A new cup of tea

Jun 2, 2004 at 12:00 am

Taking part in a coffee break or putting aside the day’s labor for a spot of tea are rituals that few of us would care to be rid of. Whatever liquid is extolled, whatever culture is slurping it down, the escape that those precious moments warrant us are all that keep us sane and centered. A charge of caffeine, bathing in clouds of steam and sugar and milk, represent the universal dope that we happily inject when we’re down, when we’re tired, when we need to clear our heads and rejuvenate our souls. Yet how do most Americans choose to partake in the ancient ritual? By tossing the stuff in paper cups, or swilling it out of mugs embossed with the name of the local plumbing supply company. We decant the liquid into cardboard, then hop back into our rides, praying we don’t hit a bump. This won’t fly in other countries of the world, where the exalted fluids are enjoyed in slower, grander fashion. It’s not taken for granted that in this respite, this ceremonial act, something profoundly civilized and humane is taking place.

OK, so this may all seem breathlessly and unnecessarily hyperbolic to those who just want a damn cup of coffee to facilitate consciousness in the morning. There may be little ritual or beauty or design in the way most of us take our joe or tea. We couldn’t care less if our brew is stirred by a perfect and delicate spoon, or if our teapots make statements about the latest in architectural or design philosophy. We just want a buzz — something to get us through the day. Nonetheless, the Architects’ Tea and Coffee Towers exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum is a fascinating marriage of function and beauty, of design and utility, taking the ordinary and usual and imbuing them with a deep and provocative meaning.

Cranbrook is the second stop on a national tour of work originally commissioned by the Italian design house, Alessi, known for high-end restaurant and home products. Alessi challenged 20 architects and architectural firms to fabricate their concept of how tea and coffee should be served. Sounds pretty mundane, huh? Doesn’t sound like it should be housed in an art museum, does it? Seems like a shopping mall would be a more appropriate setting. Well, you couldn’t be more wrong. Some of the hottest and most innovative architects from Japan and Hong Kong and Europe and Australia as well as the good old U.S.A. took their assignment to heart, creating some of the most beautiful, challenging, simple, complicated, and amusing objects d’art to hit this town in a long time. Made from an amazing array of materials, chiseled and honed and machined, these tea and coffee sets will work on you in a myriad of ways.

Although many of the works are shocking in their abstract treatment of such simple and homey tools, all are fully functional. American architect and artist Vito Acconci’s piece seems to be nothing more than a semi-transparent ball. It could be a scale model of an extraterrestrial spacecraft or an incredibly sophisticated puzzle. Everything for a tea service is contained within its curvaceous and elegant structure. The cups and saucers and containers for milk and sugar all fit within its cool geometry. Englishman Will Alsop’s contribution is more playful, more colorful. The whole set is contained within a box with handles on each end. Sprouting from the box are the implements necessary for the practice of tea drinking, poking out like a child’s tool kit. The box contains other boxes, each one a necessary adjunct to the whole process.

One of the sets that screams “architect!” is a set of silver towers, coated in red thermoplastic resin created by Dutch architect Wiel Arets. These are 4-foot-high structures that could be a miniature Bauhaus housing project. The boxes contain the “pot” from which the beverages would be poured, dripping from the spout which is flush with the face of the block. Another set that contains the spirit of modern architecture is Zaha Hadid’s “sculpture” that spreads over the space it occupies like hot, molten silver. You may want to invest in the show catalogue that Cranbrook has for sale to really understand how this piece functions. What looks like an inseparable globule of metal, untwists into all the necessary accoutrements for tea time. It’s a stunning and artful work.

Keeping in the vein of “How are you supposed to drink out of that?” is American Greg Lynn’s giant titanium “flower.” This design is pure high-tech, obviously designed and formed incorporating the latest in manufacturing magic. If you’d like to ask him how one could succeed in getting this thing to serve tea, he’ll be giving a lecture Friday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m., part of a museum members opening reception for this exhibition.

You definitely won’t need a stiff cup of mud to keep your eyes open for this wildly creative, thought-provoking show.


See the Tea and Coffee Towers exhibit at the Cranbrook Art Museum (39221 N. Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills). This exhibit opens to the public Saturday, June 5, and runs through Aug. 15. Call 248-462-7262 for further information.

Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]