Alison Appleton is a British luxury teaware designer who has designed sets and ranges for iconic companies and retailers including Harrods, Marks & Spencer, and Twinings. Her interest in Chinese tea drinking culture has influenced her pot designs since early in her career. Her very first range, called Darcy, was an homage to British Chinoiserie and featured peonies and other traditional imagery, and she works directly with Chinese craftsmen on her finishes and glazes. Today, Appleton designs hybrid teapots that she successfully sells in both China and the West.
When first starting out in teaware design, Alison Appleton noticed that while the Western market was full of high quality, functional teaware, there was little available that celebrated the culture of tea drinking. “Originally, my main focus was to do a job, and to arrive at the designs that I arrived at, through thinking about the history of tea drinking around the world,” she explains. “I wanted to investigate the relationship between China and the West because when tea first came to Europe through the Dutch East India Trading Company, Ming porcelain came with it. At that time, everybody was using small, beautiful Jingdezhen pots. Eventually the British teapot as we know it today came along, and I was really interested in that shift.”
Today, Appleton is participating in a similar shift in China. Following a partnership with an importer from Dehua in Fujian Province, she began selling select ranges into the Chinese market around three years ago. “While the majority of people in China still drink their regional teas, and they still have very strong regional customs in terms of tea drinking, Chinese people are now starting to look at different kinds of teas and drinking them in different ways,” she says. While she does not believe Chinese consumers are going to, nor believes they necessarily should, make a leap from the traditional Chinese tea sets to the large, round Brown Betty teapot that is commonplace in England she is confident there is room for something in between the two. “I entered this market because I looked into the history of tea drinking around the world and discovered that it all came from China, and I discovered that China influenced the West so much. It was the result of an investigation into the fusion of cultures rather than just trying to attract the Chinese consumers,” she explains.
While Appleton feels that designers need to create what they believe in, and what they are passionate about, when it comes to designing teaware for the Chinese market, she says, designers need to be aware of what not to do. “Some colours are obviously preferred over others,” she advises. “This is a very simplistic example, but red and yellow are typically very well received.” Another hiccup included decorating teapots with an odd number of images such as three rather than two chopsticks. She was advised that this was a not well liked by Chinese consumers. The size of the teaware must also be taken into consideration. “In general, I try and make pots and sets smaller. Although my teapots are bigger than traditional Chinese teapots, they’re still not as big as a Western pot.”
That Appleton’s larger teapots are proving popular in the Chinese market is indicative of a shift in taste. “It’s obviously a changing market,” Appleton notes, “and it’s a market that’s looking towards the West. The culture is changing and becoming something new: it’s a sort of hybridization of the East and the West.” The Chinese market is an original and very dynamic market, she continues. “The opportunities and benefits for designers lie in the fact that it’s so big and so fast-moving. It’s also a new, young market in terms of accepting very idiosyncratic designs. In this market, a design can be valuable simply because it’s original, and because it’s presenting a new idea or aesthetic that people haven’t seen before.”
About Alison Appleton
A graduate of Liverpool College of Art, Alison Appleton established her British Ceramic Design Studio in 1998, from which she created a range of high quality tea and coffee products sold in John Lewis, Harrods, Anthropologie, Crate & Barrel, Zara Home, and Marks & Spencer. She is also a ‘name’ designer at La Cafetiere. Appleton has travelled widely and forged international partnerships, but is particularly inspired by Eastern tea culture. A key partner is Mr. Liu, a ceramics expert from Dehua in Fujian Province, China, who she works with to create the fine finishes and bespoke glazes her collections require. Appleton has been retailing under her own brand, Alison Appleton, since 2012. In 2013, she was awarded an Innovation Award from Merseyside Women of the Year, and in 2014, she was named an Export Champion by UK Trade and Investment.