Q&A: Forsythe+MacAllen’s Tea Lantern and Cups

Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen, Designers
Float tea lantern and cups, 2004
Molo Design

How did you get the idea for the design?
Design studies of our tea lantern began with an appreciation for Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Jena tea set, from around 1929, and the idea that a simple object, like a teapot, can define an intimate place of gathering or contemplation, with a quality of light, warmth, and fragrance.

It is the ambient quality of light and liquid inside that we wanted to emphasize [with the product]. The tea, sparkling water, wine, juice, or scotch becomes a lens of liquid color suspended within the vessel, projecting a play of light onto the table surface. If the warming candle is lit, the multisensory effect is particularly engaging.

While we were designing this tea set, we were designing a double-layered glass enclosure for a housing project that we are working on in Aomori, Japan. In Aomori, the two layers of glass are separated by a continuous balcony space with the exterior layer being diffuse and the inner layer transparent. In both the tea lantern and the housing, we are interested in the fact that the layering creates a practical buffer (temperature, acoustics, privacy) but also expresses the changing, lively nature of what is going on inside.

What’s innovative about the tea lantern?
Technically, the tea lantern utilizes a double wall of one glass cylinder within another, creating a simple form with multiple uses and expressions. The space between the two glass walls encloses a vacuum to create a thermal layer that insulates steaming hot or icy cold liquids and renders a handle unnecessary. The tea lantern is held and poured like a wine bottle.

What was the greatest challenge to realizing the design?
Finding a suitable manufacturer!

Tell us something interesting that happened to you during the development of this product.
The unexpected adventure of traveling through the Czech countryside in search of a suitable manufacturer. The Czech Republic has a centuries-long tradition and culture of fine glass blowing, and so our search for a manufacturer capable of the quality and quantity that we were looking for took us there.

There is an incredible network that probably exists in other Czech industries, where, 14 years ago, every Czech borosilicate glass blower worked for the same giant mother factory; after communism, everyone with an entrepreneurial spirit struck off to start up his own glass blowing company. Because they all shared a common past, the owners of these new companies knew one another and were quite happy to introduce us to each other. Happily, we found a good match this way in the historic glass blowing town of Zelezny Brod.

What’s your favorite object?
The Arco lamp by Achille and PierGiacomo Castiglioni, 1962. Even when the light is off, it defines a space with minimal physical material and great sculptural gesture. Arco is a perfect example of Castiglioni ingenuity: it is a floor lamp designed to hang in the centre of a space like a suspended ceiling lamp without having to tear up the ceiling and walls to run wiring.

Is there anything you absolutely must do while you’re in New York for the ICFF?
Yes, another visit to The Andrews House, a former lodging house in the Bowery where we are working on something called First Step Housing with Common Ground Community. Common Ground is a not-for-profit housing and community development organization that is reinventing single room occupancy housing. Our First Step Soft House Design is one of five designs that won the international competition held by the organization and the Architectural League of New York for this new type of housing.

* Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen won the 2004 ICFF Editors Award for New Designer