A couple of days ago, I threw twelve mugs. After I pulled and attached a handle to each one, I lined them up on a board and then stepped back and looked. They were each made with exactly one pound of clay, measured five inches tall and had a flaring cylindrical shape. They were similar, but different as sets of thrown pots can be. I’ve been experimenting lately with some different mug forms in search of the right one and a cylinder that flares just a bit at the rim is the one for now. They looked okay with consistent wall thickness, flat bottom, smooth rim and appropriately attached handle. At the same time, as I studied the mugs, I wondered if their form was unique enough or were they just like all the others. If someone, someday, looks at one of the mugs, will they realize the mug was made by me without turning it over?
My mug musings brought me back to my first year in college in 1971 and a debate about form, style and technique. I was sitting with other ceramics majors in one of my first classes and after being prompted by Hobart Cowles, our professor, we started talking about the difference between art and craft. Most of us fledgling potters felt we were more craftsmen than artists while some argued the lines between the two were less crisp. That led to a discussion that eventually morphed into a debate about style and form versus technique and the utility of an object. It was at that point when Hobart got up, went to the chalkboard and wrote the phrase, “Form follows function”. I’m not sure the quote changed the minds of all those who argued that we were every bit the artists as our classmates upstairs in the fine arts department, but it did add a considerable amount of weight to the argument for the rest of us who embraced being craftsmen.
It actually was an architect, Louis Sullivan, who is credited with the phrase that Hobart chalked on the board. In talking about good building design in the late 1800s, Sullivan suggested that structures must exhibit the three qualities of “firmitas, utilitas, venustas” meaning solid, useful, and beautiful. What’s interesting is Sullivan’s phrase actually translates,“form ever follows function”, but a version minus “ever” is typically what is quoted. The two phrases, although similar, are slightly different. That said, Sullivan’s quote offers support to the notion that form is not unimportant, but it must come after function and utilitarian requirements have been met.
One of the reasons I love making pottery is that it’s dependent on the convergence of science and art. Maybe that’s another way to define what craft is. Despite this convergence, most of my time in the studio right now is focused more on science and less on art. This reality led me to recall another quote that I had read in a book that stuck with me about art and science, form and function, style and utility, but I couldn’t remember where I had read it. After a few days of searching through my library for the quote, I found it buried in the preface to a book by author and ceramic artist, Daniel Rhodes. He shared that, “While technical information must not be considered as an end to itself, it is a necessary prerequisite to a free and creative choice of means in ceramics”. More support for where I find myself right now. With form following function and the need for technical information as a prerequisite to creativity, I felt I might be on to something.
I left Vermont to go to college and study ceramics at RIT in 1971. The year before, I read the book that included the quote by Rhodes. His book, also known as the Potter’s Bible, Clay and Glazes for Potter, was packed with technical information (okay, very packed and it was all in black and white, even the photos). I loved the book mostly because Rhodes was considered one of the top ceramics experts in the world at the time. Rhodes, along with Val Cushing were the two anchors in the ceramics program at Alfred University, considered one of the best ceramics programs in the country. I let my imagination run wild thinking about what it would be like to work with Rhodes. I thought if I read his book it might provide me some good karma during the college application process and once I was accepted, I would be that much more ahead of others when school started. Perhaps I could even refer to passages from the book during classes with Rhodes. Something like, Professor Rhodes, I recall on page 73, you offer that feldspar is one of the most important glaze materials. Is that because… as I said, I let my imagination run.