By Peter Harris and Natalie Powell.
We’d all probably know what to expect at a British tea party or Japanese tea ceremony, but what about a Russian tea party? Artist Alina Tukhvatullina’s handcrafted brass and walnut tea set transports us back to 18th century Russia, where high society tea parties revolved around intriguing items such as “samovars” and “sugar heads.” But while Alina’s tea set respects tradition, it’s also thoroughly modern and even contains a subtle political commentary. Here she explains her unique inspiration and design process.
What inspired you to make your Reconciliation tea set? As a Russian, I was very inspired by Russian culture and wanted to embrace all aspects of Russian history, identity, and tradition into my project. I started by researching Russian criminal tattoos and their origins, which led me to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of monarchy. I noticed disturbing similarities between the current political situation in Russia and the former USSR communist dictatorship, so I modernized some of the most popular criminal tattoos of that time for my tea set to reflect the current political situation in Russia.
I also found myself interested in Russian tea party tradition, and especially the samovar, around which 18th century aristocrats gathered around the table drinking tea for hours, discussing the events of the day. The Russian tea party traditions, the decorative samovar narratives, Russian table setting, and historic Russian criminal tattoos all inspired me to design a tea set that invites both parties—the opposition and the current Russian government—to come together for peaceful discussion. The decorative samovar serves as a uniting vessel and the traditional Russian table setting develops a pleasant atmosphere for long discussions. By designing my own decorative tea set in concordance with Russian tea party tradition, I aim to encourage discussion between both parties that will lead to reconciliation.
How does your tea set correlate to a traditional Russian tea party? The traditional Russian table setting should have many items on the table, including national food. My Reconciliation tea set includes the most significant items in the Russian tea drinking tradition: the samovar with a matching tray, 2 cups, 2 jam plates, a sugar plate, a lemon plate, and a teapot.
There is a precise and specific place for each piece of the tea set inside the tray. For example, the 2 cups and 2 jam plates are placed opposite to each other, to suggest two parties facing one another for a discussion.
The lemon plate is very important in Russian tea drinking tradition since lemon is a vital component of traditional Russian tea. The sugar plate can be used for either cubed sugar or “sugar head,” traditional Russian sugar in the 18th-19th centuries. The decorative samovar and teapot form a single cone shape inspired by the sugar head.
The tray is modeled after a typical samovar tray from the 18th century. I decided to use the traditional shape, but to use walnut timber instead of the traditional metal so the tray would harmonize with the brass of the tea set. The tray handles are hidden underneath and do not distract from the tea set’s lines.
My samovar consists of 3 parts: the base, the teapot, and the teapot cap. In 18th century Russia, the teapot was placed on top of the samovar to keep the tea warm. So, in concordance with tradition, the samovar and the tea pot are united in one shape.
“Sugar head,” Russian sugar from the 18th century, was my inspiration for the shape of the samovar. I found the cone-shaped sugar very original and symbolic, and decided to reflect its shape in my design. The brass material of the whole tea set was chosen in respect with the original samovar material, which was usually either brass or copper.
Traditionally, Russian decorative samovars serve as monuments to remind of Russian heritage and identity; this influenced me to produce my samovar, and my whole tea set, as a decorative piece.
According to Russian tradition, guests turn their teacups upside down when they have had enough tea. As long as the cup sits upright, the host must keep adding tea into the visitor’s cup. Thus, my cups are slightly bigger on the top, so they look like the samovar when they are turned upside-down. When displayed, one cup in my tea set should be upside down and another should be facing up.
Jam, or varenye in Russian, is an important part of the Russian tea party. Each house in Russia has varenye because of the Russian tradition of preservation. Since many people in Russia have dachas (country houses), they have gardens where they grow vegetables and fruits. There was a lack of fruits and vegetable in the winter in USSR, so in the summer, tons of fruits and vegetables were preserved for the winter, and this continues today.
Varenye consists of blended berries and sugar, which makes it a healthy, natural, and delicious treat to have with the tea. I find this tradition charming, but it also brings to mind the hardships endured in the USSR.
Sugar and lemon plates are placed right in the middle of the tray to be easily accessible from both sides. The flat sugar plate indicates clearly that there is no place for sand-like sugar on the Russian table; it is either for sugar head or cubed sugar.
How long did it take you to produce this tea set? The research part took me 4 months and making the tea set took me 1 month.