Thinking About Design

May 22, 2008
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Where is design in today’s world of handmade functional pottery? I would posit that it is quite absent.

Making the rounds, so to speak, at most craft events or any craft store-cum-gallery, we might find a plethora of handmade functional wheel-thrown pottery. Yes, there may be some slab-built items, but the majority of work in the functional ceramics genre is usually hand thrown. It might be fair to say that most potters involved in the wholesale marketplace produce work that generally falls within this category. Indeed, most of it is well made and fills a very important niche. Such a selection of functional ceramics spans the temperature range, with some being highly decorative and others relying only on strong form and glaze to carry the line. And yes, there is even more that is poorly crafted and equally poorly thought out.

My question is: Where is design in today’s world of handmade functional pottery? I would posit that it is quite absent. In fact, its absence is both highly apparent and quite discouraging. I would like to put forth some bold ideas that might shed some light on this conundrum.

  • Good design is a learned skill and is quite different than learning a technique. While there certainly is a technique in good design, it requires a different vocabulary than, say, the techniques necessary to be a competent thrower.
  • The emphasis in ceramics, for the most part, is on technique and the skill sets necessary to achieve competency.
  • It is assumed that by learning skill sets such as those necessary to be a good wheel thrower, good design follows suit. Nothing could be further from the truth.
  • Design is not only a learned skill, but it is necessary to teach design skills.
  • Good form is not necessarily good design. Putting a glaze on a poorly designed form just results in a fired piece that still is not well designed.
These are but a few of the many issues I have thought about for many years as a potter, educator, ceramic designer and small manufacturer. Here are some answers that might clarify this thinking.

Making ceramics on any level is quite skill-intensive. Over time, these skills do indeed become imprinted and we find that a certain level of competency and facileness is achieved. This is very true with throwing pottery and the resulting means to produce and even perhaps market our wares at both wholesale and retail craft events. However, it does not translate into designing work for production and making multiples using assisted technologies. While there may be some degree of overlap, the skill set, the thinking and vocabulary are very different.

My take is that many potters fail miserably at designing work even though they are highly skilled throwers. Designing and making are two very different concepts. Most potters are good “makers of objects.” As good repetitive throwers, they have figured out a system approach for hand-making a small volume of ware. They are, however, relatively poor designers of ceramics.

Designing pottery does not simultaneously coexist with making pottery. So many of us assume that if you can make something on a wheel, you can design it at the same time. I disagree. Design is a learned skill and it needs to be taught with the same emphasis as the tactile skills of throwing, hand-building, etc. Concurrently, the methods of reproduction (such as slip casting and, to a lesser degree, jiggering and hydraulic pressing) also need to be taught. While most potters can afford the relatively low-tech machinery for slip casting, hydraulic presses and jiggering machines are often out of financial range for the studio potter. I have known many a studio potter who acquired these machines, but used them as coat racks for a few years until the necessary skills evolved -- skills not only related to how to use the equipment but also how to design for them. Equally, I have seen poorly thought out, poorly designed, and then badly crafted ware produced by these assisted technologies.

Mold making, plaster skills, tooling, and drawing are important and necessary. Designing for any type of making multiples requires an extensive understanding and practice of these skills and techniques.

How do we learn these skills and why are they necessary? As our economy shifts with less discretionary income, ceramic work needs to adapt so that it is still accessible. By accessible, I mean not only having a certain price point, but having a certain design cache that resonates with a diminishing customer base. Baby boomers have nested, acquired, and accumulated both goods and services. We need to ask ourselves what can we design and make that has appeal to that demographic and Gen X or Gen Y, that part of our population that is coming of age.

Unless we put the necessary thought and time into this conundrum, we may find ourselves losing business. In terms of artists’ mindset with a left and right side of the brain, the more dominant side is that of making and creating, not business skills. We also need to still have fun, enjoy our work and always be challenged on a daily basis.

These are timely topics for continued discussion, but suffice it to say, we need to tweak our brains to be designers as well as makers. That euphoria obtained from the tactile skills of “hands on” can be equally manifested in design and conceptualizing, by taking pencil to paper and drawing, making, revising, making again, and asking the right questions not only of ourselves, but also of our customers.

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