By Elizabeth Knight • Photography by Mac Jamieson • Photo styling by Andrew Baseman
Italian explorer Marco Polo visited Kublai Khan’s summer palace at Cathay in A.D. 1275, but more than 2,000 years before his visit, Chinese potters had perfected vitrified stoneware, a ceramic that even unglazed could hold boiling liquids. Experimenting further (some say in an attempt to replicate jade), the Chinese developed what Polo called porcellana, after a lustrous Italian seashell. Polo’s writings about China’s exquisite ceramics ultimately reached a world that would forevermore call all good dinnerware china in tribute to the country that produced it. Next to tea, porcelain became China’s most important contribution to Europe. Some believe porcelain owes its very existence to tea. Porcelain does not taint the subtle taste and aroma of tea, a prime consideration when a culture’s aesthetics of preparing and serving food are as important as the food itself.
Only after the Dutch East India Company began importing Chinese tea to Europe in 1610 did porcelain become the fashion, however. Princes built special rooms to house white gold porcelain collections. Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, who turned his court city of Dresden into a virtual porcelain museum, once paid the price of 600 soldiers for two Chinese vases. Commoners, like English essayist Charles Lamb, who were fortunate enough to afford fine export china, protected their prized possessions. But with heavy use, spouts, handles, and finials on teapot lids frequently broke. In the 18th and 19th centuries, damaged goods were repaired rather than discarded, because they were so difficult to replace. Long before epoxy glue existed, an accomplished craftsman might replace a porcelain finial with one made of pewter or hallmarked silver. In more modest homes, wood or tin would have been employed.
Centuries ago, these sorts of practical repairs to household objects were unremarkable. These days, sophisticated collectors prize these mixed-media repairs. Called make-dos, they are valued as much for their unique appearance as their clever craftsmanship.
Collector Andrew Baseman, a New York City–based interior designer, owns the samples shown here and many more. The son of antiques dealers, Baseman was 18 years old when he saw his first make-do and fell in love with its one-of-a-kind Frankenstein appearance. He remains fascinated by the range of repairs and is mystified that some dealers are insulted when he asks for items that have early repairs. “They think I’m accusing them of selling damaged goods,” he explains. Sadly, some dealers even redo the make-dos to make flawless repairs for the mass market. “They just don’t get it,” says Baseman, whose favorite dotty pot sports an aluminum base, metal staples, and a mismatched wired-on lid.
So, the next time you spot an antique pot or platter that looks the worse for wear, don’t turn away. Celebrate the marks of its unique history.