One of our strategies, or even an antistrategy, was just deciding an area of interest and walking to it rapidly. We didn’t do that much research before, so instead of going to a physical manifestation of a photograph we had previously seen, much was a complete surprise.
Our journey to Fortum and Mason, a department store older than the United States happened this way. We made reservations, but we didn’t know what to expect. London is really busy. The London Underground doesn’t say “mind the gap” anymore. Instead, a stressed out robotic voice comes on and asks you to fill any physical unit of space in the train with another person. It is so packed. It reminds me of Bart, maybe of everywhere right now. We walked. We saw so much history. It could all be a thousand years old, but it’s still in perfect condition. We found our way into the Knights Templar Church. There were literal casts of knights, sculpted in repose, that just sat there in the modern world. It was quiet, and then a recording of chanting came on. If sculptures are immortal, it must feel really weird to be unable to do anything but listen to tour guides and recordings of monks. They charged for admission. We paid.
Then we whisked through the city streets, catching glimpses of dragon statues, more knights, ancient taverns. Also really ordinary bars. They all just sit side by side. It felt like minutes but was probably about an hour of traveling time.
When we got to Fortnum and Mason, it instantly reminded me of being in a mall when I was very young. This was just a really, really old mall. It was packed, and we climbed the creaking stairs up to the top floor. I should add that the floors creaked, but they felt like they were so solid in their creaking voice. It felt like they were prepared to be there a very, very long time. It’s hard to believe sometimes that anything is going to last very long now, but this stairwell made a case for the shopping experience. Even at the end of the world, there will probably be some shopping.
At the top of the stairs we opened into a room with a piano player who looked stressed out playing frenetic, but very ordinary classical music. It looked like the worst job I could imagine. The look on his face made me think he felt the same way too. It’s hard to listen to something when the player looks that uncomfortable. Maybe he doesn’t even like classical music, but hey, it’s a living.
We were called and were led into an extremely designed environment of light powder blue and orangish pink. These colors dominated the entire experience. The table was white, and on top of the table were two pastel red/orange flowers in a red transparent vase. There was a small light to the side, which had a warm glow that was rhythmically divided as creases in the shade overlapped. It was one of the most incredible arrangements of color I have seen in a long time. It was overpowering. It completely controlled the experience.
I was slightly, probably very, underdressed. A lot of the participants in the room were in formal wear. I was in an indie comic t shirt. I think it was fine. It’s definitely a local spot for birthdays and special occasions, but also for tourists and I saw much more infringing dress code violations so I thought it was OK. Should I be this concerned with the dress code? Obviously not, but I did respect the limitations of the environment. It feels really ritualistic. But still improvisational. It was really interesting from an experience standpoint.
Our specialist chose the teas for us. They told me they had selected the strongest, blackest tea for me, Irish Breakfast, and then my partner received a story about Queen Anne that kind of pissed her off. She wanted the strong black tea too.
That’s what was really interesting for me though. The Queen of England opened the tea shop in the 2000s, and there was definitely a transference of the monarchy into an imbibing liquid for many of the visitors to the tea shop. In this case, it was almost like the Queen was existing in the tea itself, and becoming each new drinker of the tea, becoming one with their histories, the monarchy, and the nation. The design choices present in the room made something apparent. If design is the central communicative language of power, it can be used for almost anything.
This mirrors many of the concerns of the trip about modernism, especially the miasma of rationalism and egalitarianism present in the design that could be used for a much different purpose, as in its employment in fascist Germany in the war. As our teacher pointed out so much, the Bauhaus educators and designers were not exempt from the corrupting forces of the state.
God Save the Tea.