The Brown Betty was revitalised by Ian McIntyre in 2017. Image: Angela Moore.

Golden Brown

04.09.17. Crafts

‘It sums up so much about the history of the ceramics industry, our culture, the way that everything comes from loads of different places but is quintessentially British. It’s so rational and unassuming and un-styled. It’s timeless. It’s a really beautiful object.’ Designer Ian McIntyre and I are standing in the middle of Cauldon Ceramics’ factory floor in Stoke-on-Trent as he rhapsodises over the Brown Betty.

And we’re surrounded by them in various states of manufacture – in front of us is a cluster of moulds full of red Etruria Marl slip, to our right unfired tea pots wait to go into the kiln, on the other side pieces are being trimmed and tidied (or fettled), while behind us the finished product is stacked on shelves, with trays of lids sitting nearby. It might all seem a little bit ramshackle; however, McIntyre is keen to point out that production is more organised than it looks. ‘Because it’s such a small space and they’re pushing out such a volume of pots (Cauldon makes around 300 pots a day), it looks slightly chaotic but everything is quite streamlined,’ he tells me. ‘All the moulds dry around the kilns during the evening. Everything runs into the kilns then out the back for glazing.’ That said, the factory’s most striking feature is the film of red dust that envelops everything from the pile of glazed butter dishes to the office printer. You can seeing it hanging in the air as the sun streams through the roof lights and hours after I’ve left it’s still catching in my throat. You sense this is a business in need of a shot in the arm, which, in part, is why the pencil-thin, 33-year-old is here.

McIntyre is a ceramic designer whose output straddles the boundary between industry and conceptual art. In 2012, for instance, he designed a collection of tableware for the British brand Another Country, while three years later he was selected for Jerwood Makers Open with his installation A Ton of Clay, made up of stacked plates and bowls, taking its inspiration from the production potter Isaac Button, who, it was alleged, was able to throw a ton of clay in a single day.

He became fascinated with the traditional British tea pot when interning in the office of Robin Levien during 2009. The venerable industrial designer took out a Brown Betty and challenged his interns to improve it. ‘I sat there for two months trying to figure out how to make an object better than this,’ he recalls, holding one in his hand. ‘I’ve never designed a tea pot before pretty much because of this. I just didn’t see the point.’ The piece has become an obsession and he admits to possessing a collection of 28 different versions.

All of which begs the question of exactly what it is that makes the product so special? Well, for a start there’s the globe-shaped body which is the perfect shape to allow the tea to diffuse; the Etrurian Marl earthenware retains heat, so the tea will stay warmer for longer; the brown Rockingham glaze covers tea stains as well as potential imperfections in manufacture. It’s inexpensive, functional and pretty elegant to boot – less a classic and more an archetype in fact. Yet, its sheer ubiquity (as well as the fact that it rapidly established itself as the tea pot for the working classes) has often led to it being overlooked. And the fact that it retails so cheaply means margins are necessarily tight, with reproductions often coming from overseas where labour costs can be kept lower than in Stoke.

The designer’s research into the product began with an exhibition at the Air Gallery during the British Ceramics Biennial in 2015 and has since blossomed into a PhD, sponsored by the BCB, York Art Gallery, Manchester School of Art and, latterly, Cauldon. As well as uncovering the product’s history, he has also set about creating a new, limited-edition version which, he believes, reinstates and refines the best elements from its past – over time the piece has gone through subtle, often unmapped, changes. As he points out, the Brown Betty ‘has not necessarily been developed by a designer. It has been evolved by a businessman, or a craftsman or a trader… Historically that has allowed it to evolve in a way that’s about pure function, not a designer re-styling its aesthetics. In recent years though the makers of the object have sought to retain its nostalgic features rather than its functionality. Part of the project I’ve been doing is to look at the precedents within the industry in terms of the most functional object and develop a pot around that.’

To do this, he followed a trail that started at the end of the seventeenth century when the Dutch brothers John Philip and David Elers arrived in Bradwell Woods, North Staffordshire and used the indigenous red clay to create work that could compete with the Yixing teapots imported from China by the East India Company. Until this point the area’s potteries were small outfits, producing crude wares for the local farming community. The Elers’ work was expensive but became the catalyst for the industrialisation of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent. And it was from here that the Brown Betty emerged, becoming ‘the people’s pot’.

Arguably the most innovative period of the pot’s history was when it was manufactured by Alcock Lindley and Bloore, from which the current Cauldon design emanates. The firm was bought by Royal Doulton in the seventies before being liquidated in 1979 and, according to McIntyre, its version of the pot passed through a number of companies such as Gem Pottery, Ascot Pottery and Caledonia Pottery before finding its current home.

Along this route, the designer realised that a number of its most important elements had been lost. Some of this can be put down to economic and technical reasons. At one time, for instance, the pot had a crude strainer inserted. When the Brown Betty was made in three pieces – handle, spout and globe – a potter would punch a grid of holes into the body before the spout was attached. However, after the pot began to be slip-moulded in one piece, saving time and money, the feature was lost, as was vital knowledge when production moved from company to company and country to country. As McIntyre points out: ‘It’s a problem with the way the Brown Betty has been marketed and produced over the last years. Essentially, since production has shifted overseas I suppose skill sets, knowledge and awareness of what the object is and how it is produced has changed.’

It’s an issue that Barney Hare Duke, director of the British Ceramics Biennial sees across the industry. ‘It’s not just losing control of production because it’s done overseas, it’s about the pursuit of the bottom line, trying to reduce down the costs of manufacture. The whole industry has suffered from that.’ Stoke’s decline may have been alleviated and production is increasing, yet, he says, there’s still plenty of work to be done. ‘The skills are very much here but there’s a real issue about how to replenish them.’

McIntyre sees his role as a historian, or perhaps even a guardian, rather than a typical designer. ‘There’s not really any need to re-design its aesthetics,’ he says. ‘It’s about re-instating historical precedents and also repositioning people’s perceptions of the product. This is a cheap vernacular object and that’s part of its charm, but it’s also part of the demise of the companies that have made it. There needs to be a sweet spot where it’s still accessible but it can be made in a way where it’s still profitable to be manufactured here.’ He describes the process as re-engineering, rather than re-designing very deliberately. ‘We spent ages thinking about that,’ he says. ‘It started off as a “new edition” and I didn’t like the idea that this was a new thing. Instead, it’s about re-appraising the object.’

While Cauldon (and others) sell their Brown Betty with a Union Jack sticker attached, the designer is keen on using the product’s antecedents rather more subtly. ‘The main re-positioning aspects of the object has got to be routed in the clay because that is how you place it in Staffordshire and not overseas,’ he explains. ‘Its features evolved out of that clay and the skill set of that period. We’re talking about the provenance of the object by taking a slightly more academic approach, I suppose.’

His new Brown Betty, developed using a combination of 3D printing and hand moulding, keeps the original rounded shape but brings back the kinked spout that Alcock Lindley and Bloore created in the 1920s, which prevents drips from running down the pot’s side. ‘What happens particularly with earthenware tea pots is that you’ll always get a drip. It’s not like porcelain where you get a sharpness to the spout that cuts the flow. This spout totally eliminates that.’ The lid also plays a vital role in the new pot. For a start it locks – however far you tip the pot (unless you turn it completely upside down) the top will remain on. This has also allowed him to add a loose-leaf diffuser, key to the Japanese market seemingly. It can also be inverted, while the handle and spout have been designed to sit below the pot’s collar, so pieces can be stacked on top of one another, saving vital space in the factory. Meanwhile, the return on the handle prevents knuckles being burned. Finally, a small cut-away on the circular foot of the pots lets water run away and means it can be put in the dish washer.  

The packaging is simple, bordering on austere. Created with Felix de Pass and Michael Montgomery, the product will come in a box wrapped in brown paper, suitable for postage to encourage more direct sales. Each face has a different caption that captures defining moments in the product’s history: the idea is that unfolded it becomes a poster.

So, I wonder, how will he judge the success of the project? He ponders for a moment. ‘First and foremost the success is to expose the Brown Betty as a culturally significant object. But ultimately it’s dictated by sales.’ Almost immediately though he adds a caveat. ‘I don’t expect this to sell in anywhere near the volumes as the classic spout would for Cauldon. It’s really about communicating to people what makes the Brown Betty so special.’ Do Cauldon and McIntrye have a hit on their hands? It seems to me that this is a smart, subtle piece of work, which retailing at around £28, is unlikely to break the bank, and will provide much-deserved attention to an under-valued product. It’s likely to bring Cauldon to an entirely new audience, which can only be a good thing.