Zen and the Art of Buying Ceramics

Damaged Vase

A beautifully damaged vase resting on the Noborigama after firing at the Takatori Kiln

For most businesses, once a product has been designed and prototyped, that's it, the template has been made and you know what you are getting. Photos go up on the website, the copy is written, and the product is set up and ready to go.

It's not quite so simple when you have to cope with the vagaries of clay, glaze and kilns, let alone the idiosyncracies of craftsmen and women! We go on about fukanzen no bi and expect our customers to put up with variation in our products, but where do we draw the line? When is the unexpected a failure and when is it acceptable?

We try and be as generous as possible, as long as the items aren't cracked and broken we will try and take them (and even if they are, we can always see if we can send them to Tanaka san for his Kintsugi magic). This has its risks - will a new look be as popular as the last one? And can we replicate it again if it is popular! Of course sometimes, we have to reject things, but in general we encourage our Makers to show us the mistakes and we will normally take them.

Working together, thousands of miles apart, trust is the most important piece of our relationship with our Makers. We both take risks and we try to help each other even if things don't work out as we both expect. It can be hard to be positive and optimistic when things don't work out as planned, but we remind ourselves that there is value in everything, we just have to work out how to find it.

A great example is the Takatori family. Despite being highly skilful potters, they are not used to making things to a uniform shape and size. The beauty of a Japanese tea bowl lies in its individual beauty not whether it conforms to a design brief! Each year, the shape and glaze will change slightly as we work together to improve the shape and size of the handle for example, and then we have to see whether the materials behave as they should in the kiln too.

First Firing Takatori Fude Mug

The first iteration of our fude mug had a beautiful green/brown ground, a fuller "belly" on the shape and a thin handle. These were very popular and we asked Takatori to make more...

Takatori mug second firing

The second iteration was quite different from the first: the ground was a richer brown and the throwing rings were more visible; the drips were longer and more defined; and the shape was slightly smaller and more slender. The Takatori family were worried that the whole lot would be discarded, but while being different from the first lot, these are beautiful mugs too. Of course, this means new photos and an updated product description, but that is a small price to pay for real handmade beauty.

Third iteration Takatori Japanese Mugs

You can see that the third iteration has a shape somewhere between the previous two. It is hard to see, but the handle is thicker and more substantial too. The glaze is very rich and glossy and the drips have a great texture and colour.

We will have to see what happens next time - as we get more experienced, we have become better at seeing the beauty in each new firing, and we even begin to look forward to the shock of the unexpected! There is no Platonic ideal mug out there, and it is quite rare to find real imperfection too. We know that one person will pick up a mug and reject it, and the next person will love it, it is just a matter of match-making.