ROUGH, KNOBBY pots with incised designs, in autumn colors of rusty reds to oranges, shadowy blues to browns, were centerpieces at the recent Nigeria dinner given by President and Mrs. Mrs. Carter at the White House. The Carters have often used American crafts, especially pottery, as centerpieces for state occasions.

Most of the pots are more than a foot high, and generously wide. The potter, Paul Chaleff, uses the fired wood-burning process that he studied in Japan to make his pots. Strong texture is the result. The pieces are engraved with a circular design and incisions similar to Japanese characters. Some are oblong, while others are squat and round.

Designer Carlton Varney from New York, who helps out with many White House functions, asked his friend, Paul Chaleff, also of New York, to lend 18 of his ceramic pots from an exhibition at the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York City.

Florist Don Vanderbrook panicked when he saw the big pots. He was honored to be asked to decorate the tables for the White House state dinner, but he was expecting the usual small table vase.

"They told me to bring down enough flowers to decorate vases that were 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Instead, the vases -- actually enormous ceramic pots -- turned out to be about 9 to 10 inches.

"Luckily, on my way to D.C. from Ohio, I picked some wild flowers along the road. If it hadn't been for them I never would have had enough."

The final centerpieces that adorned the 18 tables at the state dinner honoring the president of Nigeria last month were quite magnificent and admired greatly by the 180 guests. The Nigerian president particularly enjoyed the elaborate flower arangements, since gardening is one of his favorite out-of-office pastimes.

Vanderbrook's flower arrangements, which he put together the morning of the dinner in the downstairs hall, complemented Chaleff's works. Each pot had a different arrangement, including bittersweet, water lilies, dogwood, cosmos, perennial sweet pea, dahlias, gaillardia, as well as a few shoots of wheat. Around the pots, Vanderbrook put crabapples, tomatoes, walnuts, grapes and pomegranates. The colors bursting forth from each centerpiece brough chaleff's pots and the entire table to life, accenting the mauve-colored tablecloth and picking up the gold trim of the Truman china and the amber-colored glass candlesticks. The napkins at each place setting were tied with a gold-or mauve-colored velvet ribbon, giving the final autumn touch to the October night.