it was imported exclusively from China, tea was an expensive luxury, and quickly became a status symbol. In England, tea was typically prepared by ladies in their salons and drawing rooms – not by servants in the kitchen – because the act of preparation was part of the experience of such an exotic delicacy (image 1). Silversmiths in the 18th century created exuberant rococo tea sets (the one above is pictured with its matching burner and stand), reflecting the aesthetic taste for highly decorative objects and the interest in sociable leisure time among the upper classes.

By the end of the 18th century, the rococo style gave way to a more sober neoclassicism, adapted from ancient Greece and Rome, whose political influences were also apparent in the American and French revolutions at the time. Paul Revere was a celebrated silversmith in Boston even before his heroic horseback ride, and his teapot from around 1782 (image 2) is typical of the post-revolutionary neoclassical spirit.

Tea drinking was well established in Victorian Britain. Industrialization in the 19th century allowed Neo-Rococo teapots to be cheaply produced in imitation of expensive ones made for the upper classes (image 3), but many designers and critics complained that manufacturers were knocking out these machine-made objects with no attention to good taste. Christopher Dresser was a designer who wanted to use industrial processes to make good design inexpensive and available to more people. His fabulous teapot from 1879 (image 4) is radical for the time, using geometric forms and no other decoration (Dresser was the first European designer to travel to Japan, which had just been 'opened' to the West in 1854, and he was heavily influenced by the design he found there). It is not silver but electroplated metal, so it could be sold cheaply. Its geometry reminds me of the 1924 Bauhaus teapot by Marianne Brandt, which is now reproduced by Alessi (image 5).

Many of the important teapot designs of the 20th century are still available today. Eva Zeisel took the elegant lines of traditional porcelain tea services and updated them in a sleek, modern way with her Century service, which you can now buy at Crate and Barrel (image 6). Russel Wright's earthenware American Modern service from 1939 was more casual (image 7), with funky gourd-like shapes and different colors. Wright's line was offered at Macy's, and ultimately sold over 80 million pieces. It has recently been licensed by Bauer ceramics, where you can buy it today. Rachael Ray's tea kettle for Target (image 8) reminds me of Russel Wright's lines and colors, perfect for the casual lifestyle he promoted. Then, of course, there is the Michael Graves 1985 tea kettle for Alessi (image 9), whose blue-cold, red-hot, whistling-bird components are considered paragons of postmodern semiotics.

Tea is still the most popular drink worldwide, so there are so many different teapot types I haven't covered here, like the gorgeous Japanese cast-iron tetsubin (image 10). But the way these useful objects reflect their eras and origins is endlessly fascinating to me.

Which of these historical teapots would you want, or have you bought any of the ones available today?

(Images: 1 Kettle, stand and lamp (1736-7) by Paul de Lamerie, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 2 Teapot (c. 1782) by Paul Revere, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 3 Coffee and tea service for J.D. Preuijt (1859-73) by Pieter Zöllner, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; 4 Electroplated teapot by Christopher Dresser (1879), at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 5 Tea service by Marianne Brandt for Alessi (1986), which includes the teapot she designed while a student at the Bauhaus in 1924; 6 Classic Century tea service by Eva Zeisel (1952), now available at Crate and Barrel, the teapot is $69.95; 7 Russel Wright's American Modern tableware (1939 and after), great images and info at russelwrightcenter.org, and now available through Bauer, the teapot is $65.00; 8 Rachael Ray's teapot, $39.99 at Target; 9 Michael Graves teapot (1985) for Alessi, now available on Zwello for $169.00; 10 Tetsubin-style cast-iron teapot, at Target for $29.99)

SOURCES There are a bunch of interesting, reliable sources online for some good teapot history, including this fabulous essay, "Coffee, Tea and Chocolate in Early Colonial America," by Beth Carver Wees in the Metropolitan Museum's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, this very detailed history from teapots.net, and this history of Tetsubins from the California Academy of Sciences.

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