6 March 2011

HAND MADE TABLEWARE: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

The curator at the Nantgarw Pottery museum in Wales demonstrates the use of the jolleying machine, 2006. A craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft?  © Marshall Colman

There was a good piece in Ceramic Review a couple of years ago about tableware and studio pottery. It showed two pieces of pottery by David Leach, a little fluted bowl and the same shape with a handle and a saucer. The bowl cost four times as much as the cup and saucer. The cup is tableware, the bowl is art.

It's often said that tableware is dead. Few graduating ceramicists make tableware and many skilled makers have turned to art instead because they got tired of repetition throwing or couldn’t make a living from it. But how dead is tableware exactly?

The market for functional studio pottery can be measured. In the mid 1970s, over half the members of the Craft Potters Association (CPA) were making tableware, in the mid 1990s just over a third, today under a quarter. But although the proportion of makers has gone down, the number has gone up. There are more potters and more makers of tableware than ever. Apart from the members of the CPA (which represents about ten per cent of the ceramicists in Britain), there are thousands of potters making tableware for local markets. Some of them are unimaginative and technically weak, and the worst are an argument for factory-made pottery. But the best are very good. They are supplying a growing market for hand-made tableware that is worth tens of millions of pounds a year.

Why, then, is the market for tableware said to be dead? Partly because there was a time when "ceramics" was pretty well equivalent to "tableware", which is not the case today. Partly because demand fluctuates with the economic cycle. Partly because few potters can make a living from it even at the best of times.

Studio pottery and factory pottery have more in common than the Arts and Craftsy studio potter liked to admit. There has always been an exchange between studio ceramics and the pottery industry, and it shows that hand-made tableware and factory-made tableware are complementary, not opposed to one another. Completely automated production is possible but many factories use quasi-craft techniques, and studio potters use some industrial methods. What distinguishes studio pottery from industrial pottery is not its methods but the fact that some studio potters make a fetish of method. The commonality of studio and factory is such that it's impossible to say whether jigger-and-jolly is a craft technique retained in industry or an industrial technique applied to craft.

One of the only people to talk any sense about craft was David Pye. He pointed out what should have been obvious, that nothing is made by hand and that everything is made with tools. The distinction is not between hand made and machine made but between the type of motive force that drives the tool and the in way in which it is guided. In the making, the difference is not between craft and manufacture, but between the workmanship of risk and the workmanship of certainty. Things made with hand tools in small runs cannot always be distinguished by appearance from things made with power tools in long runs.

With rising standards of interior design and higher consumer spending, the market for tableware has become more varied and complex. Design-led retailers sell elegant, factory made ceramics that are just as good as studio ceramics and often better. Rather than competing with handmade tableware, this sort of ceramics has lifted the standard of handmade tableware. The new ceramics galleries of the Victoria and Albert Museum have a representative sample of studio pottery from its heyday in the 1950s, demonstrating how bad it was.  Consumers today expect to have a wide choice of good products, both mass-produced and hand made. Marketing events like Origin have helped to bring hand made tableware to this discerning public, to raise its price and, by selecting exhibitors, to raise craft standards as well.