A few years ago, when I was a mature student studying for my B A Illustration Degree, I wrote the following essay in 2011. Our brief was to describe a designed object in a museum collection. I chose the Bodum Assam Tea Press and I feel many of the observations still stand. I would really appreciate any comments and comparisons you may have about tea brewing implements of the past and present day.
“The Bodum Assam Tea Press (fig.1) is located in the ‘Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999’ cabinet (fig. 2), Gallery 5 at the Science Museum. I find it is interesting that a teapot, which has a history going back well over a thousand years, is displayed as an innovative product of the final years of the 20th century in a museum of Science.
Is it regarded as an innovative product because of how it looks? Also, although displayed in a cabinet featuring products made in the past 25 years, does it maintain a respect for the rituals and traditions of our British tea drinking culture? And, is it an effective functional object that is relevant to life today?
The physical structure of the Tea Press
The outer body of the Bodum Assam Tea Press retains the familiar fat-belly shape of a traditional tea pot (fig 3) that has long since been regarded as essential for allowing space for the leaves to brew.
It is made of borosilicate glass, a thermal shock resistant glass consisting of silica, alumina, calcium sodium oxide and boric oxide, which was invented primarily for industrial use. In addition to the glass pot there is a removable central plastic column punctured with holes except for the bottom three centimetres, and a vacuum plunger (fig 4). When this is depressed, the contents of the sealed-off base section of central column become isolated from the liquid in the pot. It was designed Carsten Jorgensen for Bodum, the Swiss glass manufacturing company.
Because it is made of glass, the Bodum Assam Tea Press “has its own inherent ‘decoration’ – the beautiful colour of the tea seen through the glass”(a). The audience can participate in the thrill of watching the dry leaves unfurl and the colour of the liquor intensifying as it brews (fig 5).
How its design was influenced by earlier makers
It is worth noting the similarity and influence of the teapot (fig. 6), designed by Wilhelm Wagenfeld in 1932 for Jenaer Glaswork Schott and Gen, a revival of which was also marketed by Bodum in the early 1990s. Likewise it can be seen that Jorgensen’s Teaball teapot (fig. 7), described as being of ‘beautiful simplicity and excellent materials for everyday life’(b), is highly evocative of Marianne Brandt’s silver tea infuser (fig 8). Both endorse the influence of Modernism on Jorgensen’s work. In addition, the clean, almost perfect spherical tea pot shape with the pared back spout reflect ‘the smooth surfaces and precise geometric shapes associated with the International Style that continued to surface in new examples of aesthetic purity in design’(c) of the late twentieth century.
The beauty and ceremony of the Bodum Tea Press
Being made of glass, The Bodum Assam Tea Press fulfils our fascination with the visual aspects of tea brewing whilst the ‘engineered’ look of the central perforated brewing chamber intimates a forthcoming sense of theatre and the ceremony of brewing tea.
This sense of ceremony was highly important when tea was first arrived in Europe and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was a highly expensive and sought-after luxury enjoyed only by the fashionable rich elite strata of society. You can still see contemporary portraits (fig 9, right) of families drinking tea.
These paintings were an important indicator of status and high fashion. The expensive tea paraphernalia: tea pot, sugar bowl, kettle, slop bowl, and delicate tiny tea cups, often made of silver, delicate porcelain and later bone china, were equally important for the sense of occasion, the tea often only being drunk perhaps once or twice a week.
Social status or intellectual prowess?
Today the emphasis of the ceremony has shifted from the social status of the hostess pouring the tea, to the intellectual status of the teapot owner. His ownership signifies his superior knowledge of high quality (and no doubt expensive) tea leaves. The contents of the pot are on display, indicating a high quality leaf and quite unlike the opaque bag containing an unknown, invisible tea dust (figs 10 & 11) that is consumed by more than 90% of the UK’s black tea drinking population.
We then come to the functionality…
The Bodum Assam Tea Press’s most prominent feature is the central filter system. In a comparison about tea pots, Robin Harrison, the then chairman of the Tea Brokers’ Association and director of Thompson, Lloyd & Ewart tea brokers, said: “The ability to isolate the tea leaves from the liquor easily was a serious advantage over the others (teapots). It prevented the tea stewing”(d).
Another benefit of this teapot is its lightness and its strength, both features being due to being made of glass. With its 1.5 litre capacity it is possible to make a large quantity of tea that can sit until required without stewing. The full pot can also be lifted with ease using one hand by the person pouring the tea. With the transition of the twentieth century we no longer embrace the ‘Victorian values of display’ and when ‘the availability of cheap servants enabled formal rituals of eating and organised leisure to develop in the home’(e). The pot is designed to hold a high volume of tea thus eliminating the need to go back and forth to the kettle to make a new brew.
The one area of functionality that Jorgensen did not improve in terms of efficiency was the cleaning after use. We no longer have the cheap servants and ‘someone’ has to empty the leaves out of the narrow chamber, a fiddly exercise that uses copious amounts of water to rinse them out and clog up the sink drain because , after use the leaves are no longer controlled, the brewing function being over. I find this too onerous for everyday use. Perhaps here we have a case of style over function.
In conclusion, Jorgensen has created a product that has strong visual intrigue and also respects the importance of brewing techniques. I feel it has been designed by a man for men and certainly to this end you can find it in John Lewis and Selfridges department stores costing between thirty to fifty pounds (depending on the materials used for the internal filter column). It is one of those household products that are ‘not only functional but pieces of sculpture – true objects of desire’(f). It will probably sit alongside a Philippe Stark orange squeezer and Nespresso coffee maker.
Sadly I fear the desire of a cup of delicious tea is limited. Society is now driven by the need for instant gratification, which a tea bag provides; instant colour in the cup and the flavour is almost irrelevant. The art of making good tea is being forgotten and is no reflection on the Bodum Assam Tea Press. It is down to our inability to wait for a mere four minutes to create the perfect brew.“
Do you have any questions about the Bodum Assam Tea Press or anything else around the use of tea pots today? Perhaps you have other questions that relate to English tea drinking culture, both past and present? Please let me know. Every question sets me off on another quest!
Fig. 1. Bodum Assam Tea Press, courtesy of the Science Museum Picture Library, London.
Fig. 2. Bodum Assam Tea Press in the cabinet entitled Making the modern World 1990 – 1999, Gallery 5, Science Museum, London.
Fig. 3. Brown Betty teapot.
Fig. 4. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Picture courtesy of the Science Museum.
Fig. 5. Bodum Assam Tea Press. Filled with tea to illustrate the colour change as it brews.
Fig. 6. Image of tea pot manufactured by Jenaer Glaswerke Schott & Gen, 1932. Designer: Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Materials: Borosilicate Glass.
Fig. 7. Assam Teaball tea pot by Bodum 1998. Stainless steel, Bronze and Plastic. 1.5 litre capacity tea pot for use with loose tea leaves, made in Germany, designed by Carsten Jorgensen. Image from Power House Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
Fig. 8. Silver and Ebony tea infuser. Designer Marianne Brandt, 1924. British Museum London. Twentieth Century Gallery.
Fig. 9. The Tea Party, early 18th century. This painting attributed to Richard Collins, hangs in the Goldsmiths’ Hall, London.
Fig 10. Dry tea leaves: Loose leaf early season darjeeling leaves on the left. Contents of darjeeling teabag on right.
Fig. 11. Wet tea leaves after brewing: Loose leaf early season darjeeling on the left, the leaf is clear to see having now unfurled. On the right we have the brewed teabag leaves, difficult to identify as being tea leaves.
– Science Museum, London. Ground Floor, Gallery 5, cabinet entitled “Making the Modern World 1990 – 1999”
– John Lewis Department Store.
– British Museum.
Secondary Sources and footnotes:
(a) Heath, Adrian, Heath, Ditte, Lund Jensen, Aage, 300 Years of Industrial Design, Function, Form, Technique 1700 – 2000, Herbert Press, London 2000. p261.
(b) Production notes, Teaball teapot, Powerhouse Museum Collection, Sydney, Australia.
(c) Raizman, David, History of Modern Design, Laurence King, London 2003. Design in Context: An Act of Balance p364.
(d) Metzstein,Ruth, One for the Pot, How do new types of teapot compare with the round-bellied pot our grandmothers used? Our panel finds out. Independent on Sunday, 3rd September 1995.
(e) & (f) McDermott, Catherine, Twentieth Century Design, Design Museum, Carlton, London 1997.