Functionality of the Opening and Lip

Overall, form follows function—especially in pottery. This means that the opening is the culmination of the lip angle, bevel, and wall thickness combined—all dictating how a vessel works. Together, these help to define the potential for movement of the vessel’s contents and the functionality of its form. A vertical nature of the lip means that a vessel is meant to be tipped slowly and sipped from. Softness in a bevel suggests that human lips would fit easily and comfortably against it. The inner bevel line adds definition to the wall thickness, suggesting how the vessel will absorb the heat and insulate hot beverages. Vessels with thick rims will retain heat better and visibly suggest use for containing hot liquids. Additionally, a thicker wall that is defined by the lower bevel line indicates a robustness for everyday use as it can withstand being knocked and bumped around. Conversely, lip bevels that are narrow or thin communicate a lighter weight and refinement and can lend themselves to specific pouring angles, as well as use with colder beverages. Finally, the bevel line and functionality of the lip is definitively contributing to refinement of the vessel. 

Often, the lip, which is the very first visual component of a functional vessel, defines how we perceive the weight, function, value, use, and refinement of the work. Through modifying it to change how a user first approaches and views a functional work, we can communicate our intentions for how we want our pottery to be touched, held, and explicitly used.

Will McComb’s cup, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, stoneware, flashing slip, glaze, soda fired to cone 11, 2017.

Visual Success: There are many subtleties to this cup. The width and texture of the lip, the convex curvature of the bevel, and the directionality of the surface texture mirroring the curvature of the form—all allow for a sense of continuity. While this plays into an overall aesthetic suggesting durability, heft, and a satin feel to the touch, it is also visually cohesive.

Balance in Hand Versus Visual Balance

There is implied heft and balance in the thickness of the lip, walls, handle, foot, and lid. Even subconsciously, the viewer expects weight and balance based on the most subtle of visual aesthetics. The following are a handful of examples that range from thin to thick, and light to hearty, in balance. This includes how vessels balance between function and sculpture, which is communicated in voice and artistic style.

Justin Lambert’s teapot, 7 in. (18 cm) in height; unglazed porcelain blend; fired in an anagama kiln for 55 hours with black olive, laurel oak, and acacia woods; cooled in reduction, 2017.

Visual Success: The slip lines echo the contour of this teapot. The raised lines capture the wood ash to further accentuate the form.

Todd Pletcher’s mug, 41/2 in. (11 cm) in height, wheel-thrown brown stoneware, glaze, fired to cone 10 in reduction, 2018. Photo: Ryan Coppage.

Visual Success: With a softly undulating top, a bottom that echoes such with variations in undershadow, and throwing lines between the two, this mug has visual balance from top to bottom.

Artist Spotlight: Matt Kelleher

My serving bowls are slab built on a bisque mold. The challenge in building with slabs is disguising that the piece was actually made with a slab. The edge of a slab is not that interesting, so I am always thinking about ways to “wake the slab up.” I add extra clay to the edges and cut back into it at an angle to give the slab structure and visual interest. When the user engages this work, they feel the thick-to-thin beveled edge and robust presence of the rim. The beveled edge also creates a frame around the contents of the bowl.

When a beginner is making pottery, they tend to think about weight as thinness. As they advance, they learn weight is one of the most important characteristics in communicating an idea through a pot. Much of my pottery is heavy and pushes the idea of being too heavy. I enjoy the presence that weight gives a pot. Playing with thick and thin areas within the structure of a pot can convey humor, pleasure, joy, exertion, sturdiness, confidence, dumpiness, refinement, casualness, and much more.

—Matt Kelleher

Matt Kelleher’s triangle bowl, 10 in. (25 cm) in length, slab-built earthenware, flashing slip, soda fired to cone 3, 2015.

Visual Success: The wide bevels of the rim combined with the breaking color of the clay allow for a rustic yet balanced overall tone.

Excerpted from The Anatomy of a Good Pot by Ryan Coppage, PhD, published by The American Ceramic Society and available at