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From Texas To Yorkshire Via The Finest Teapot In The World

Now here’s a virtually true story about a Texan, a teapot and the Yorkshire Moors.

On a baking hot day under the relentless Texas sun, a young boy stood with a clipboard in one hand and a sharp pencil in the other. He was wearing the uniform of a military school and his mission was to fill a page of plain white paper with vertical parallel lines. Freehand! This was the very early 1950s and boys still did as they were told. When he had finished the job, he repeated the exercise, this time drawing horizontal lines until the page looked like graph paper.

To a sensitive, creative boy, this was a miserable ordeal but many years later when he was studying architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, this skill was immensely useful and very much admired. In the mid 1960s, he went on to work in the office of Walter Gropius’s private practise The Architects’ Collaborative (TAC) which Gropius had established in 1945 with seven young architects who went on to become some of America’s most influential.

At that time, Gropius was working on a design of a tea set for Rosenthal in Germany. Drawings and models were sent by post and a parcel containing a prototype would come back a few weeks later. Each drawing and every prototype was kept on a shelf in the office and as the samples were returned and modifications made, the shelf became a comprehensive and accurate archive with a time line showing the development and refinement of the design.

Eventually, Gropius was happy with the final version and called for his assistant to bring him a hammer. He was about to smash all the models and tear up the drawings when his young protégé pleaded with him to keep the whole collection as a brilliant record of the development of a design from its conception to the final production version. Gropius put an experienced hand warmly on the young man’s shoulder and explained that it would be better to be remembered for the success of the final design than be remembered for all the earlier failures. He then turned and destroyed his earlier efforts.

The “TAC”  tea set is still produced today and has been repeatedly described as “probably the most beautiful tea service ever produced.”  It also embodies Groipius’s principle that “design is neither an intellectual nor a material affair but simply an integral part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilised society.”  The teapot is perfectly balanced and easy to pour whether full or virtually empty. The cup is shallow and the handle just right for a hand to hold; the rim is fine yet not fragile so drinking from it is pure pleasure. Drama is created by contrasting the bright white china cup with the mat black saucer.  The two-tone mat and shiny glazes of the black teapot may be difficult to produce but create shadows in just the right places and textures and lines that are gorgeous.

That was only one of many lessons that the young architect learnt at TAC but he soon left to forge a successful career for himself in New York. Many years later, retirement beckoned and the much older architect sat down with his wife to decide where to live. They no longer needed to be in New York. Their children had grown up and moved to different parts of America. He was of course from Texas and his wife originally from the Mid West so many of their ties to New York ended with his withdrawal from commercial life. It didn’t take them long to work out that Rome was where they should live and grow old together. They had visited several times and always yearned to be able to stay longer.

So, off they went to Rome but after a few blissful months, they began to realise that Rome was their favourite place to visit but not the place for their home. They set off, driving north without any regrets and with a definite tinge of adventure, certain that they would know the place to settle when they found it.

A couple of months later, on a damp, dark and very miserable windy night in November, they arrived in the Victorian spa town of Ilkley, nestled between the Northern Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales. The rain was lashing down and they opened the car window just wide enough to shout at a man rushing through the dreary streets to ask if he could recommend a hotel. He gave them a name and pointed them in the right direction and hurried on home. Once inside, he related this brief encounter to his wife who was horrified by his suggestion as that hotel had seen far better days a long, long time ago and her husband should have known it! `She immediately insisted that they go to the hotel to apologise and redirect them to somewhere better.

When they reached the hotel, it was too late. The Americans had checked in and were frankly quite surprised at their appearance and this sudden change of mind. However, to make amends, the Americans were invited back home for dinner where they discovered that they had much in common. The rain soaked local was also a retired architect and 
both couples adored Rome and had spent much time there. All their respective children had grown up and moved far away and none of them liked cold, wet, dark autumn nights in Yorkshire.

After a thoroughly lovely evening with their new friends, the Americans went back to their hotel and slept like babies only to awake in the morning to a vivid blue sky and a low but powerful sun shining brightly. They looked out of the window and saw the moors for the very first time and instantly agreed that this was the place for them!

And they lived there happily ever after.