Arita porcelain gets a 21st-century update

The virtuoso kilns of the Japanese town of Arita are winning over a new generation of fans with their 400th anniversary collections. Katrina Burroughs reports

Studio Wieki Somers porcelain Afternoon tea set for the 2016/ collection, price on request
Studio Wieki Somers porcelain Afternoon tea set for the 2016/ collection, price on request | Image: © Scheltens & Abbenes

Arita. If you are a collector of antique porcelain, with those three syllables, I have secured your attention. A town in Saga Prefecture, on the Japanese island Kyushu, Arita is the birthplace of Japanese porcelain. In 1616, Korean potter Yi Sam-pyeong discovered porcelain stone, toseki, in the mountains above Arita. During the following centuries, the area spawned scores of kilns, and craftsmen, and its elegant wares were exported across the globe, many ending up in the royal courts and aristocratic houses of Europe. And this year, the word is having the same dog-whistle effect on lovers of contemporary design as it does on the enthusiasts who bid on 17th- and 18th-century Kakiemon at Christie’s. To celebrate Arita’s 400th anniversary, its virtuoso makers have collaborated with leading designers to produce hundreds of covetable pieces for the modern table.

“You can compare the Arita district with the Champagne area in France,” says Stefan Scholten, co-founder of the Dutch design studio Scholten & Baijings. “It’s only within this area of production that your work can be called Arita porcelain.” The name Arita also carries with it Champagne’s connotations of tradition and quality. So when Scholten was approached by Noriyuki Momota, president of the Momota Touen Corporation, a pottery trading company in Arita, with a grand vision for a design project called 2016/, he was delighted to be involved. It wasn’t simply the chance to work with some of the world’s most skilled potters that enticed Scholten and his wife and creative partner Carole Baijings. The history of collaboration and commerce between Japan and the Netherlands made the project irresistible.

Scholten & Baijings porcelain Let’s Show 
Off A Little plates for the 2016/ collection, price on request
Scholten & Baijings porcelain Let’s Show Off A Little plates for the 2016/ collection, price on request | Image: © Scheltens & Abbenes

The tale of Arita’s original rise to become the foremost producer of porcelain is the story of European wealth, Japanese craft, and Dutch genius in matchmaking the two. When conflict ravaged China during the mid-17th century, the porcelain manufacturing centre of Jingdezhen was destroyed, resulting in the ruling Ming dynasty being overthrown. The fall of the dynasty provided a challenge for the Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) and an opportunity for the potters of Arita. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, scholar of Japanese porcelain, and curator behind the British Museum’s recent exhibition Made in Japan: Kakiemon and 400 years of porcelain, sums up the situation: “The Dutch were desperate because they had just cornered the market from the Portuguese, and there was a huge call for porcelain in Europe.” She describes how the VOC placed its first order with Arita in 1657, and then instructed the makers to take over China’s export market. “Within a decade of the start of the trade, the Dutch said to their Japanese counterparts they wanted brighter colours and more inventive, interesting objects – so the local government put money into Kakiemon porcelain and developed vibrant colours on a creamy white porcelain called nigoshide [taken from the word nigoshi, a Saga Prefecture term for the cloudy white water left after washing rice]”.

One person who loved this ware was Queen Mary II, wife of William of Orange. She had been known to favour this style of ceramic while living in Holland and when she returned to England in 1689, after the so-called Glorious Revolution. Arita couldn’t have wished for more influential brand champions than Mary and her Dutch prince. The couple settled in Hampton Court Palace, with the world’s most significant collection of Kakiemon, and Arita porcelain became all the rage across Europe.

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It was this historical precedent that inspired Noriyuki Momota to suggest a 21st-century Dutch-Japanese partnership, one of 17 projects supported by Saga Prefecture, which the area’s marketing folk are calling “Arita, Episode 2”. They have good reason to desire a sequel. Today, Arita is a medium-sized town with 150 potteries and pottery-related businesses. Despite its rich history, sales have slumped during the past decade. In 2014, its porcelain trade was worth Y4,359m (about $42m), down from a peak in 1992 of about $237m. The craftspeople of Arita earnestly hope that this year’s ranges will surely be as sought-after as those created by their 17th-century ancestors.

So which of the 400th anniversary collections will contemporary buyers crave? Top of their wishlist will be 2016/: under the creative direction of Scholten & Baijings and Teruhiro Yanagihara, 16 designers from Europe, America and Japan worked with 10 porcelain companies in Arita. The Afternoon tea set (price on request), designed by Studio Wieki Somers and made at Koransha kiln, is the most arresting result, with colour skilfully graded from dark, glossy indigo to white, while a tea set by Christien Meindertsma was inspired by shopping lists the Dutch sent to Japan, which included linen as well as porcelain. Her delicately lovely Linen for the Shogun (price on request), made by Fujimaki Seitou Pottery, is seamed like sewn linen.

Arita Porcelain Lab porcelain multi-use bowls for the Arita 400 collection, from €54 at Maison WA
Arita Porcelain Lab porcelain multi-use bowls for the Arita 400 collection, from €54 at Maison WA

Scholten & Baijings itself collaborated with Shuji Hataishi, a fifth-generation potter whose family kiln is Hataman Touen, to make the spectacular limited edition range called Let’s Show Off A Little. The 27 plates and dishes (price on request) are inspired by 17th- and 18th-century porcelain. Rather than copying antique form and decoration, Scholten & Baijings scoured the pottery’s archives and collated a variety of outline shapes, which they combined: the handpainted ornament is based on details discovered on antique pieces – the feathers of a bird and the leaves of a plant – scaled up and remixed to make abstract patterns. The porcelain is created with the consummate skill that comes from centuries of craft, but the design is highly original, full of delightful surprises.

Aficionados of antique Arita say surprises have always been part of the package. Mark Hinton, Christie’s international director of Japanese art, says: “They were very adventurous in the 17th century. Those colours were unique at the time. Everyone had blue and white porcelain, and suddenly this dynamic colour arrived. Those vivid enamels must have created the most enormous stir.” While the contemporary kilns of Arita are plotting renewed dining table domination, Hinton says the market for 17th- and 18th-century Arita porcelain is taking off. “One or two prices in our last sale were back to bubble-time prices” – the boom period of the early 1980s until 1990, when Japanese collectors were buying and repatriating all the Arita they could lay hands on. A late-17th-century Kakiemon model of a cockerel, which was estimated to fetch £6,000-£8,000, realised £35,000.

Nobu Matsuhisa and Tokko-gama Kiln porcelain sake set for the Arita x Nobu collection, £179, exclusive to Harrods
Nobu Matsuhisa and Tokko-gama Kiln porcelain sake set for the Arita x Nobu collection, £179, exclusive to Harrods

The 2016 ranges look equally likely to spark competition. Although prices have not yet been announced, at the time of writing there was already a waiting list for the 30 limited edition sets of Let’s Show Off A Little, which will be released this November in Tokyo. Tableware created for Arita 400, another Episode 2 project, will be easier to acquire – for those passing through Paris. The collection of new work by eight established makers, produced under the creative direction of Ken Okuyama, was unveiled at the Maison & Objet trade fair in January and key pieces are now available at Maison WA, a gallery devoted to “traditional Japanese objects”.

The most interesting of the Arita 400 producers is Arita Porcelain Lab, whose owner, Satoru Matsumoto, is a seventh-generation potter. Founded in 1804, and formerly known as Yazaemon Pottery, it was the town’s largest workshop and famous for its gilded Imari ware in the 19th century. Now it’s considered among the cutting-edge contemporary makers. Top picks from its new collection include perfectly simple bowls (from €54) with lustrous, brush-finished glazes and highly decorative teapots (from €190), with gilded ornament that evokes the pottery’s past glories.

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One anniversary range pays tribute to Saga Prefecture’s culinary heritage as well as its craft tradition: Arita x Nobu, the stellar collaboration between Tokko-gama Kiln and chef Nobu Matsuhisa, which is available exclusively at Harrods. Nobu, a passionate fan of the region’s gastronomy, already uses this tableware in his Asian-fusion restaurants worldwide. The design is a serene combination of traditional and minimal, featuring plain modern forms with accents of classic Kakiemon blue and red. Conceived to be used rather than displayed, the tableware is wonderfully tactile, from the shallow indentations on the dessert plates (£139.95 each) where the sun motifs are placed, to the pleasingly ribbed base of the sake carafe in the sake set (£179).

The real coup is the softly glowing background glaze of the plates. Hiroyuki Tokunaga of Tokko-gama Kiln, whose family pottery was founded in 1865, says: “Chef Nobu was very specific about the colour and texture of the white base of the plates. He felt that if it was too shiny, it would leave the fingerprints of the servers holding the plates during service.” The chef was also keen to improve upon the grey-white colour of the modern Arita porcelain. “He challenged us to aim for a more vibrant white. We developed a special glaze just to meet Nobu’s needs. The matte texture was achieved by microscopic crystals in the glaze, and the diffused reflection of light that these tiny glazed particles produce is what makes the plates so lustrous.” That’s contemporary Arita for you. The culmination of 400 years of craft, on a plate.

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