Working with Sets and Superstitions

I have been thinking about the significance of sets lately. Rarely do I make sets of three. This is practically based on my buyer's desire for functional sets of four, six, or eight. This fits the average western family consisting of two children and two parents. If a buyer purchases four each family member gets their own piece, while a set of six has a few spares to replace the ones you might break. A set of eight is ideal for larger families, or those who don't want to do their dishes after every meal.

This number theory however doesn't hold true in China where the single-child policy has created multiple generations of three member nuclear families. (Click here for  more info on the single-child policy.) A three person family would most likely buy a set of three, five, or six. They would not buy four because of the number's unlucky association with death. In Mandarin the word four, "Si", sounds similar to the word for death. The tones are different but the association is close enough to make four a "bad" number. Numeric superstition carries into dates also. There are good and bad days on the lunar calendar that are based on astrological significance. When we opened our studio my boss looked for an auspicious day to bring us luck in our business. 

In addition to numbers, colors are filled with cultural associations. In China a bride can not wear blue because it is rumored to bring bad luck to the marriage. This color prohibition continues into pottery. I had an instance where someone commented on my work, "Don't use that shade of blue. It's bad luck. No one will buy it." The concept of luck is taken very seriously in China. In contrast, imagine telling your friend "You can't buy this car because its unlucky color will ruin your life." Statements like this seem comical and out of place because freedom of choice is a given in the western world. An individual can buy a car, a wedding dress, or any other object of a particular color without creating cultural friction. Individual-first societies have superstitions but they tend to loose sway when confronted with personal taste. (1.* see below) The strength of Chinese superstitions is related to the desire for cultural cohesion. The psychological remnants of the Cultural Revolution still fuel a desire for uniformity. In the west cultural cohesion and personal taste are not in opposition. It is possible to have individual preferences without being seen as a threat to your culture. (2.*see below)

One way I have navigated around the speed bumps of superstition is to make service ware. There is no way to pick an unlucky number for a serving set because its communal nature doesn't tie the bad luck to one specific person. There are so many different needs for serving foods that luck is superseded by necessity. Living outside of my own culinary tradition has helped me see table ware in a whole new light. Every meal is an education in food service. I have tried many new types of food with their own specific methods of service. I especially like the Chinese love of mixing small amounts of strong flavors. The table is often filled with small dishes of intensely flavored sauces made of garlic, hot peppers, and a Sichuan Pepper that numbs your mouth.

Here is a design exercise based on numbered sets that I find interesting. Make a set of three pots where each individual is decorated differently. The set must be unified but no pot can be the same. Make a additional set of four where each individual is decorated differently. Again this set must be unified but no design can be the same. Now compare the sets. Do you notice any difference between the set of three and four? I notice that the inherent asymmetry of a set of three changes the way I approach the decoration. I find it hard to put symmetrical decoration on an odd numbered set. Even numbered sets can go either way. I'm not sure why this is but it shows that the way you frame the problem largely determines the outcome. Has anyone else noticed something like this when making sets?

Footnotes- a.k.a late night tangents
1.* This points to a byproduct of democracy; the belief that each person is entitled to their own opinion regardless of the larger culture around them. This belief empowers the individual to make every day decisions of little consequence, like which cereal to buy, and more major decisions, like ballot referendums on gun control. Theoretically, a democracy insures that an individual that holds a minority opinion has the same  power as their majority counterparts.

2.* To believe in a superstition it is helpful to identify as a member of the culture that created the superstition. A cultural native sees their personal experience as confirmation of superstitions were an outsider sees the same experience as unrelated. It is very hard to adopt another cultures superstitions because complete assimilation is rare. The role of the outsider is always one of observation even if they are fully participating in the culture.


  1. Thanks for posting this Ben. I have been thinking a lot recently about how the public looks at pots, and the example of a cultural perspective is sometimes huge. I hadn't thought about color superstitions before, but that is a great example of how something seemingly so innocent in one context can be make or break in another.

    I thought your last post was great too, but I've been so slammed lately that I couldn't get my response out the way I wanted.

    I will need to do some more thinking about the exercise you suggest trying. It sounds really provocative and interesting. Thanks for giving us such great food for thought!

  2. Hey thanks Carter. I'm glad you liked the posts. I look forward to seeing your pots from that exercise. I have been "assigning" my self lots of homework lately. My mind feels open and my brush work is getting better as a result. Do you often give yourself design assignments? Have a good night.

  3. Really interesting post, Ben! I enjoy reading about your unique experiences and perspective from there. Numerology has always had a certain odd attraction to me, even though I don't believe a lick of it. Seems to dovetail so naturally with making pots and all the decisions in the process, like your decorative schemes and number of pots in a set.

    On a somewhat related topic, I did a post last year about bilateral vs. trilateral symmetry: http://www.stearthpottery.com/this-week-at-st-earth/2010.php#0314

    Thanks for sharing such engaging stuff!