A simple aesthetic, natural materials and artisanal craft skills – qualities long regarded as characteristic of Japanese design – increasingly chime with current tastes. Indeed, western manufacturers have for some years worked deftly alongside contemporary Japanese designers such as Naoto Fukasawa and Nendo to create beautiful, unfussy pieces that uphold these timeless traits. Now an intriguing role reversal is taking place, as Japanese artisans invite western designers to update their traditional crafts for a global audience. It’s a case of waza – the Japanese term for accumulated knowledge and techniques – meeting foreign design expertise, resulting in old idioms being reworked into chic, contemporary homewares with international appeal.
When Japan Creative, a non-profit organisation that introduces traditional craft businesses to western designers, invited Jasper Morrison to work with Oigen, a family-run foundry in northern Japan, he leapt at the chance. “It was a rare opportunity,” says the British designer. “I’ve wanted to create something in cast iron for years, but there are very few companies still making it in any meaningful way.
“I find myself very drawn to the Japanese aesthetic, which seems completely timeless and natural,” he adds. “Oigen is a fifth-generation company based in Iwate – not far from the tsunami-hit region – which takes the development of its products very seriously. It works with Ito, a well-known chef, and we started the project with lunch at his restaurant, where he cooked five courses using various cast-iron pots and pans, explaining the advantages of each of them.” Morrison’s subsequent designs for Oigen – including a frying pan (£144), casserole dish (£144), grill pan (£144), kettle (£270) and spice container (£77) – garnered a Design Museum Design of the Year Award 2013 nomination for their minimal elegance. “It’s fantastic that Japan Creative is helping to raise global awareness of the many craft-based companies that are still active in Japan, producing objects of unbeatable quality,” he says.
London-based designer Peter Marigold couldn’t agree more. Paired with Chuzo Tozawa, the owner of woodworking company Hinoki Kogei, he created the Dodai bench (from about £8,000), which is made from Japanese cypress, a timber traditionally used for kimono cabinets. Its name – meaning “base” – refers to the architectural beams that form the structural foundations of Japanese dwellings. “The shape also references the small work bases used in Japanese workshops,” says Marigold. “Mr Tozawa is an amazing guy, kind of like an old samurai, always joking but underneath highly serious – with an incredible level of knowledge. He suggested using an ancient woodworking technique involving hammers and large wedges to split the log so that the halves ended up as mirror images.” The bench, which has an internal storage area, is covered with a mattress made from wooden rods and igusa, a densely woven material constructed from grass and often used for Japanese floor coverings.
French designer Inga Sempé’s collaboration with Koubei-Gama, a manufacturer of Oribe-ware pottery, was also brokered by Japan Creative. Her Oriva collection (from £35) of three bowls, three plates and a teapot zaps the classic colours of Oribe pottery – blues, greens and browns – into optically intriguing surface graphics. “Koubei-Gama has strong traditional know-how and a singular style, with colours and enamels developed over 150 years, so I created a tableware collection highlighting those features but making them much more contemporary,” says Sempé. “I never thought I’d be able to do something in this field, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.”
Meanwhile, Japan Creative introduced Israeli-born designer Ron Gilad to Fujisato Woodcraft, a company located in an area known for producing that Japanese household staple, the storage chest. Gilad’s Iwayado chest (price on request) is beautifully made from walnut with an interior of paulownia – another wood normally used for kimono storage. The design, in all its elegant simplicity, focuses purely on materials, craftsmanship and tradition, with iron handles, locks and hinges as the only ornamental details.
“Japanese companies tend to be very traditional; some have made the same things for 400 years,” says Thomas Lykke, creative director of Copenhagen-based design studio OeO, whose collaboration with a group of artisan workshops in Kyoto goes by the name of Japan Handmade. Its debut homeware collection, launched at Paris’s Maison et Objet show in January and shown during the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in April, reveals how traditional Japanese craft techniques – ceramics, weaving, metal-knitting, bamboo work – can be reinvigorated with a contemporary aesthetic. As Lykke puts it: “Our products tap into Japan’s artisan heritage but have an international appeal.”
Enthused by a meeting with artisans during a work trip to Kyoto, Lykke researched their respective companies’ histories and techniques over the course of numerous visits to Japan, assessing “how to take them to the next level from a craft perspective”. He set about designing products with a modern relevance, which “made sense for a global audience”. So bamboo specialist Kohchosai Kosuga – more used to creating flower baskets and tableware – was encouraged to make a series of bold lamps (from £1,000) whose handwoven shades cast moody shadows on walls and floors. Meanwhile, simple wooden buckets originally used for storing rice or miso, produced by woodcrafting workshop Nakagawa Mokkougei, were reconfigured as attractive, limited-edition stools/side tables made from Japanese cypress (about £3,900) or cedar (about £9,130) and hooped with copper.
“The biggest challenge was to think of relevant objects to make from metal knitting,” says Lykke. This historic technique, perfected by Kanaami-Tsuji’s Kyoto workshop, is conventionally used to create patterns on tofu servers and kitchen utensils. Now it has evolved into universally appealing designs for a copper fruit basket (£495), corkscrew (£230), wine stoppers (£220 for a pair), magnifying glass (£234) and paper knife (£260). A limited-edition library chair (£4,699) designed by Danish architect Borge Mogensen, whose copper seat is handwoven in a chrysanthemum pattern, is particularly charming.
The determination to develop new designs from old idioms has come primarily from the younger generations in these family-owned businesses. “They have a different drive and a more international outlook than their forebears. They want to do things differently while respecting the past,” says Lykke. Masataka Hosoo, a member of the 12th generation to work at the Hosoo textile company, founded in 1688, collaborated with OeO to apply Nishijin weaving (a textured, almost 3D technique traditionally used for kimonos) to silk fabrics, such as the geometric Harlequin Perspective (£165 per metre). Its Ultraviolet fabric has been incorporated into a striking love seat design (£8,732), the result of a further collaboration between Japan Handmade and Shanghai-based design firm Stellar Works.
Similarly, younger members of the Matsubayashi family, whose Asahiyaki ceramics company has specialised in exquisite colour-glazing for more than 400 years, have handcrafted contemporary teaware, designed by OeO, using individually selected, bold glazes for each piece (vases, from £650; trays, from £117; tea cups, £78).
Still, instead of forcing the pace of change, Lykke says, “most projects had a natural progression”. He cites Kaikado, a brand established in 1875 by Kiyosuke, who created the first tin tea caddy. This iconic design has evolved into a range of modern everyday objects such as a teapot (£700), pitcher (£585), jug (£456), vases (£1,300) and trays (from £130). Handmade in copper or brass, their sleek geometric shapes will age beautifully.
“I’ve always been very inspired by the Japanese aesthetic,” says Lykke. “It’s poetic, refined and very pure. I love the subtle details that are often hidden to the eye yet add to the feel of a design. At OeO we share the same passion for quality, craftsmanship and materials that age with grace as we found in Kyoto.”
Away from the initiatives of Japan Creative and Japan Handmade are international designers who are being sought out by individual artisan workshops keen to contemporise their wares. For example, one of Japan’s oldest porcelain manufacturers, 1616/Arita Japan, invited Dutch duo Scholten & Baijings to work on a tableware collection, knowing that the designers’ subtle approach to colour and form would add modern appeal.
“Getting to know a culture from inside is one of the most rewarding aspects of collaborations,” says Carole Baijings. “During a visit to Japan we were invited to join a traditional tea ceremony with the company’s owners. In a very special way they showed us what more they could do with their porcelain. It was a beautiful, Japanese way of asking us to think of new and different pieces for the brand.”
Initially, Scholten & Baijings prepared a colour analysis of Arita’s historical wares. Then their chosen shades – aquarelle blue, light green, red-orange, yellow ochre – were applied in varying levels of intensity to new designs. The result is the comprehensive Colour Porcelain collection (dinner plate, €82; bowl, €44; cup and saucer, €98), which reflects Arita’s classic spectrum in three series – Minimal, Colourful and Extraordinary – named for the amount of colour, detail and pattern employed in their designs.
An imaginative response to another traditional craft, woodworking, is seen in Scholten & Baijings’ collaboration with Karimoku New Standard, a four‑year-old brand belonging to 70-year-old manufacturer of wooden furniture Karimoku. Whereas solid Japanese hardwoods from low-diameter trees are usually left in the forest as waste, the Dutch designers have turned them into stained maple Colour stools with lacquered patterns (£405); painted, digitally printed and stained chestnut Colour Wood side tables (£724); and, most recently, the Colour Wood dining table (price on request) with translucent colours and patterns superimposed over textured chestnut wood. Each design is refreshingly contemporary.
Others work with wood in a different form. “I spent five weeks in Japan in 2009 and was intrigued by the traditional Chochin bamboo and paper lanterns you see everywhere,” says British designer Anthony Dickens. Back in London, he discovered an internet video of Japanese craftsmen making the sculptural Akari paper lights designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi in 1951. “Their skill is extraordinary, and the attention to detail remarkable,” Dickens declares. Experimenting in his studio with Tosa washi paper and Japanese starch paste, he designed a contemporary modular lighting system (£8,000 for 20 sections, to order). Called Tekio – the Japanese word for “adaptation” – it epitomises its name by curling round corners, sliding up walls and interlinking with other Tekio lights. The design is created from a single sheet of paper, has an internal bamboo structure to support it and takes standard CFL and LED bulbs. “It’s all handmade, as I wanted it to be as authentic as possible,” says Dickens.
Wafer-thin washi similarly intrigues Paris-based Hungarian designer Gabor Ulveczki. And when the local chamber of commerce in Ikazaki, a small village in south-west Japan, met Ulveczki via a government-led scheme in Paris, they asked him to find new uses for the locally made paper. A six-month stay in Ikazaki in 2008 (followed by another nine months in 2009) inspired him to create beautiful wallpapers with designs such as bamboo, camellias and lotus flowers, while training local artisans in his award-winning hand-gilding techniques at the same time.
The Gilded Washi Wallpaper collection (£980 per 10m), which incorporates gold, silver, copper and aluminium leaves, was launched at Decorex in 2011 by London-based Biden Designs. Last year a translucent version (£1,100 per 10m) was added that “allows colour on a wall, or light when applied on glass, to seep through gently in an organic way”, says Kuniko Thompson, the Japanese interior designer who runs the firm.
“I’m passionate about Japanese artisanship because the level of skill is incredible,” she proclaims. “These crafts have evolved over centuries, sometimes millennia. Still, products do have to change to cater for the needs of the times.” Very fortunately for design aficionados, that’s happening right now.