Disegno #21

Betty Came Back


13 December 2018

For the past three years, the ceramicist Ian McIntyre has undertaken PhD research project into the Brown Betty – the archetypal teapot.

Produced in the Staffordshire Potteries from Etruria Marl clay, the Brown Betty is a piece of authorless design that has developed into a highly sophisticated, immaculately functional teapot. In conjunction with Cauldon Ceramics in Staffordshire, McIntyre has now produced a re-engineered version of the design that takes into account centuries’ worth of the Brown Betty’s design innovations. “It’s never had an original author, so it’s almost an early example of open-source design,” says McIntyre. “So many people have worked to produce this archetype.”

To mark the release of the Brown Betty, Mcintyre kindly donated a teapot to give away to one Disegno reader. In Disegno #21, the journal published its second crossword, a puzzle whose answers all relate to design. Any reader who completes the crossword can send a photograph of the completed solution to crossword@disegnomagazine.com to enter the draw to win the Re-Engineered Brown Betty by Ian McIntyre, produced by Cauldon Ceramics.

Below, Disegno is delighted to publish an extended interview with McIntyre, in which he explains the genesis of the project.

What drove your desire to look into the history of the Brown Betty?

I had been aware of it as an object through books, but as a young designer I had also interned with the designer Robin Levien, who always sets a teapot project for his interns. A teapot is one of the most difficult objects to design in ceramics because there are so many components, so Robin always whips out a Brown Betty and talks you through some of his favourite details. Basically, he says that it's pretty difficult to design a better object, and that’s what he did with me. So the Brown Betty was this thing that was always floating around, but nobody seemed to have done any kind of formal research on the history of the object and where it had come from. That was really the start – I was trying to unpick what the Brown Betty was, because there have been so many versions. It's this vernacular, ubiquitous thing, and it's very difficult to pin down what actually makes a Brown Betty teapot.

The Brown Betty is ubiquitous to the degree where you wouldn’t even particularly think of it as a designed object.

Absolutely. It's an evolved object and because it's been made by so many different people – and because it has a very low perceived value – loads of different makers have at different times each added their own innovations or details. It's never had an original author, so it's a kind of early example of open-source design in the sense that so many people have built on this archetype over the years. No single maker has made it, and it's not been protected in the way that Vitra might protect an Eames design. But it is, without a doubt, one of the most recognisable objects in in British ceramics. It’s a cultural artefact as well as a design object.

Can you unpack its history a little bit?

Teapots first started coming over to the UK from China with the tea trade, and early on the pots were a secondary commodity to tea. Tea was expensive and the Dutch East India Company was actually the first body to start exporting it, which explains why Dutch potters are now cited as being a key catalyst for the development of the Staffordshire potteries. In around the mid- to late-1690s two Dutch brothers – John Philip Ellers and David Ellers – ended up in north Staffordshire making very small redware teapots from the local clay in imitation of the Chinese teapots that were being imported at that time. That Staffordshire red clay is the only clay native to the area, so it's a bit of a paradox that Stoke is now recognised for its whitewares, thanks to manufacturers like Wedgwood, Spode and Portmeirion. Pre-1695, red clay was seen as very low value, so the Ellers brothers refined the clay to imitate Chinese redware teapots. They elevated the quality of the material by sieving, blunging, refining, and turning it on the lathe to the point that they could sell what they were making for much more money. The level to which they refined it was a key catalyst for the proliferation of the industry.

What were the next steps in the teapot’s development?

As the value of tea dropped with competition between the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company – coupled with industrialisation and the repeal of a tea tax – the Brown Betty started to emerge in the mid-Georgian era, which is around the same time as lead glazing developed. By the early 1800s, there were tens of different makers producing Brown Betty teapots in various shapes and sizes, all of which seem to have been made from red clay. By [the mid 1800s] these teapots were associated with the working classes because the local material brought down the price of the object. In comparison to porcelain and bone china, the red clay was associated with vernacular, anonymous, everyday, utilitarian objects. Because of that, it became quite unstylish. The Betty was all about function. It was reduced down to its bare essentials, because it was just sold to perform a function. So, for instance, the spouts were often cut roughly, which you might think was a manufacturing defect. But that sharpness is actually designed to cut the flow of water and stop it dribbling down the outside. Similarly, the brown Rockingham glaze was selected to hide tea-stains. There are all these functional details, which the literature talks about as heralding some sort of proto-modernist idea.

When you began this project, what was the status of the Brown Betty?

People told me that the Brown Betty is no longer made in Staffordshire, but I found out that there was still one maker manufacturing this object at scale. I went to see these teapots, but it seemed to me that a lot of the functional high points in the object’s history weren't there anymore. Those details had been lost over the years, partly due to production processes changing; partly due to outsourcing; and partly due to no longer designing the objects around the constraints of the factory environment. For example, teapots initially had to be stacked in the factory to save space, so the lid was designed to invert itself into the pot such that the same lid was kept with the same pot throughout its journey. That detail had been lost. A lot of these losses were to do with outsourcing, because while the monetary value of the object has stayed relatively similar throughout its history, labour costs have increased. That put a shitload of pressure on manufacturers to focus on making teapots as quickly as possible, while still retaining the heritage aspect that had crept into the design. The idea of the object was retained, but a lot of the functional details that made it so successful in the first place were lost.

Your design process, in a way, became an act of recovery.

The Brown Betty has been a marginalised object, so it felt important to try and tell the comprehensive story. Initially, I was thinking about restyling the object to make it feel contemporary – I wanted to make it into a soft square or something. But midway through the process, I realised that the features which had made it so special had evolved for functional reasons. It didn't seem appropriate to restyle it, but I also didn't want the project to be purely about nostalgia or misinformed heritage. So I did try to bring the design up to date by adding an infuser and putting in a detail such that it drains when it's in the dishwasher. Those felt in keeping with the object, because the Brown Betty always been about working as well as possible.

You mentioned “misinformed nostalgia”. Were you concerned about working on an object that is seen as quintessentially British at a time when “Britishness” has been somewhat weaponised by Brexit?

At the time I was doing this project, Tristram Hunt had stepped down from his position as Stoke’s MP and there was a little bit of a worry that [former UKIP leader] Paul Nuttall was going to take the seat. I was working with this teapot while Paul Nuttall was wandering around in Harris tweed, doing this “British” thing and talking about “taking back” whatever he thinks Britain is. I thought “I hope this project isn’t appropriated as some sort of, ‘the demise of an industry and this is what happens when you get immigration’ bullshit or anything like that.” It became very important to me to position this object as a global story. What we perceive to be British is often not necessarily British.

As you mentioned, the history of the Brown Betty is multinational. It was informed by Chinese ceramics, Dutch brothers shaping production in Staffordshire …

Actually, those Dutch brothers weren’t even Dutch – they were Germans who had moved to Britain from Holland. So it’s an immigration story. You’ve also got the influence of the places that the different teas were coming from; the subsequent mass exportation of these teapots across the Commonwealth; and then the situation today in which you have copies of the Brown Betty being made in China. It’s been quite difficult to identify the identity of this object, because an important part of the project has been outlining that many important aspects of that identity may not necessarily have been original. Chinese teapots were originally copied by Europeans, but after about 100 years those copies evolved into a completely new, distinct object. A lot of the shapes in a Brown Betty evolved out of the qualities of the clay in Staffordshire – they're quite chunky because terracotta is naturally a more brittle material – so some of the story has been about pinning the evolution of the object to the quality of the Staffordshire clay. I’m trying to foreground the sense of place in terms of this object emerging out of that clay, but the object's identity has also been shaped by cultural exchange. It’s important to acknowledge that.