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Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005


Timeless complement of form and function

INSPIRED SHAPES: Contemporary Designs for Japan's Ancient Crafts, by Ori Koyama, translated by Charles Whipple, photographs by Mizuho Kuwata. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2005, 112 pp., 3,900 yen (cloth).

Life in urban Japan is so suffused with artificial, factory-produced materials that the soul can cry out for the natural. We drift in a sea of plastic and concrete, drinking from polyethylene terephthalate bottles and living in egg cartons sided with ersatz brick.

The logics of cost and convenience justify this fog of the synthetic, but happily any fears that mass utilitarianism is snuffing out good old-fashioned craftsmanship in design for daily living are dispelled by the research of Ori Koyama. Her gorgeously illustrated "Inspired Shapes: Contemporary Designs for Japan's Ancient Crafts" is proof that many of this country's artisans remain at once rooted in tradition and strikingly audacious.

An interior stylist, Koyama was raised in Tokyo by sake brewers, growing up among old vats and brewing implements that hadn't changed in generations. As an adult she rediscovered a fascination with watching human hands manipulate tools to produce works of craftsmanship and innovation. This crystallized when she happened upon an exhibition featuring a high-backed chair of black and tan susutake bamboo, darkened by long exposure to cookfires in an old Japanese home. Captivated, she acquired the chair and went on to research the movement it represented: Japanese craftsmanship informed by traditional techniques but in full embrace of contemporary aesthetics.

Over 50 of the best examples of these works in metal, bamboo, paper, wood, stone and other traditional media were photographed by the dynamic yet intimate lens of renowned photographer Mizuho Kuwata. The exquisite quality of the images in "Inspired Shapes" is nearly as striking as the works themselves.

A byobu folding screen made of washi paper by Sachio Yoshioka is like a piece of abstract art with its repeating three-tone gray linear pattern; the fifth-generation dyer likens it to a Kyoto winter scene. A uniquely modern light stand of black bamboo by architect Toshiko Kawaguchi has three swiveling "branches" with nested electric bulbs. Another featured artist, Ishikawa's Seiichiro Fujino, produces lacquerware that almost jumps off the page -- his award-winning "Flower" series of ornamental bowls are like red blobs of paint frozen in mid-splash. A closer look reveals the scalloped chiseling on the base of wood and steel, reflecting Fujino's desire to describe the relationship between the bowl's interior and surface.

More down to earth are the indigo zabuton of Kanagawa dyer Miho Usutani, though with their playful strands of undyed thread and odd sizes they're a refreshing change from your aunt's dowdy old tatami cushions. Humbler still are Yukiko Iwatani's wickerwork trays of paper mulberry bark, a material that Japanese farmers once used to weave baskets. As the author notes, with age the mulberry bark turns from green to light brown, and the rustic trays take on the imperfect, transient aspect of the wabi-sabi aesthetic.

Koyama's brief reflections on each medium and work, ably translated by Charles Whipple, convey her passion for mixing time-honored techniques and media with new design, and celebrating the results. She provides just enough background on materials and function to allow an appreciation of how these craftspeople are innovators, but also illuminates the beauty and inner life of their works with keen observation. For instance, understanding what gives a traditional inkstone value -- the uniformity of the grain and the beauty of its pattern -- allow us to see how skillfully artist Ryoichi Kobayashi has exploited the properties of Miyagi Prefecture slate to create exquisite black inkstone dining plates.

Supplemented by biographies and contact information for each craftsperson, "Inspired Shapes" is a handsome, informative tribute to the work of human hands and artistic vision. It's also an exploration of the possibilities inherent in the convergence of the old and new in form and function, an intercourse as much a part of Japan's rich artistic history as its future.

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