Rolled Rims – Pottery Semiotics 101

When throwing bowls, I mostly `roll’ my rims. I like the way folding the top back on itself, inside to outside, finishes the top of a pot. I enjoy the little bit of fiddle on the third or fourth pull after the ball of clay has been centred and the well sunk and opened up. To me, that fat, round rim looks solid, somehow inviting you to pick the pot up. To say `I intend to be used.’

I was thinking about this when looking for outlets for my work. In the process I’ve discovered a whole new field of semiotics that would have made those fancy French philosophers of the 1980s go all gooey with delight. It’s the study of rims on bowls.

It seems, places that identify as galleries like to have a few large bowls scattered around. They’re usually trumpet forms – narrow bases, wide openings – with thin rims. The great God of such things was, of course, she-who can-do-no-wrong, Lucie Rie.

Great potter though she was, Rie never made a pot you would want to use in the kitchen or put in a washing up machine. Hers were works of art. They were pots so beautiful I doubt there has ever been a potter who didn’t want to make bowls like Lucie’s at some point. But you will look for a rolled rim in vain. Not in Rie’s work and, try as I might, I can’t find any at the fancier end of the art-shop market.

Unless they happen to be selling pots by the late great Michael Casson that is. He used them on his work in the 1970s and 80s and he taught the technique when he kicked off his first throwing lesson when I was at Harrow College of Art and Technology in the early 70s. He had only just given up his role as head of the pottery department and the course was still about making functional ware. As a fat, rolled rim makes it possible to take steaming casseroles out of an AGA with oven gloves on it’s no surprise that such things are part of the stock in trade of Harrow alumni. Although, in all honesty, a Michael Cass bowl was unlikely to see much action in the oven or kitchen sink. His pots were often too big and I suspect that his prices were too high. Nonetheless, that was the aesthetic.

So, there you have it. A rim is not just a way of resolving the place where the exterior and interior meet. Or the random finish. That rim says something important about how its pot is to be used. Is it a working pot or a purely decorative piece? In other words, is it art or craft? Which, I suppose, bring in things like class and status but as I’m happy to be a potter I don’t think I’ll go there. Although it might be something to think about next time we all get locked down….