Ian Macintyre on why a traditional teapot in a modernist furniture shop makes sense
‘The chances are, if I asked you to draw a teapot from memory, you’d think of a shape not too dissimilar from the Brown Betty. That’s because it’s the most manufactured teapot in British history.’
This is the opening sentence to my exhibition Brown Betty: the archetypal teapot that will take place at Vitsœ during the London Design Festival in September. It sounds like a strange pairing – Dieter Rams’s modernist furniture underneath what at first glance seems to be a brown, slightly conservative-looking pot – but there’s much more to this object than first meets the eye. To describe this, the exhibition reveals a snapshot of the history and evolution of the Brown Betty.
I worked for Vitsœ for three years from 2010, building cabinets for the 606 shelving system in its Camden workshop. From the outset, it was evident that the company’s ethos didn’t reflect the typical cycle of production and consumption that most design brands subscribe to – the focus was certainly not on incessantly launching new products at the beginning of each new season. Instead, it seemed to be on refining and streamlining the projects that already existed. Materials and processes were in a continuous state of flux, forever being tweaked to improve a detail or service. Vitsœ’s way of looking at the world captivated me: it seemed more aligned to the way a craftsman might work.
The Brown Betty reflects a similar type of ethos. In its lifetime it has been subject to continuous refinement in the hands of numerous manufacturers, each of whom made their own mark on the object. This makes it a product of evolution rather than the authorship of any single designer – form and functionality refined over generations. It is this process that has given rise to an icon, not because of nostalgia but because it’s the best at what it does.
The very character of the pot comes from the quality of the clay, which has been mined in Staffordshire for redware teapots for over 300 years. I think it’s safe to say that because of this, a brown betty that isn’t made of Staffordshire’s red clay isn’t an original Brown Betty at all. The clay – Etruria marl – was first refined in about 1695 by two Dutch brothers in Bradwell Wood, North Staffordshire. Prior to this, the potteries that existed were small, family-run outfits producing crude wares like pots for farmers to transport their produce to market. The Elers brothers used this clay to make some of the first pots to withstand the thermal shock of boiling water, enabling potters in Staffordshire to compete with imports from China by the East India Company. It is widely agreed that the refinement of this clay was a key development in the industrialisation of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent.
The Brown Betty is a purely rational design, stripped of anything superfluous to its function and production methods. Over the years its form has migrated into a globe, which was seen as the best shape to diffuse the loose-leaf tea as water was poured in. At first sight the spout looks poorly finished. In fact, this was deliberately cut roughly by a craftsman to create a sharp edge that would break the flow of water, preventing tea from dribbling back down the outside of the pot. If a dribble did make it down, at least you wouldn’t see it – a combination of the Rockingham glaze and the colour of the clay synonymous with this pot masks any tea stains.
Nobody really knows who the first maker of this pot was. What we do know is that the factory of Alcock, Lindley and Bloore was by far the most innovative and is therefore the focus of the exhibition. The firm pioneered and patented its development in the early 1900s with a number of innovations, including the non-drip spout and the locking lid. It was so successful that, at its height, it was claimed to be the largest producer in the world. This exhibition celebrates the firm’s life through never before seen family archives, and objects that reveal how this understated archetype has transcended fashions and trends to become a classic.
Nestled away among all the shiny, fleeting things at the London Design Festival you’ll find this unassuming teapot being celebrated at Vitsœ, where they prefer better over newer.
Ian McIntyre is a designer currently studying a Collaborative Doctoral Award with Manchester Metropolitan University in collaboration with York Art Gallery and the British Ceramics Biennial.
London Design Festival, 17-25 September.