Eriko Horiki, the woman credited with revolutionising the 1,400-year-old world of handmade Japanese paper, or washi, is unlike most artisans in the country. Tall, slim and elegant, the immaculately groomed Horiki arrives for the interview in her trademark black Armani suit, looking as if she has just stepped out of an investment bank in Tokyo rather than a workshop. Then again, she used to be a banker.
Horiki, 45, discovered her passion for washi in her twenties while working at a bank.
'I worked with a company that developed commercial products based on handmade washi,' she says. 'Even though the product was beautiful, it couldn't compete with quicker and cheaper machine-produced paper and the business closed. I could see that the tradition wouldn't survive in the new commercial environment, so I decided to do something. I didn't want the traditional skills to be lost for future generations.'
But to protect and sustain traditional skills and techniques, Horiki realised that she'd have to introduce new ideas - no mean feat in a country known for its resistance to change.
Undeterred, she decided that the future lay in extending the use of washi beyond its traditional applications. Washi is typically used to inscribe prayers and wishes, and are tied to trees in temple compounds - the white handmade paper representing purity and spirituality. Special gifts are intricately wrapped in the highest quality handmade paper to show respect.
Unlike Chinese paper, which is made from bamboo, Japanese washi uses the bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub or the paper mulberry. The fibres are pounded together, creating a strong and flexible product.
'Washi's character makes it perfectly suited to contemporary interiors and buildings,' says Horiki. 'But first we had to concentrate on overcoming the natural limitations of the material to broaden the scope of its use in different settings.'
Finding artisans willing to work with her was an important first step. Creating one sheet of washi is a delicate, labour-intensive process. Usually, 10 people are needed to make a standard sheet measuring 2.7 metres by 2.1 metres.
'Washi is completely different to machine-made paper,' says Horiki. 'I was so impressed when I first saw how it was made. It's physically demanding, time-consuming and requires absolute devotion. Artisans have to repeatedly wash the fibres clean of dirt and sand grains in very cold water. But when a sheet of washi is born, it's magical.'
With an eye on creating washi forms for architectural spaces, she began adding dyes and new materials such as stainless steel wire, silk and gold powder to the natural fibre. The results are remarkable, transforming the aesthetics of space.
'Not knowing the limitations of washi helped me go beyond the confines of traditional rules,' Horiki says. 'I tried things that others couldn't. Some of our efforts failed and that was frustrating, but our experiments with patterns and colours were very successful.'
An innovative technique she has patented combines washi with other materials so it can be used as an architectural form. Sandwiched between layers of safety glass, the washi forms a robust, non-reflective wall that retains the texture and translucency of paper. The lamination also prevents the glass from shattering when broken - crucial in a country prone to earthquakes.
The washi-glass combination is used to great effect at Imasa, a Japanese restaurant in the Peninsula hotel in Hong Kong, where the curved, softly lit washi screens give a contemporary touch.
Other breakthroughs include producing large sheets of washi, enabling seamless installations far bigger than any previously created. In a project with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, Horiki created an illuminated stage backdrop for his Silkroad concert tour from a single sheet of washi measuring four metres by 15 metres, with the light shifting according to the music. Equally interesting are her sculptural pod lamps.
It's this creative edge from Horiki - combining organic patterns, shapes and textures in an inventive use of space and light - that has helped drive a wider renaissance of washi. She says much of her inspiration comes from her home town, Kyoto.
Since setting up a studio in Kyoto 20 years ago, Horiki and her close-knit team have built a reputation for working closely with clients to understand their needs, while exploring new territory in washi installation.
'When a client comes looking for something unusual, I try to think about what new technique could achieve what they want,' she says. 'We keep pushing the potential of washi and try not to have preconceived ideas about limits.'
Horiki takes pride in being involved in all aspects of her business, from developing the design concept and making washi in the workshop through to supervising the final installation to ensure that it meets her rigorous standards.
'The beauty of her work is we can create different moods in a subtle but effective way,' says Clive Murray, general manager of the Kyoto Royal Hotel & Spa. 'Her washi tapestry lines the length of one wall of our new spa and the shifting light is very Japanese - almost like a traditional home, with light filtering through a shoji screen.'
Horiki's installations and freestanding structures adorn many major buildings in Japan, including the Hilton Osaka, Sogo Shisaibashi and Campus Plaza Kyoto.
Among her recent high-profile installations are those featured in the Galleria, Tokyo Midtown. Illuminated washi are used on the sides of internal elevated walkways, transforming them into works of art. The panels form captivating three-dimensional works, with embedded patterns of the sun and leaves creating different views on each side of the walkway.
Intrigued visitors are often found peering closely at the material trying to find out what it's made of. 'It's strangely enticing,' says architectural student Simon Lee. 'I can't stop looking or touching it. Is it old or new?'