Monday at the Museum: Taking Tea at the Met


Monday seems like the perfect day of the week to dive down the proverbial rabbit hole, perhaps into a museum’s collection. There are plenty of items awaiting individual discovery, like these eleven tea-related objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

First, a tea service by Eero Saarinen’s father, Eliel. This futuristic set would sit pretty in any mid-century home, with its retro-futuristic orb design, though it predates the design fad by 20-odd years. Crafted out of electroplated nickel silver, brass, and Bakelite, its modern appearance matches an equally modern material composition. This was interesting find number one of chosen tea paraphernalia in the Met collection. Also on the list are a Washingtonian heirloom, a tea pot the size (and appearance) of a log, and a rose quartz tea service of yuppies’ dreams.


2. A teapot fit for an afternoon with Alice


Made by the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” George Ohr, this teapot looks like it could have come from Lewis Carroll’s imagination. Though it as though it may hail from no earlier than the mid-century, Ohr created works like these at the turn of the 20th-century–long before abstract expressionism took off in the 50s and 60s. This pot draws parallels between sea-life, especially barnacles and red-fleshed shellfish, which might not be far from Ohr’s inspiration for the piece, as he was a native of coastal Biloxi, Mississippi.


3. A final resting place for tea, by a Revolutionary patriot


Some are, and some are not, aware that patriot Paul Revere earned his living as silversmith. This tea urn is particularly special; at a whopping 111 ounces, it is the largest, as well as the oldest, of only three known tea or coffee urns ever produced by Revere. He topped the object with a pineapple–the symbol of hospitality–and crafted the tap out of ivory. The urn belonged to the Rowes of Boston; John Rowe infamously incited the anti-Stamp Act riot that destroyed a Chief Justice’s home, and one of his cargo ships held tea tossed in the harbor during the Boston Tea Party (of which he was aware and possibly helped plan).


4. A bejeweled Kazakh miniature teapot, complete with falcon spout


The Met marks the artist of this piece as unknown, as well as its origin. Attributed to Central Asia (most likely Kazakhstan), a highly-skilled craftsman made this miniature teapot ornament sometime during the 20th century.  Snake and bird-style spouts and handles, like these, figure prominently in Islamic artistic history, explaining their presence. It is entirely crafted in silver with fire-gilded plate and the addition of carnelian cabochon and turquoise accents.


5. Somewhere between object and objectification


Perhaps not the most politically correct objects in the Met’s collection, this porcelain sugar bowl and teapot combination bears modeled heads on the objects’ covers. On the sugar bowl, artist Karl Müller depicts the head of a supposed “sugarcane picker” to speak to the sugar’s origins, while the teapot has the head of a “Chinese man,” speaking to the origin of the tea inside. This set was made in Brooklyn, New York, by Union Porcelain Works in 1876. Things were slower tto change post-Civil War in the North than many may realize; ne wonders how household help might have felt when replenishing the sugar and picking up the cover by the head.


6. Variation on a teapot


This is a tea pot made out of wood, one would guess. But one would be wrong. It is, in fact, stoneware. Made by Taiwanese artist and craftsman Ah-Leon in 1994, the sculpture does not function as an actual teapot and was sold as a purely artistic object.


7. A lesson in how to make the teapot American


Family tradition says this neoclassical teapot was a gift to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eleanor, and her husband–George Washington’s nephew–Lawrence Lewis, by Lafayette. It was part of set, bedecked by silver eagles–an appropriate symbol for extended members of America’s first family. The set was made in Philadelphia in the city’s last year as the capital of the United States.


8. A Chinese-inspired set representing the last of the reigning French

69.193.1-11 006

Perhaps the most traditional of the tea objects represented here, this beautiful Sèvres service is very similar to those given as diplomatic gifts by a brief (eventually exiled) Queen of France in the 19th-century, Maria Amalia. Marketed as a “Chinese service” for afternoon use, the set has but a few Chinese-inspired motifs, including the bamboo-modeled handles.


9. Original minimalism: a 12th-century tea bowl


This beautifully simplistic Jizhou ware tea bowl bears the design of a single leaf, and only two pigments–black and brown. Made by the Southern Song Dynasty sometime between the 12th and 13th centuries, this bowl gives some serious credence to the idea of the timelessness of certain styles.


10. Reinventing the tea set, 1980s-style


Mario Bellini created this service for Cleto Munari in 1980. Although trained as an architect, Bellini became famous for his product design, and one can see why. Crafted in silver and rose quartz, this set looks like it belongs in a 1980s celebrity home set among the hills of L.A.


11. Tea, with a side of Bauhaus


This teapot stands at only three inches high. Designed by Marianne Brandt, this object comes from the Bauhaus movement. The idea behind Bauhaus was to abandon ornamentation and find the greatest beauty in the severely simple. This teapot certainly achieves the movement’s goal, with its clean lines of silver and ebony. It is functional, once meant to hold a very concentrated brew of tea. With the addition of hot water to a cup, one could modify the strength of the tea.


All images: Copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art

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