Makers of studio pottery, for the most part, have created beautiful functional pottery that responds to the desires and uses of the general public.

With a focus on 1960s - 2000s this article looks at how studio pottery has responded to the fashion of the moment and how it functions in the domestic environment.

by Finn McCahon-Jones

The Vase in Action

From the earliest photographs and drawings showing New Zealand interiors, the vase has always been present. The vase, along with all other objects we own, has been chosen by the owner to adorn their dwelling space. The objects we have reflect the habits, activities and social beliefs that surround our everyday lives. Ultimately the vase is a vessel; used to hold and display flowers, and to bringing colour and life into the house. Vases, until after WWII, have been an object of wealth due to import restrictions. However, with the post-war economy, and more recently, the opening of the retail market (1984); and online trading (2010s), vases have increased in availability and popularity.

While researching this topic it seems that the vase is often more aestheticised as a decorative object, rather than its function as a vessel. Craft books are filled with images of empty stoic vases and potters are never interviewed about the function of their vases. This text is an overview of some of the popular functions of a vase.

Doreen Blumhardt, vase, date unknown.

Te Papa, GH013503

Functional Vase

A good vase should be beautiful enough to just be a pot on your table; but it should also perform its function as a vessel. A vase should have a heavy bottom to support the weight of flowers as they spread out of the top of the rim. You should have a range of vases: small ones for posies, wide rimmed vases for open displays, tall vases for upright long stemmed displays; and bud vases or a twig pot for the single stem, blade of grass or twig.

A vase of chrysanthemums on the television in the lounge at 4 Alton Avenue, Hillcrest, 1968

Ron Clark Auckland Libraries, 1207-828


Nowhere is the flower display more aestheticized than in the Japanese art of Ikebana. In this art each stem is carefully selected to present the beauty of the whole plant in connection to their leaves and general form, then carefully arranged with other elements to create a formal sculptural display. More common ‘Western’ arrangements prize only the stem and head and are often arranged by stuffing them into any vase.

From the late 1960s right through the 1980s Ikebana flower arranging became a mainstream pursuit, and because of this a number of potters took up making specialised vases. In Auckland, Pots of Ponsonby ran annual Ikebana shows where potters and Ikebana schools would collaborate creating an opportunity to view pots as vessels for these specialised arrangements.

A New Zealand Aesthetic

During the 1950s-1970s New Zealand potters and artists were in search of a New Zealand vernacular. Taking ideas from the mingei pottery movement from Japan, potters created vases that reflected the local landscape through form and the use of local clays and glazes. It was common to find these pots filled with toi toi heads and long dried native grasses to celebrate the beautiful local landscape - artist Anne McCahon, in her Titirangi home, would display golden-leaved branches of the kauri tree.[1]

Twig Pots

Twig pots or grass pots are more about form and the nature of clay, rather than their functionality as a vase. Len Castle in particular believed that pots didn’t necessarily need a function or purpose - that pots could be objects in their own right.[2] Castle’s grass vases are primarily sculptures in their function, yet with small holes poked in the top they could still be used as a vase. One of Castle's contemporaries Doris Dutch made exceptional twig pots.

Len Castle, vase, c.1960s,

88 x 75 x 70 mm © reproduced with kind permission from the estate of Len Castle Auckland Museum, 1996.118.3

The Conceptual Vase

Right through history the vase has been fetishized; often representing an idea rather than being purely functional. Wealthy households would display vases as memento of worldly travels; or showing off an exotic material like porcelain. In the modern period vases were displayed as empty vessels, as practical art that enlivened the space in sculptural terms. Often large floor pots and voluptuous vases were used to juxtapose the architectural lines of the modern house.

During the 1980s-1990s many potters purposely moved away from the physical vessel to create ceramic sculptures or conceptual vessels. While many of the objects being created still resembled vases, they were designed as objects to inhabit the post modern lifestyles of a burgeoning consumer culture. These vases had the mystique and presence of an object straight from a catalogue, rather than an artist’s studio.

Wall pockets

Wall pockets, or wall vases, are designed to be hung on the wall on a small hook. Wall pockets allow for people to display flowers next to paintings and photographs, adding a fresh dynamic look to the room, usually displaying flowers picked from the garden. Wall pockets were familiar vases in Catholic households especially in the 1950s-1960s,[3] these vases were used to provide floral offerings to the Virgin Mary. In Christianity flowers have specific meanings and are chosen to convey different stories and moments in the calendar. [4]

Woman sitting at table with wall vase, c.1940s

Tudor Collins Auckland Museum, PH-2013-7-TC-B780-10


In 2019 watching Instagram feeds and looking at magazines celebrating homes and gardens, the vase doesn’t seem to be a staple piece anymore. Emphasis is placed on plates, cups, jugs and utensils. At this moment we are in the midst of a craft revival that has also incorporated food – food and the vessel have entered a symbiotic relationship of aesthetics like never before. Carefully arranged food, on beautiful handmade plates often resembles a flower arrangement or edible Ikebana; has the plate become the new vase?

Chef Ben Bayly and potter Peter Collis collaborated on a range of dinnerware 'Bayly & Collis'

All rights reserved, Peter Collis

Header image: John Parker surrounded by his geometric pottery forms, 27 June 1980. Photographed by Steve rumsey for NZ Potter vol. 23/2, 1981. (Detail) All Rights Reserved. Te Papa, E.006932

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

Buy now


McCahon-Jones, Finn. 'The Vase in Action', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11/11/2019.


[1] Finn McCahon-Jones in conversation with William McCahon, April 2018

[2] Peter Cape, Artists and Craftsmen of New Zealand (1969), p.22

[3] Finn McCahon-Jones, conversations with visitors to Te Toi Uku Museum, c.2016  []

[4] Catholic Women's League of Victoria and Wagga Wagga - Catholic symbolism of flowers [Facebook]

More information

Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner, Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945-1980. Auckland: David Bateman Ltd, 2009

Tanya Harrod, The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century. Great Britain: Yale University Press, 1999

Peter Cape, Artists and Craftsmen in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1969

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan. The Art and Meaning of Ikebana 1973 (film)