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Why make functional ware?

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On 7/16/2018 at 8:11 PM, Callie Beller Diesel said:

....and then there's at least one j3rk at every show that has to make a crack about the "bowls with all the holes in them" being not very good for soup. And it's always the husband.  

I always get that one (from men only) about my candleholders. I always say, "They're supposed to leak light".

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On 7/16/2018 at 2:21 PM, Min said:

The clay got under my fingernails and it’s been stuck there ever since. 


Have you tried one of those small scrub brushes?... Hehe


On 7/16/2018 at 2:22 PM, Mark C. said:

The public is hard to deal with at times. Or at least thats my experience. Some do understand some not so  much. Nothing like street fair to expose one to the general cluelessness of society. Its great to have great customers but sometimes you get the fact that we all came from cavemen society.I have more trouble with stupid men than women as a generalization at shows . The stupid man thing gets to me after a few of them say things that they really are not long from the caves mouth.


The thing is, there are no doubt things, that those men are passionate about, that they wouldn't question for a second, or be willing to spend good money on.  "Pfff, what kind of idiot pays $30 for a stupid mug?!... Ah shoot, I got some scuff marks on my $300 dollar limited edition sneakers..."


On 7/16/2018 at 10:25 AM, Tyler Miller said:

I had a semi-ridiculous conversation back in January while working in a studio in town.  The crux of my interlocutor’s point was “what’s the point of makig functional ware?  Industry does it better, so why try?”

What’s your answer, why do you make functional ware?


Now in regards to the topic.   I personally make functional ware, because each thing I make is a one of a kind item, that didn't exist before, and never will again... Unless we get into the infinite timeline/ Universe and Quantum Mechanics discussion, in which every conceivable possibility exists somewhere... But that might be a bit heavy for this early in the day.  A one of a kind, handmade item, is the reason, people still buy handmade ceramic wares, and Art of any type.  We have cameras/ digital creation tools, yet people still draw and paint.  Heck, we have digital cameras, but people still shoot film, and print in the darkroom!  The final product might be similar, but the process is just as important.

What does industry do better?  Do they create greater quantity and consistency?  Yeah, probably, especially on the former.  Though I would argue that this Forum's version of John Henry, Mark C. could give (whatever a ceramic factories version of a steel driver is) a run for its money.  In regards to consistency, I would imagine that even a factory, where things are very fine tuned, and controlled, still have defects.  I can't say for certainty, if those defects are proportional to what a studio potter would face, but I wouldn't be surprised.  

So a factory can produce greater quantities, quicker.  That's great for society.  It drives costs down, and makes things more affordable.  Though, I could argue, that isn't always a good thing.  It makes us a disposable/ throw-away society.  We bought something for cheap, so we don't put a lot of value on it, and are more likely to just toss it.  Look at technology.  We modern humans, love our technology, namely cell phones.  They allow us to have access to the entirety of Humankind's knowledge at our fingertips, and stay connected to people all around the World.  Yet, as soon as that thing shows a few signs of "wear and tear", toss it and get the new model.  As an educator, who is around youth for a good portion of my life, I see this quite a bit.  That's one reason why, I see so many broken screens.  They don't care if it is broken, because they'll just get another.  Cars are becoming the same way, even some homes.  People want something that looks good, for a short while, and as soon as it loses its lustre, time to upgrade.  

Now what about quality?  Sure, the pieces look good.  They are all generally uniform (with some minor, purposeful imperfections, which I'll discuss in a moment), but do they last?  I would say, overall, no.  My Wife and I have a commercially made dinnerware set, that we got for our wedding.  They've held up well, to regular use, but I've had to order several replacements, to some that developed stress cracks.  This isn't even including all those that have chipped.  

I also received a commercially made mug, for Father's Day, that last a few months.  It developed a small hairline stress crack, and I wasn't comfortable putting anything hot in it anymore.  Meanwhile, the mugs I have made, keep chugging along.

Now, one of the biggest pluses to buying a handmade ware, is its uniqueness.  I have given plenty of my wares as gifts, to family and friends.  I give Senior students mugs, as a graduation present.  In those cases, the people absolutely love them.  They like the fact, that it is something that I made, especially for them.  I doubt they'd be as thrilled, if I just went out and bought something, even if it was  very similar.  As I said, everything is a one of a kind.  There is no mold (Unless, you do indeed use molds), there is no machine applying the glaze or decals.  Every piece a potter makes, was touched, by that potter, throughout the process.  Can a factory say that?  Sure, there are people, who handle the wares,  but they aren't exactly applying a personal touch, in most cases.  Except, when you look at commercial wares, like the wedding gift, dinnerware set I mentioned earlier.  It was marketed as "Individually hand-glazed", which I believe is partially true.  It is a base coat of one glaze, that *looks* like it could be brushed on by hand, but could have just as easily been done by some type of automated process.  However, over top of that, are some large glaze drips/ splatters.  This was probably what they were referring to.  Someone, who sat at the end of the assembly line, ladling on a few spots of a top glaze coat.  That way, they could say that each piece had a unique, individual look.  It's almost like they are trying to mimic the style of handmade wares...

So, if commercial/ industrial wares are superior, then why do companies go out of their way to mimic the look of handmade items?  You don't just see this with ceramics either.  The "rustic"/ "industrial" trend is in full swing, when it comes to decorating, and now companies are doing their best to make new decor, that looks old, handmade, or both.  The reason is because people associate handmade products (rustic/ industrial items are older and generally carry with that age the implication they are also handmade), with good quality.  Generally speaking, I would say they are correct.  Once again, one person has handled the item, throughout the process, and therefore have a greater investment in that item.  With a factory, there are numerous people, who have handled each item.  They have way less investment in said item.  Along with that, is the issue of safety.  A large company no doubt makes sure there wares are safe.  They don't want a mug or bowl exploding in the microwave.  They also don't want to poison a customer, with a glaze that leaches into food.  But, as many of the factories are overseas, there is still some concern.  Those factories, have different sets of rules and guidelines, which is why  there have been numerous product recalls, for items from those factories...  Whoa, whoa, whoa, children's toys *can't*  be coated in lead paint?!  Now, when it comes to handmade wares, I don't know a potter, who is worth their salt kiln, who hasn't tested their glaze durability.  I'm not saying, that every single one does, but those that stay around long enough to make a career out of it, definitely do.  


So, if I wasn't clear, I obviously don't agree with the statement that industrial, functional wares are better than handmade.  I'm not knocking the commercial items, as they definitely exist for a reason.  But there is also a reason, that handmade wares are still being made, and are still popular amongst people, even in a day, when cheaper alternatives are available.  

Edited by Benzine
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  • 2 months later...

My observation is this:

My kids get excited to choose the bowl or cup they drink out of.  They have favorite ones for different foods.

I've never seen them get excited to eat off of an Ikea plate or bowl.

If a four year old can tell the difference between a mass produced bowl and one made by some dude in his shed, and somehow appreciate that difference, I think it speaks loads on why a potter might choose to make functional ware.


Now speaking for myself, I make functional ware because it makes me feel happy.  Every part of the process from wedging to throwing, to making and modifying my kiln, to firing in my driveway, mixing and making glazes, all the way to sanding the feet.  They all bring me joy.  But the thing that really turns all that joy real, is when someone chooses to eat or drink out of something I made.  

So in the case of a functional potter vs. a factory... Where's the joy?  It's rather one sided isn't it.  A factory worker doesn't meet the people using the things they made, they aren't emotionally attached to the things they make, there isn't happiness in every step of the process, and I feel that it shows. 

That said, asking these questions on a forum full of potters is probably going to come with a lot of answers involving people justifying what they do.  So I think almost everyone here is preaching to the choir.  

What I like to do, is talk to people and say these same things to their face. It's a lot easier for someone, even a skeptic, to understand the feelings and energy you put into an object, when you justify your craft in person.  Making functional ware is super interesting to people, we sometimes forget that as potters because things become 'old hat' or just another kiln firing.  Describing my process generally leads to "wow, all of that work goes into each bowl?"


Anyway, I'm just rambling now, but this was an interesting read to me.  I've thought about these things before, but I've never written them down and made them real.  Wonderful place we have here.

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The reason I make things to use and buy other potters’ work is that they bring beauty and some soul into everyday life. The world can be an ugly, tough place, and we need all the beauty we can get.

Some people like my mother dont understand this at all and never will. She isn't who I make things for.


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  • 3 weeks later...

I'll have to agree on the side of hand made wares being more functional/durable in many cases than commercially made wares. Though hand made pottery can fall on the lower scale of functionality (most of us can remember when we just began making) it has much greater potential to be both more functional and durable. Commercially made wares don't have the artistic eye of a functional maker watching over each piece. Each piece has a quality that a factory can't produce and that quality is individuality. That's why your serious mug, bowl, tumbler, etc. buyer takes the time to handle several pieces before making a decision. We have the power to produce a little piece of John or Jane Doe without even knowing it. Though commercial is more capable of duplicating a form and finish thousands of times over handmade is a superior product creating a genuine human interaction with the vessel.

Edited by Mullins Pottery
needed to add a bit
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I ask myself this all the time. My answer is my wife and her friends want this utilitarian stuff. Fine.

In the back of my mind I keep telling myself,  'if I had more time all I'd do is make art'...

Cups and bowls cups and bowls cups and bowls. I have way too many of them so come and get'em ladies!

I have to think of the making part as the process I enjoy if it's not redundant, but it's also essentially that they are all blank canvasses for me to have some real fun with.

Still there's not enough time to really cut loose, 'cuz them ladies want certain colors... ;)


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  • 2 weeks later...
20 hours ago, Rae Reich said:

Nice! I like her attitude. Thanks!


I especially like her lack of pretense.

I wanted to answer the original question but all I've know is functional ware so it's a bit like asking a bee why all the buzz.

When I listened to her talk about St. Ives and the Leachs and Warren Mackenzie I remembered this question and thought her interview worked well as an broad answer to a fundamental question.

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  • 1 month later...

Like PSC said; you should have responded to the tile maker that "...industry makes way better tile than a handmade tile maker can, so why do YOU..??"

For me, utilitarian ceramics is about the journey just as life is. Sure, the $3 mug from walmart will hold liquid as good as my $30 mug, but do you want something that will just satisfy a need, or enrich your life. I tell my customers (and its not just a sales pitch), that I had "moments" when I made "this" mug; there was a time, a place, an emotion; it takes me to a place where Im happy, and that I hope it takes them to a happy place too! Very similar to stopping to smell the roses kind of mentality.

Industry can make some superbly designed clay bodies, and super well fitting, stable glazes, but what they cant do, is to make unique wares; they are bound by profit margins, and unskilled labor (generally speaking here, no offense to anyone in the "industry", but it doesnt take a master potter to fill and empty a mold).

So, if your customer wants to flinstone his way to work, great, but more than likely they'd prefer the kia over the flinstonemobile, and a Benz over the Kia. Why? sometimes its a mentality that if it costs more that its better (not my philosophy), but is unique and specialized.

I started making pots because it called to me, and I had a wonderful middle school art teacher who saw that I needed clay in my life and supported me to do it. I keep on making pots because I cant think of doing anything else. I sometimes dont think of myself as a potter, but as a maker who makes ceramic objects.

Also, an article from CM years back was written, the artist emphasized using the term utilitarian as opposed to functional to describe table ware. Everything is functional, either as a door stop, wall hanger, or a mug. Utilitarian ware is a small distinction for me that I like to clarify, and just because its main purpose is to perform a specific utility/function doesnt mean it has to be devoid of fine design, impeccable craft....a soul.

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  • 2 weeks later...

I'm still very new and really just a hobbyist at this point (but I've sold 4 pieces!), but personally I just much prefer everything be "useful"- pieces can be artistic and function. I've made a few random handbuilt pieces for display but I just like things to be used, to have a life beyond sitting on a shelf. A friend of mine, a well-known artist in the area, has a VERY nice collection of pottery, old pieces, famous artists, etc. While he has a lot for display only, the majority is in his cabinet, meant to be used. Want a soda with dinner? Here, drink it from this tea bowl from so-and-so. I think that's just wonderful.

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I guess I would have asked why make ceramic tiles, industry does that much better as well? Maybe your mug can inspire her next special tile. Last point, defining what something is in relation to better: hand made items often are better and more desirable to humans.  I wonder why, but I appreciate that they are when I see them.

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I have a favorite mug that I bought at a pottery sale years ago.  I use it alot.  When I put 2 chips in the rim, I was upset...like I lost a friend.  Luckily, the artist scrawled his name across the bottom of the mug with a little internet search I found him and was able to have another...not exactly the same, but it has the same feel.  Also, this time, I had a great conversation and got to know more about the artist...making my mug more valuable to me.  

Now a tile maker that doesn't get handmade....wow....nothing feels like an handmade tile....I don't care how many tiles a factory can churn out...they still do not feel like the handmade ones.

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I made my own tile in our bathroom in 1983. The sink is hand thrown and all the tiles are made to fit without cutting on that small  sink counter which hangs off the wall and is 5 sided. I also at same time did the surround in bathtub and window surround. Then tiles are all cone 10  reduction fired with my own custom glaze as well. The floor tiles are commercial one foot square tiles left over from a house my mother built and sold in Santa Barbara . They are earth tones and complement my own earth tones. I also used commercial tiles in our mud/laundy/spare bathroom. They are more uniform and stronger (grade 5 strength) the color is all the way thru if they ever chipped.

I think homemade tiles have a look and feel that commercial cannot compete with. They are harder to make but one  cannot compete with the uniformity and cost of commercial tiles. I like my own sink and tiles and they have not gotten old in all these years .Nor have they chipped or failed at all.

I do like the commercial tiles for large solid floor tiles. Places like back splash etc scream for custom handmade work.But many are happy with commercial talc tiles. I myself only use hard high fire tile. If it scores with a tile scribe I will not use it. I'm a wet diamond saw guy. The tougher the tile the better I like it.

Now for accent tiles on a shower wall well toughness is of no matter.

But floors sinks and counters-thats where the rubber meets the road.

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I guess think this whole handmade versus commercial mass produced comparison thing is pointless for customers to go through. If someone is comparing a $5 Walmart mug to a $50 hand thrown one they should just buy the Walmart one. My brother in-law used to buy expensive tailor made suits. Me, I can't wrap my mind around a three-four grand suit but he could and couldn't careless what Men's Warehouse was selling suits for. Same goes for people that buy expensive art tile for a custom project and/or pop for five-ten grand painting for behind the couch. Home depot and Hobby lobby would come in for pennies on the dollar and the tile would be fine and the picture an exact knockoff of an old master but those people don't care and don't look.

...but that same person will laugh at a $300 pair of sneakers. 

To each his own.

Edited by Stephen
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Technology has only (comparatively) recently pushed ceramics into mass production. There's ten thousand years of tradition behind pottery, and the utilitarian aspect of the craft was the mainline; a given. So there is this interesting tension when we, in the age of mass-production, pull this craft into the future with us.

Here's what I mean: Our measures of value are mostly based on monetary value (er... at least most of the people around me,) and in that context I think any of could make a pretty good argument that handcrafted pottery cups, mugs, and bowls are not the best economical way to produce those items. If the economics don't make sense, the value is depreciated. 

And for me, this entirely misses the point. I like the aesthetic, the feel, and the emotional content of my handmade ceramic wares. They are valuable to me, beyond the price I would pay for that simple utility.

But, the fact that "it misses the point" is my point. 

As a species, we've gone from an implicit utilitarian view of ceramics (that easily embraces purely artistic works) to a default idea of ceramic as artistic expression (that easily embraces utilitarian works.)  Is it an over-reach to claim that this is a tension that enriches the ceramics we create for today, just as it depreciates our handcrafted cups, mugs, and bowls.


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  • 1 month later...

Interesting questions but maybe also goes to the meaning of value.  There are many aspects to value yet popular perception has become mostly monetary. So what do we teach and how do we teach it? I suspect folks value their lives, ideals, family, yet hand crafting, master of trade are often  compared to mass production and their difference in purchase price. Maybe a good start is what do you value and why?

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  • 1 month later...

Newbie potter here - been throwing since October 2018 and finding myself obsessed with form. Which also tends to create a bias towards handmade craft - a direct result of my own experience.  So apologies if I appear naive - gaining in years is no guarantee of wisdom. :)

To go back to the original question - why make functional ware - the answer owes itself to our own experiences, desires, and needs.  Value is part of it but value is a personal concept. Some people prefer value only in price - others in craft. Buying a mug in Home Goods for $3.95 fulfills the need for someone who only wants something to have their morning coffee in. So the value is not in form, but how to spend as little money as possible on function.

As a group - and personally - I'm not out there learning and creating for a specific audience. I'm in it for the joy of creating something out of rough material (clay) with my own hands.  And also seeing the absolute joy on the face of people that I show my work to. Some have even bought a piece here and there. Since I am a newbie potter, I'm most amazed at how struck they are by a handcrafted piece. That's worth much more to me than the money they're willing to pay.

I've read that the difference between fine art and craft is that the craftsperson creates for the user while the fine artist creates purely for themselves outside of any judgement or need by the audience. In ceramics, there are clear differences between those that create for function as to those who create as art. I'm caught in between. I want to form pieces that can be used and used easily but I also want an aesthetic that can be enjoyed and appreciated. I have no argument with someone who wants the utilitarian use of that Home Goods mug. I'm not creating for them. Although I do hope that I can gain their attention and appreciation for the craft.

So why do we do it? Somewhat selfishly, there's a payoff for us in terms of the satisfaction of craft and the appreciation of art. Beyond that, a mug is just a mug.

- Jeff


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