• 07.18.13

A Tea Party That Encourages Random Acts Of Kindness

Clare Twomey sets up tea for 1,550–and an artful way to promote good deeds–at London’s Foundling Museum.

It would be delightful if everyone treated strangers as they do close friends. That said, common courtesy sometimes needs a gentle prod. With her installation, Exchange, London-based artist Clare Twomey has set up temptation on teacups to commit random acts of kindness.


Twomey tells Co.Design that the city’s Foundling Museum invited her to realize a concept “that related to the contemporary but referenced the past.” For starters, the historical site itself was a major inspiration. Established as a hospital in 1739 to provide for the “Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children,” it was the result of a decades-long crusade by Captain Thomas Coram, a sailor who believed the city’s children deserved better than a life on the streets. In 1954, it became a charity in his name. In 2004, the space opened to the public with both the organization’s own collection and rotating exhibitions on display.

In the spirit of fostering the kind of caring connection championed by the good captain centuries ago, Twomey’s exhibition involves 1,550 cups and saucers, each with a good deed printed on the bottom. Every day, 10 visitors are given the opportunity to take one home with them–provided they agree to perform the accompanying task.

To make the pieces, Twomey turned to Dudson, a British ceramics manufacturer. “The requirement I applied to the design was that it had to be very everyday, not hierarchical or special,” she says. “It should be an approachable and understandable form,” much as we should all be able to approach and understand a stranger.

For the ideal array of benevolent and authentic acts–there are no repeats in the entire collection–Twomey did a bit of friendly crowdsourcing with local schools and youth groups. She says a few “notable individuals” also provided suggestions. The teacups offer ideas ranging from “Help your mum make dinner” and “Clear out your bookshelves and give unwanted books to a charity shop” to “Adopt a British Squaddie.”

The combination of a call to act kindly and the thrill of chance has made for a touching, and quite effective, experience. “The response is a mix of excitement followed by a real fear of what one might select when the hand hovers,” Twomey says she’s observed at the exhibition. “You only get one chance to look at one cup.”

Those who can’t make it to the Foundling Museum by September 15th–or aren’t among the lucky chosen few once there–can participate in the project online here, a space that’s set with 10,000 digital cups that raise the stakes on teatime.

(h/t It’s Nice That)