Little Cups of Calm #createdunedin

by Insiders Dunedin

Mother and daughter team Karen Taylor O’Neill and Elise Johnston of Three Cups of Tea hail from the land of vowels and royal family tea towels. What is it with the English, whether in trenches or in battles at sea, that everything stops for tea? “My nana reckons it takes her 3 cups of tea to get going in the morning” says Elise. Better than a fifth of vodka, I suppose, but there’s more to the company moniker than recommended doses. The Balti people of Pakistan have a proverb that goes something like: the first cup of tea you drink as an honoured guest, the second as a good friend, the third cup of tea you drink as family. It’s this idea of breaching the divide and coming together that is behind the tea sets, tea pots, vases and tableware smiling out at you from the window of Guild like pretty girls in party dresses.

The process of making them is, sorry to break it to you, nothing like Demi Moore’s erotic potting in Ghost. Instead it’s incredibly labour intensive, meaning the little blue cup in your hand, as smooth and cool as a stone and such an object of beauty you long to slip it into your pocket, has taken weeks and weeks to make, endless fiddly days of casting, firing, glazing, more firing, and decoration. Coloured to covet in cobalt blue, lemony yellow and leafy green, or white as snow, Three Cups of Tea’s range also features birds and trees hand drawn by Elise and vintage decals such as blue Delft used with a quirky twist, reinventing the tableware of childhood which, quite frankly, we never really noticed we were noticing, especially if it held lamingtons.
Is it hard to get right? “We’ve had a lot of failures, there’s always that moment before you unload a kiln when you get really nervous.” Dreadful things can happen to such smash-able art: “I’ve got it out of the kiln, boxed it up and then dropped it getting out of the car.” This might be why potters have to be calm, careful, and philosophical about loss; radiate a kind of Zen patience. “It’s either going to work or it’s not,” says Elise. “If you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry. If you can, don’t worry.”

While Karen and Elise have really high standards, no two pieces are exactly the same, even if they’re made from the same mould. This isn’t to say they in any way resemble the wonk-eyed mugs made by aunty Valda stashed at the back of the cupboard in case she visits; rather it’s not soulless factory china made in China, but hand-made originals celebrating the joy of a thing well made. Influences include Swedish and Japanese ceramics; anything with clean lines. Designing is squeezed in after the kids have gone to bed, or in playgrounds. Just like Elise’s two primary-aged children, Three Cups of Tea is growing fast, spilling out of the spare room as demand increases, because everyone needs to stop, sip, acknowledge the lovely in life. You can also drink coffee out of them.


Post submitted by Lisa Scott

Photography by Sharron Bennett

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