A visitor to our stand at a craft fair recently commented: “I can see a bit of perfectionism going on here!” On reflection we decided that the comment wasn’t entirely complimentary. People expect hand- made objects to look hand made. If it took four times as long to make and costs twice as much as the mass produced equivalent but ends up more or less the same, what’s the point?
James and I are perfectionists with our pots. James hates pots which go ovoid in the kiln and I hate decoration that has blurred or bleached under the glaze. James probably spends longer on each mug handle than it takes some potters to make a whole mug. Of course we are constantly trying to be more efficient but not if it means making less nice pots. The reward of finding in the kiln an exquisitely perfect pot is hugely motivating.
Is Perfectionism learned or innate? One of the first things I learnt on my apprenticeship to the potter, Rupert Spira was how to use a packing tape dispenser without creasing the tape. I packed a lot of boxes for him and although at the time probably thought he was a bit fussy, I too now can’t stand messy tape. I suspect perfectionism was latent in me waiting to be developed.
Towards the end of my apprenticeship, Rupert gave me a little test. He took out all thirteen mugs from his kitchen cupboard and put them on the table telling me that one of them was his favourite which he always sought out to use himself. The test was to identify that mug. There were no obvious clues; at first glance they were all identical – all large mugs made by him, glazed in celadon. I found it through a process of elimination: using my sense of touch more than sight – does the handle feel nice? Is the weight in the right place to feel balanced? Is the rim smooth? Etc.
These qualities alone will not usually persuade someone to buy a mug. They are subtle qualities, but they will influence the decision of which mug to grab from the cupboard. (It’s not just because it’s the one which got put away last and is therefore nearest the front.)
So that is the point. A lot of people buy mugs which are cheap so that they don’t have to worry about breaking them. But thankfully for us, there are people for whom those subtle qualities of perfectionism matter.