Meet ceramics designer Ian McIntyre

Over the last 300 years, the iconic Brown Betty teapot has been produced by various British manufacturers, who merged new and original features to create a constantly evolving design. The red ‘Etruria Marl’ clay from Staffordshire and the brown ‘Rockingham’ glaze have been the only two elements of the Brown Betty’s appearance which have remained consistent throughout the centuries.

The Chitra Collection was recently gifted a contemporary edition of the classic Brown Betty teapot, designed by Ian McIntyre. A ceramics designer from Leeds, Ian has been working towards his PhD in collaboration with Cauldon Ceramics of Staffordshire, the oldest manufacturer of Brown Betty teapots in the UK, to create a ‘re-engineered’ design that unites the best features of previous versions. We invited Ian to see the Chitra Collection and asked him some questions about his work.

What drew you to ceramics in the first place?

I first studied a BA in 3D Design before completing my MA in applied art at the Royal College of Art. My strengths are as a maker, really, and I always wanted to work as a designer for production. One of the reasons why I originally started working in ceramics was because it gave me a closeness to material, I felt I could make and innovate by working directly with the material rather than designing on a computer and sending files away.

Ceramics relies on an immense amount of craft skill, but it’s produced in industrial volumes, which really interested me. I think my practice sits at the confluence of craft and design, because I generally start with pushing a material to its limit and innovating with a process, and I will then apply that to a shape or a factory that I think would best suit.

How did your collaboration with Cauldon Ceramics come about?

I came across a funded PhD program to focus on Staffordshire and how this area emerged as the centre for British ceramics manufacture. The funding partners of the PhD wanted to place me in Stoke-on-Trent, to see how I might work with one of the more traditional manufacturers. It was up to me decide what direction that would take.

I wanted to focus on functional objects of everyday use, and looking at the history of Stoke and Staffordshire, it seemed to me that this area experienced immense innovation and skill in the late 1600s. Now, this area relies on history and nostalgia, which is less about innovating and more about trading cultural capital. Focusing on the genesis of Staffordshire’s industry, it became clear that the red Etruria Marl clay was the keystone material to Staffordshire, the only native clay to the area, and from which functional objects like the Brown Betty were made.

This narrative started to emerge from my research, and then I found out that Cauldon Ceramics was the last in a long line of ceramics manufacturers making traditional redware in Stoke-on-Trent today. People weren’t really aware that Brown Betty teapots were still being made in the UK! A lot of examples on the market are now made in Thailand, from a white clay with a fake Rockingham (brown) glaze. Quite key details were lost as techniques changed, outsourcing became prevalent, and knowledge of manufacturing processes were made redundant. Really, the beginning of the project was re-positioning what the Brown Betty is to the history of ceramics, and why it is so significant to Stoke-on-Trent.

What fascinates you about the Brown Betty?

That it tells a global story. You often hear about Stoke today as being associated with overseas imports, or Chinese factories copying British designs, but it was really important to me to acknowledge this history that the Europeans were originally copying from China, which you can very easily forget or tend to overlook. Red ware teapots were first produced in Staffordshire in the late 1600’s, from refined red Etruria Marl clay native to Staffordshire. The use of refined red clay is directly influenced by Yixing teapots, made in China during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Though they may not have been the first, it was actually two Dutch brothers, John Philip and David Elers, who take much of the credit for refining the red clay in Staffordshire and did so with such skill that they were able to successfully imitate the original Yixing teapots coming from China into Europe.

When the project started to emerge, I realised that not only was this object on the way out, marginalised and low-value, but it was also unclear as to what an ‘original’ is, and how we re-position that in ceramics history. To do that, I wanted to focus on the rich history of the clay, talk about why it is so relevant, and build that up into the packaging of the Brown Betty.

What were the difficulties you faced in creating the ultimate Brown Betty design?

To not impose my own aesthetic, allowing instead a culmination of 300 years of history to inform the detailing of the object. The idea was really to reposition the object’s value, to re-introduce some of its key points in its history, taking from earlier patents from the lineage of Brown Betty makers, and to redesign processes in the factory to make it easier to ‘make’. I didn’t want this project to become an egotistical or aesthetic pursuit. I wanted to acknowledge the fact that un-authored, everyday objects can be better than something that has been stylised. The Brown Betty is very unassuming, and there is a lot to be said for that. 

What did you learn about tea’s history through your research?

I found it really interesting to learn that a lot of the porcelain teapots exported from China were used as ballast to weigh down the trading ships, and that tea leaves were at one point much more expensive than porcelain. I don’t think we realise that tea is a commodity that was once incredibly hard to access, we just take it for granted. I think that’s in the same vein as the Brown Betty: you take it for granted, you recognise it, you might be familiar with it from seeing it in your granny’s cupboard, but there’s a lot to it that is as special as an object that is incredibly ornate.

What is your favourite object in the Chitra Collection?

The leather teapot case! It looks like it’s made of mahogany, it has a lot of character. It seems useless today, but I can imagine that this would have been commissioned by someone really eccentric, who would want to have their silver teapot wherever they go, to be able to take it to their country residence whilst avoiding any damage to it from their rickety travels.