Trust an avant-garde architect to turn a teapot into a tempest.
Give 22 cutting-edge architects that chance, and they will transform teapots and coffeepots, sugar bowls and cream pitchers into a storm of new forms.
Produce them in sterling silver and charge as much as $50,000 per set, and a storm of democratic protest ought to erupt. Before that happens, appreciate the project for what it is: an exploration of the brave new world of architecture, downsized for optimal viewing.
This is the story of Tea & Coffee Towers, an exhibition-quality experiment initiated by the Italian housewares company Alessi. It is the second in a series begun a generation ago with notable architects such as Michael Graves. Thanks to the inventive drift of contemporary architecture, the Towers are far more challenging than Alessi's first round. Since art is the point here, not affordability, that's a good thing. Reigning architectural stars such as Zaha Hadid, Gregg Lynn, Thom Mayne and Ben van Berkel were signed up, along with a roster of emerging talents from 10 countries. Each was asked to design a formal coffee or tea service, in keeping with those the company has been making since the 1920s. Company director Alberto Alessi thought "a suite of small objects impregnated with ancient rituals" made a worthwhile problem for his firm's guest designers. Alessi will produce the Towers in limited editions of 99.
Twenty of them will be exhibited next week in Milan, then embark on an American tour May 1 at the Max Protetch Gallery in New York. Alessi began circulating images shortly after Architectural Digest sized up the project for its well-heeled readers in the April issue.
Protetch, a former Washingtonian, rightly calls the Towers "architecture in silver." He believes the spirit, if not the passion for sterling, will filter down from design's stratosphere just as couture inspires ready-to-wear fashion.
"These ideas permeate," he argues. "There's only a heartbeat between the high end and the things that reach the rest of society." If so, spouts and handles are endangered species. The new tablescape will be defined by slashes, whirls, blobs and pillars, all signature elements of the most imaginative buildings rising today.
Take the sterling swoosh designed by Hadid. The London architect sculpts buildings and furniture in ways that, for decades, made her seem unbuildable. Her tea set resembles a glob of pulled taffy. The whole comes apart in pieces, like a three-dimensional puzzle. When assembled correctly, the set requires no tray.
Some architects saw urban skylines in the set of containers, but the most successful did not. Dutch architects van Berkel and Caroline Bos of UN Studio created a family of smooth, polished pet rocks on a flying-carpet tray.
Californian Thom Mayne's design is all deconstructivist angles, like his geometry-defying buildings. Gregg Lynn of FORM, another Californian, modeled a bulb of multicolored titanium, which unfolds into four pods like an exotic blossom. Australian Tom Kovac, whose architecture is driven by dynamic curves and waves, produced what looks like a carton of shrouded silver eggs.
Several designs are stunningly beautiful, making Alessi's point that functional products in the domestic realm can also be objects of art. Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima disguised his service as a bowl of polished silver pears. French architect Jean Nouvel designed a family of sleek black columns. British architect David Chipperfield relied for beauty on the timeless form of ancient vessels, then gave them a thoroughly modern asymmetric twist.
If design's new breed appears poised to propel breakfast to a more daring level, it's permissible to wonder if the marketplace is ready.
In 1979, Alessi issued a similar invitation, engaging 11 architects to design silver beverage services. The project was called Coffee and Tea Piazzas, a nod to the fact that classic architectural elements were being embraced and revived by a new generation of postmodern architects.
Four notable Americans were on the Piazza list: Graves, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier and Stanley Tigerman. The collaboration with Graves led eventually to a permanent design relationship and to the most famous teapot of all, the whimsical stainless-steel kettle with a bird on the spout.
The kettle became an icon of 1980s design consciousness. Who knows how the American design revolution might have started without it? But that success, repeated at Target stores (without Alessi), has made Graves a household name.
Whether Alessi's sequel will lead to a mass-market product is less sure. Postmodern kitsch was sweet and easy to swallow. Avant-garde architecture, however dazzling, is not yet the proletariat's cup of tea.
"Through the glamour and glitz, we were able to seduce a bigger audience into being interested in architecture," says Protetch. "This set, even more than the last, talks about the issues of contemporary architecture, the new materials, the relationship of computers to design, the possibility of designing more fluid and organic architecture."
But not everything imaginable is possible. The Alessi factory has been stymied by a design from the brilliant Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, creator of cardboard refugee shelters as well as a house surrounded by curtains instead of walls. Ban designed a set of columns at such artful slants that fabricators have yet to complete them, which may be just as well. Confronting a complicated pot may be more challenge than should be required at the start of anyone's day.
For a look at the complete collection of Coffee & Tea Towers as well as the original Coffee and Tea Piazza, visit Alessi online at www.alessi.it. For the Max Protetch Gallery, visit www.maxprotetch.com.