The Jug That Cheers
Not all objects are designed, in the way we understand the term today. Some artifacts are created without art, simply to meet a need, often by people who would never consider themselves creative.
In the evolution of all objects there must be a moment when something shifts, when those who’ve been generating, The Thing, move it on with the addition of some new thing that just looks good, or perhaps the subtraction of some other thing that suddenly feels superfluous. It’s a conscious decision to make changes not utilitarian, but aesthetic. It is better not by accident but by design.
That design adds something intangible, but magical. The object is improved: sleeker, wider, fatter, slimmer, brighter, lighter, more useable. The user feels compelled to pick it up.
I felt this urge when I took very temporary possession of a small basalt milk jug. It was a loan I wanted to extend indefinitely because having spent a lifetime using containers for the storage and controlled distribution of liquids; I was unexpectedly enlivened by this one.
Josiah Wedgwood was arguably the world’s first designer of homewares. He grew up in Stoke on Trent and went into the family works with a huge advantage: he was disabled. His gammy leg made it painful for him to work the kick-wheel used to throw pots. He turned instead to design and marketing.
Like all British potters the family made earthenware objects for a public unaware of design. Sometimes a salt glaze added some shine, or a handle might daringly bow more than usual, but these were utilitarian containers.
Josiah saw a gap and made a leap as significant as the one made in his garage by Steve Jobs. Wedgwood saw that the emerging middle classes wanted something to show their understanding of form as well as function to neighbours, ceramics that contained but also entertained. That were attractive.
This little jug does the job perfectly. Unlike those modern stainless-steel catering teapots, for example, it pours without drip or spill. The handle fits comfortably into the palm and the wrist inclines with ease even as the last drop crests the lip of the wide, delicately curved spout.
Cherubim cavort around the sides perhaps providing for customers who hadn’t undergone the Grand Tour, who sat by a fireplace after Adam, but couldn’t put an Italian landscape in oils on the mantel, but who knew élan when they saw it.
This vessel does more than stylishly prevent spilt milk. Wedgwood made his name with fine creamware, sold it to royalty and spun it, gave it backstory by calling it Queensware, and let lesser mortals feel the glow of regal association whenever they took tea. The rotund man with the limp then sat and watched his customers in his Wardour Street emporium. He saw that the decision to buy his china was made by young women. He saw also the whiteness of hands that said we don’t do dishes, cooking or child-suckling.
So he re-cast his creamware in blackest basalt, so that while picking it up and using it, hands would look whiter, skin paler, teeth brighter. The inside of this matt-black vessel, so precious, so cherishable that it arrived on my Charles Eames Aluminium Group table unchipped or cracked, around 230 years after it was created, is glazed so the milk too looks purer. I hesitate to say it, but poured from this fabulous design object, it seems to taste better too.
Josiah made a great leap forward in design evolution, fitting for the man who would become Charles Darwin’s grandfather. But here’s the question: does being first make him a greater designer than those who come after?