Architecture and Design

Traditional Japanese craftsmanship meets 21st century Singapore design in Hong Kong show

Year-long collaboration sees Singapore designers work with traditional Japanese craftsmen to help them innovate and reach out to new markets; the fruits of their partnership are seen in a display of beautiful, practical objects

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 2:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2018, 7:54pm

The wind is howling and snow is piling up against the windows of Satoshi Hara’s workshop in Kashiwazaki, a coastal city in Japan’s Niigata prefecture. Plywood propped against the windows keep them from caving in under the weight of the snow.

“It isn’t even as bad as it was last week,” he says. “The snow was almost up to the roof. I’ve never seen it like this before.”

That’s saying a lot. Hara’s family has lived in the same compound for 400 years. This is where he was born and raised, and where he became a bronzesmith, following in the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him – four generations that turned molten metal into delicate vases and intricate sculptures.

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Dressed in loose jeans tucked into wellington boots, Hara crouches on the sandy floor of his workshop to build a makeshift oven from breeze blocks and charcoal. This is the final step in the process of making one of his bronze objects, burning the exterior to create a smoke-like pattern that he will tease out as he buffs and polishes the piece.

When he took over the family practice from his father, after completing sculpture studies at university, he eschewed traditional vases in favour of more organic forms. “I wanted to simplify the shape in order to highlight the pattern,” he says.

As he waits for the charcoal to heat up, Hara makes his way across a snowy courtyard to a small showroom. Next to vases, dishes, incense holders and figurines made by Hara and his father are a pair of unusual sculptures that look like spinning tops.

Their chestnut brown surface is splashed with patches of umber and red-violet from the burning and polishing process, which is called hanshidou. These are Dancing Flames, designed by Chris Lee of Asylum, a Singaporean design firm that has worked on hotels, restaurants and installations.

“It was the first time I made a product from someone else’s design,” Hara says.

In the past year, 12 Japanese artisans, including Hara, have taken part in a project called KYO, pairing their craftsmanship with the creativity of Singaporean designers. Lee has also designed a children’s play set with Paulownia wood specialists Ishimoku, while Richard Hassell and Wong Man Summ’s architecture firm WOHA designed a bed and baby cot with cypress artisans Tree to Green. The fruits of these collaborations are on display in Hong Kong at an exhibition that runs until March 29.

“The craftsmen were making a lot of products that were centred on Japanese culture and lifestyle,” says KYO curator Jackson Tan. “But now that Japan is experiencing a greying population, how do they keep that relevant?

“They’re really opening themselves up to working with designers to see the possibility of taking these crafts and making them relevant to an international audience.”

All the Japanese studios offer small-scale, handmade production – qualities that make it hard for them to compete with the assembly lines of China, but which appeal to designers and consumers looking for something unique, bespoke or precious.

They include Tomita Handicraft, in Tokyo, which worked with WOHA to create modern-day silk products made with silk yarn spun in Japan.

“You don’t have a big minimum order and you play to the strengths of the craftsmen,” says Tan. “Instead of using machines there’s a lot of handwork. There’s quite a bit of customisation that can be done with these designs. That’s very interesting for consumers.

“Nowadays we have so many things that are mass-produced, so going back to something more handcrafted is popular now.”

And it’s not just the handcrafted aspect that is appealing – it’s the story behind each studio.

We focus on one thing we do well, which is water-repellent fabric. But we are really open to new ideas
Kenchiki Kubomura

In the unassuming neighbourhood of Funabori, across the Sumida and Arakawa rivers from central Tokyo, Toru Horiguchi’s family has been cutting glass for three generations. The Japanese style of cut glass, known as edo kiriko, originated in 1834 with craftsman Kyubei Kagaya, who was influenced by Dutch glassware. Horiguchi’s grandfather set up a studio called Horiguchi-Kiriko, and became a master of the style before passing it along to his apprentice, Tomio Suda, and then Toru Horiguchi.

“My dad didn’t cut glass – he handled the business side. But I knew I wanted to work with my hands,” says Horiguchi. It took him nearly a decade to master the technique of etching intricate geometric patterns into glasses that are functional works of art.

“The first thing you notice is the weight of the glass, then how it feels in your hand, and then the feeling as you take a sip,” he says. “Everyone notices these things unconsciously. When they go home, people have a favourite glass they choose.”

For KYO, Horiguchi worked with Ministry of Design founder Colin Seah to produce a glass for whisky. “I always think about technique first,” says Horiguchi. “But Colin thought, ‘This is a whisky glass,’ and he thought about whisky, where it is made, and how you make it – it’s more like a story.”

The result is a tumbler sandblasted with a geometric pattern inspired by the mountains of Yamanashi prefecture, where the delicate, floral Hakushu whisky is produced.

An hour away by car, near the long, sweeping Chiba beaches that are popular with surfers, glassmakers stand next to ovens heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius (2,500 Fahrenheit) and filled with liquid glass. “We have to keep the temperature really high, so it’s on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Yusuke Sugahara, whose family has made glassware since 1932.

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His company employs 31 craftspeople, who transform Australian sand (which is more suitable than iron-heavy Japanese sand) and recycled glass into thousands of different products, from dishes to intricate drinking vessels. “They’re not only craftsmen – they design as well,” says Sugahara.

The company’s oldest employee, 65-year-old Mamoru Tsukamoto, designed an elaborate glass drinking vessel that looks like a horse’s head, complete with billowing mane.

“He’s one of only two workers [at the company] who can make this level of detail,” says Sugahara.

Many of the other workers are young women building up their skills in design and glassblowing – unusual for Japan, where the craft world is dominated by men.

As Sugahara makes his way through the workshop, a woman uses tweezers to tease out a tail from a bulb of molten glass, a technique that creates decorative bubbles in the base of a drinking glass. She has only a few seconds to work with the glass before it cools and hardens.

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For KYO, Sugahara worked with Singapore design firm Takenouchi Webb to create a glass that can be flipped over to become a tea light holder. Although it looks simple, it was technically challenging because the design called for a shallow indentation in the base to contain the tea light.

“When you’re making glass, everything has to be quick – that’s the hardest part but also what makes it interesting,” says Kenji Matsuura, the artisan who worked with Takenouchi Webb. “For this, it took a lot of effort to get the timing right to make the indentation.”

Jackson Tan says he was most impressed by how much the craftspeople involved in KYO were open to change. “They all have a long history or legacy, and what they do is they try to innovate on it,” he says.

In the city of Kiryu, on the edge of the Kanto Plain that surrounds Tokyo, 126-year-old fabric company Asakura Senpu invented a treatment that makes textiles water repellent, which is now used by a number of major clothing retailers. Now it has innovated yet again by using its technique to make water-repellent furoshiki, a kind of cloth used to wrap and carry objects.

For KYO, the company produced a furoshiki-inspired picnic mat, designed by Asylum, which is printed with the reflection of trees in a pond.

I always think about technique first. But Colin thought, ‘This is a whisky glass’, and he thought about whisky, where it is made, and how you make it – it’s more like a story
Toru Horiguchi

“We had never thought of making a picnic mat,” says Kenchiki Kubomura, who developed the water-repellent technology. “We’re not a big company like Toyota or Asahi, so we focus on one thing we do well, which is water-repellent fabric. But we are really open to new ideas.”

Back across the mountains in Kashiwazaki, the fire is finally ready. Satoshi Hara removes the breeze blocks around his makeshift oven and the charcoal collapses to reveal a glowing bronze vase. It quickly cools, with a mottled surface that Hara will polish to bring out the hanshidou pattern.

“It’s like I’m giving life to the object,” he says. “I’m working with nature – fire, heat, metal. It’s unpredictable. Sometimes it isn’t perfect, but I enjoy the balance between perfection and imperfection. I’m always excited to see how it will turn out.”

KYO: Reinterpreting Traditional Japanese Craft Through Creative Collaborations, until March 29 at MTRL, 10 New Street, Sheung Wan, tel: 6103 4103