The Japanese artisans flourishing in the UK

A new wave of Japanese artisans is making an impact with striking objets inspired by eastern traditions and shaped by western sensibilities. Rachelle Gryn Brettler reports

Junko Mori with her steel and silver Botany/Horsetail
Junko Mori with her steel and silver Botany/Horsetail | Image: Adrian Sassoon, London

The cultural romance between the UK and Japan has deep roots – the term “Anglo-Japanese” was coined in 1851 – but it is a relationship that is still very much blossoming and, particularly from a design perspective, has a new freshness. The beautifully designed and curated Japan House, featuring three floors of Japanese culture, opened this summer in London, and Japanese aesthetic ideas continue to be embraced: wabi-sabi, the acceptance and appreciation of imperfection, and kintsugi, the repairing of broken ceramics with seams of gold, have recently taken root in the British design lexicon. Something significant is also happening in the UK’s galleries and studios, as a new generation of Japanese artists and craftspeople who have chosen to live and work in the UK are being increasingly recognised for their creation of exquisite collectables

From left: Junko Mori’s Silver Organism; Square Spikes in forged fine silver, £33,000, and Uncontrollable Beauty; Spring Plants in forged fine silver, £35,500
From left: Junko Mori’s Silver Organism; Square Spikes in forged fine silver, £33,000, and Uncontrollable Beauty; Spring Plants in forged fine silver, £35,500 | Image: Adrian Sassoon, London

The diverse appeal of the UK stretches from its creative freedom to the strength of its art schools, from its history of individuality to its specific craft traditions. Silversmith Kei Tominaga was inspired to perfect her métier in the UK, a hub for this most European of traditions, after reconnecting with a former Tokyo art professor who introduced her to a Japanese silversmith in London. Together tutor and student also explored the gold and silversmith treasures at the V&A before Tominaga embarked on her new career in London as a maker of handcrafted metalwork and jewellery inspired by the unexpected beauty in ordinary things. London is now very much her home. “We Japanese feel comfortable here,” she says. “It’s not my country. It’s fresh. It’s easy to be here – I can create.”

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Tominaga’s distinctive silver Standing Spoons (from £120) – shaped like plastic ice-cream spoons – have gained particular attention. Her bud vases (from £250) and square trays (from £420) have paper-like folds with sharp, straight lines – clearly influenced by the Japanese art of paper folding, but informed by UK traditions. Her decision to work with silver was her way of pushing back against society’s increasingly disposable attitudes, driven by the simple theory that “people wouldn’t throw away an expensive product”.

Kei Tominaga’s sterling silver Standing Spoons, from £120
Kei Tominaga’s sterling silver Standing Spoons, from £120 | Image: Juliet Sheath

Taking the precious metalwork one step further is North Wales-based Junko Mori, who has become one of the UK’s leading artisans working in silver and steel, with work featured in numerous public collections at venues including the British Museum, the V&A and the Crafts Council. Mori developed a love of organisms and variations of patterns as a child after becoming obsessed with looking at nature through the lens of her brother’s microscope; she now turns these observations into beautiful objects. Having originally studied and worked as a blacksmith in Japan, Mori followed in the footsteps of celebrated UK-based silversmith Hiroshi Suzuki to study at Camberwell. After graduating she was swiftly represented by Suzuki’s gallerist Adrian Sassoon, where director Mark Piolet describes her work as: “Very tactile, organic, meticulous and considered. A pleasure to behold.” The gallery has expanded its stable to include Japanese artists working in porcelain, glass, lacquer and bamboo; and of these, Piolet observes, “[They are] technically brilliant – the way they are able to finish pieces to the highest standards, the tenacity, the detail.”

Akiko Hirai’s stoneware and porcelain Moon Jar, £3,600
Akiko Hirai’s stoneware and porcelain Moon Jar, £3,600

Mori’s blacksmith background means that she is fearless in her use of metals, both steel (from £1,300) and silver (the most beautiful and complex forms are priced up to £90,000). Her sculptures – such as the ongoing Propagation Project series (from £6,000), which incorporates undulating amorphic forms – are created from multiple forged elements that are made individually and soldered together meditatively, piece by piece.

Mizuyo Yamashita’s terracotta, stoneware and brass Herringbone teapot, £280
Mizuyo Yamashita’s terracotta, stoneware and brass Herringbone teapot, £280 | Image: Jon Stoke. Nick MacMahon

Ceramics also play a large part in this narrative. Globally recognised ceramicist Akiko Hirai is at the forefront of the story – despite being brought up to believe that art was not a suitable career. Having studied cognitive psychology in Japan, Hirai came to the UK and immediately appreciated the multicultural richness of society’s celebration of creative diversity. “In Japan you don’t see many foreigners. Everybody acts the same – there is a saying ‘a nail sticking out will be hit’.” 

Ikuko Iwamoto with her porcelain Pofupofu vase, £1,500
Ikuko Iwamoto with her porcelain Pofupofu vase, £1,500

Hirai, who chooses to make homewares because they are more “humble”, consciously embraces Japanese aesthetics and her work is all produced with the philosophy that if you want to make a happy pot you have to be happy. Pieces range from stoneware cups (from £65) and vases (from £300) to magnificent textured-clay Moon Jars (£650 to £3,800) that are generously round forms oozing glazes with volcanic energy. In the wabi-sabi vein, her “forms are perfect in their own imperfect way,” says Karen Whiteley, who features Hirai’s work at her Maud & Mabel gallery in Hampstead. Hirai is “prolific but her work is always high quality and easily identifiable.” Maud & Mabel also showcases work from other UK-based Japanese ceramicists who share the gallery’s pure organic shibumi aesthetics – including the miniature pottery (from £40) of Shizuoka-born Yuta Segawa and textured tableware (£280) of Mizuyo Yamashita, who often leads kintsugi workshops and pottery classes from her London Fields studio.

From left: Ikuko Iwamoto’s porcelain Ants Nest cup, £120, and her porcelain and wire The Shape of Wall Sculpture to Come II, £3,750
From left: Ikuko Iwamoto’s porcelain Ants Nest cup, £120, and her porcelain and wire The Shape of Wall Sculpture to Come II, £3,750

Hirai works in the same Hackney studio complex as ceramicist Ikuko Iwamoto. Iwamoto inhabits a monochrome world of white – white studio, white porcelain tableware and white sculptures – where shadows create shades of colour. She also studied at Camberwell where the teaching style was totally different to her experiences in Japan, where technique was taught first and then they were “free to make”. In London “it is the concept first, then design development and then the final piece”. Iwamoto’s intricate work, like Mori’s, stems from an interest in the near-invisible world of microorganisms: the Ants Nest cup (£120) has a skin of raised dots, while her large Spiky Spiky bowl (£380) is like a sea urchin with its hand-rolled wild spikes. Her tableware (from £22 for a milk jug to £500 for a teapot) has a hint of polka-dot princess Yayoi Kusama and “a precision and mentality that is very Japanese” says Ayako Uchino of the Sway Gallery in Old Street, which specialises in Japanese crafts and shows Iwamoto’s work that “‘sways’ between eastern culture and the western world”. Grander in scale, her newest framed sculptures (£3,750) draw on Iwamoto’s heritage by incorporating rural treasures discovered at her family’s orange farm south of Osaka.

Kazuhito Takadoi’s walnut, beech twig and paper string Sekka (Snowflake), from £4,200
Kazuhito Takadoi’s walnut, beech twig and paper string Sekka (Snowflake), from £4,200 | Image: Jaggedart

Fellow Camberwell graduate Yuta Segawa chose to study in the UK so he could think about his work from a broader perspective. When he began, innovation was strongly encouraged by his tutor, the artist Barnaby Barford. Segawa talks with passion of his appreciation for the “great tradition of British pottery and the new presentation of ceramics influenced by Grayson Perry”, and is now the maker of extraordinary tiny pots. He has drawn on Japanese and Chinese ceramic history for inspiration as well as the miniature work of Scandinavians such as Stig Lindberg and Berndt Friberg to create micro vases, measuring from 5mm in height and thrown on his wheel. He produces up to 35 pieces a day, constantly pushing the boundaries of both the materials and his creativity: “It is a challenge to test the limits of what can be made on such a small scale,” he says. He experiments with materials – porcelain, terracotta, stoneware and even soil – and makes new glazes daily, in an incredible array of shapes and colours.

Yuta Segawa’s miniature porcelain and stoneware pots, from £40
Yuta Segawa’s miniature porcelain and stoneware pots, from £40

Soil also plays a role in the work of Kazuhito Takadoi, whose fascination with British landscape and gardens originally drew him to the UK to study horticulture at RHS Garden, Wisley, having studied at Japan’s Hokkaido University Faculty of Agriculture in Sapporo. His sculptures (from £4,200) blend elements from the plants he collects from a nearby organic farm – twigs and grasses are woven using the traditional crafts of basketry, embroidery and gold leafing, “making it contemporary in a very beautiful way,” says Andrea Harari of Marylebone’s Jaggedart gallery, which shows Takadoi’s work. The methods are painstaking and intricate: in the Rinkaku series (£6,700), blades of green grass – which fade with time – are meticulously stitched over circles of gold leaf to create organic forms overlapped by embroidered circles of sumi ink-dyed string. “Anyone would be able to see that the creator is Japanese,” says Harari. “It comes across immediately. The work is very quiet and all about time – time for the grass to grow, and then the time it takes to eventually change. That is something very Japanese.” Takadoi enjoys the artistic freedom he has in the UK to follow his own path and to experiment with new materials and techniques. But he talks of the links to Japanese tradition, which for him has two main principles: less is more and avoiding symmetry – which he combines with abstraction from western art.

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Monozukuri – an idea of craftsmanship where the maker takes a back seat to the act of making – is the word used by Simon Wright, director of programming at Japan House, to describe the unique quality that these Japanese artists bring to British culture. All these collectables are produced with a love of making and materials that, by pushing boundaries between east and west, reflect a contemporary beauty built upon centuries of tradition.

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