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Published Jun 18, 2018

handmade pottery Toasting Cups by potter Nicholas Bivins.As the name implies, something that is functional is meant to be used. But I think we can all agree that the meaning of function in relation to handmade pottery goes well beyond mere utilitarianism. I think those of us who make handmade functional pottery do so not simply to produce objects that enable people to perform various tasks. We put the thought, time and care into making these useful objects with the hopes that the users will somehow connect with them beyond their intended purpose. At least that's what I am striving for. Perhaps your reasons are different.

At any rate, I find it interesting to talk with other potters about what motivates them to make functional pottery and what it is that makes their pottery successful. And I think it is also a good exercise to sit down and really think about why you make what you make, and to evaluate your work—both the successes and the shortcomings.

So today, to get you thinking, I am presenting an excerpt from the Ceramics Monthly archive, in which several potters included in the 2009 Strictly Functional Pottery National (an annual juried exhibition of fantabulous pottery) discuss what functional pottery means to them and the qualities necessary to make their utilitarian work successful. - Jennifer Poellot Harnetty, editor

handmade pottery  Egg Tray by potter Susan Kennedy. Susan Kennedy, Waco, Texas

The egg tray idea actually began as a mancala board. Mancala is a game using seeds or stones, dropped into round divots, five or six on each player's side, with a larger, collection divot on each end. I had some finished boards around the studio at potluck time, and immediately recognized how well deviled eggs would nestle into the depressions. I enjoy specifity of function, and the celebratory feel of an elaborate serving piece. And I enjoy eggs.

Since eggs can be quite slippery, and prone to rolling, an egg tray needs depressions, somewhere for the eggs to sink in just a bit. Without this, the function of the egg tray becomes entertainment rather than food containment as the decked-out eggs slide into someone's dressed up lap.

I see the pieces I make as characters in an epic narrative, existing on many levels.  I want to give the user a vivid backstory, to bring the user up to date with the life of a piece thus far. After the piece leaves my world, it has a life of its own, continuing forward in the narrative, perhaps even finding a new career later in life.

As a child, I loved decorating the Christmas tree with my mom. As she unwrapped various globes of glass and silver, and aged yellow lace, she told me stories about my great grandfathers who worked in glass factories, or the student whose mother knitted the snowflake as a gift for my mom in her first year teaching. I am drawn to the power of the object, humble or valuable alike, to hold strong memory and deep feeling. Objects have a tactile way of connecting us through time. I believe our ceremonious interactions with nostalgic objects perform the function of ritual in a contemporary life.

I do feel sad if I catch my pots in the back of cabinets, but I accept the fact that once a pot is sold, it is beyond my control. Sometimes I have seen a pot put to better use than was intended, and welcome seeing a piece through someone else's eyes.I have more questions to ask than to answer, particularly about the various meanings of function. Is there a distinction between function and utility? Do we use the word functional when we mean to say tableware? Is function inextricably linked to food? Is containment an essential parameter for function? There aren't necessarily answers; I am more interested in the conversation.To see more images of Susan Kennedy's work, visit

Nicholas Bivins, Red Lodge, Montana

handmade pottery  Bottom view of one of Nicholas Bivins' Toasting Cup (full set shown above).I make "Toasting Cups" as a way to fit functional pots into peoples' collective celebration of their lives. This piece gains significance the more times it is used. A toast cannot occur with only one, and many times, the more the merrier. My goal for Toasting Cups is the act of toasting - so by experiencing the piece with friends through celebration, it is fulfilling its purpose. Using formal language to describe necessary qualities of a functional pot is a beginning, but for a piece to become truly successful it requires a much more dynamic investment and agreement between maker and user.

Toasting Cups was made with the understanding that when people gather, they like to celebrate the occasion with a toast. The type of beverage consumed can be quite arbitrary, but it's the tradition of toasting each other that I am keyed in on. This situation is a wonderful arena to play in, because of the importance of the role of the objects. It bothers me somewhat if a buyer does not use my work, because there is a huge amount of information contained in the use experience. I put a lot of time, effort, and research into making my pots feel good, not only to eyes, but also to hands and lips.To see more images of Nicholas Bivins' work, visit

**First published in 2008.