What Is Making Me Happy: a new tea cup

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format an intermittent feature.

This week: my new tea cup

I started learning about the history of faience sometime during graduate school. I’m not a ceramicist and it never came up in any of my classes, that I can recall. But, at some point, I realized that these were the objects that I gravitated toward in museums—possibly because I particularly like the paintings of the Dutch masters, who were themselves obsessed with the stuff. From there, it was a short hop to picking up little bits and pieces through an article or in preparation for one class or another. If a visiting scholar was giving a talk on the topic for a different department, I would be there.

My interest in these objects started with an aesthetic judgement, but it spread to a range of topics that include the customs around use, like the Japanese practice of kintsugi, and the history of production that intersects with the larger currents of world history in fascinating ways.

Consider, for instance, the images on the porcelain. Some examples of “European” scenes, either in terms of religious episodes or ships or coats of arms, were made in China by craftspeople with little or no direct contact with the topic of the scenes, while others were crafted with motifs meant to conjure the exotic orient for European audiences. At the same time, the most European and the most exoticized Asian scenes didn’t come from the Chinese workshops, but from the European ones in cities like Delft, in the Netherlands, which capitalized on the demand for porcelain in the 1600s by making cheaper options in Europe.

It is with this background that I am enamored of my new tea cup, a gift from my sister-in-law and her partner, which I promptly brought to use in my office.

Made by Calamityware, this is a porcelain teacup made in an echo of the blue porcelain of centuries gone by. Except that the flowers and orientalist scenes of yesteryear have been replaced by the monsters and cryptids sketched by Don Moyer over the year. Thus, my teacup has a pirate ship, a tentacle reaching for an unsuspecting fisherman, giant robots, aliens, and more. It sits innocuously on my desk and anyone who doesn’t look closely might assume that I am drinking out of a generic porcelain teacup, but knowing what the designs actually are has been bringing me an enormous amount of joy.