A Fresh Start for Tradition
In 2012 a small group of Kyoto based craftsmen teamed up with the Danish design studio OEO to create Japan Handmade. Their aim was to bring the best of traditional Japanese crafts to a more international market, while retaining the integrity of each workshop. The culmination of their work was recently published with contributing essays from major design editors, gallerists, celebrities, and humbly speaking…yours truly.
Why was I invited to contribute? Simply speaking, the stars aligned for Japan Handmade and my project Lost Ceremony at the same time. As I photographed Taka Yagi at Kaikado, we discussed how each of us were working towards the same goal, but from different angles. He wanted to expand the reach of Kaikado and their 150 year old tradition of making tea caddies, while my goal was to share the craftsman process from the point of view of a maker. Most of the coverage of craft is typically done by journalists who focus on the end product. Because they are not makers, they don’t have much to say beyond the obvious ideas of patience and perfection. As a maker myself, I was more interested in looking at the process and the world that surrounds the objects. While I was shooting, he was finishing up prototypes for collaborations with Jasper Morrison and Monocle magazine, which both went on to be huge successes. Kaikado was recently accepted into the permanent collection at the Victoria Albert Museum in London.
Over the next few years, I would see Taka at least twice a year and we continued our discussions. He introduced me to the other members of Japan Handmade, who were almost all in attendance at my Leica Store Kyoto opening…again a huge honor. When it came time for them to create their book, I was actually running a workshop in Florence. But between Florence and Matera, I had a few days to gather my thoughts and pen the following essay. Please enjoy.
by Adam Marelli
The world of the craftsman is cloaked in mystery. Isolated and free from the trends of industry, the Japanese craftsmen practice a unique alchemy for creation. They blend philosophy with a sensitivity to materials and generations of knowledge to create objects that cannot be classified as strictly art or design.
For centuries, master craftsmen guarded their techniques from the eyes of opportunists who wanted a shortcut to success. It is with these techniques that craftsmen transform elements like wood, metal, and earth into experiences that extend beyond the boundaries of the objects they create. Their results cannot be replicated with technology, for they require a human sensibility…one that balances spontaneity with calculated precision.
But the secret life of the craftsmen is not free from risks. They are like an exotic species, always on the brink of extinction. It only takes a gap of one generation for centuries of knowledge to be lost forever. Adaptation is the key to survival for the craftsmen. If they cannot prove their relevance in an advancing world, they too might disappear.
In 2012, I travelled to Japan with a simple question, “How do you make something that will last one thousand years?” This journey brought me to the workshops of the Japan Handmade craftsmen. Through photography, informal interviews, and many meals and discussions, their lucid approach became clear.
Japan Handmade realized three critical factors that separate them from many of the other craftsmen I have worked with around the globe. First, they know their history but are not slaves to tradition. They are willing to experiment and innovate new designs that fit today’s world. Secondly, they understand that cultures all over the world value authentic, regional solutions that cannot be faked. This meant that they could not simply make Japanese goods and ship them overseas. They needed to travel and experience life abroad in order to craft objects that would relate to their client’s lifestyles…all while maintaining their Japanese integrity. Thirdly, they needed to collaborate, with each other and with those abroad. The creation of Japan Handmade is an extraordinary step, almost unprecedented in history.
Historically craftsmen do not work together. They do not collaborate with other countries, and they almost never change their designs if there is any possibility of failure. The risks involved have always been viewed as too great. But Japan Handmade defied all expectations. When they first entered into discussions with OeO, they embarked on a journey that would redefine the potential of design for future generations.
Their work at home has always been about producing the finest objects possible. But now the sensory experience of Japan Handmade is an open door, one where visitors can learn, appreciate, and even participate in the great traditions of artistry which have never been open to the public before. Whether you enter this world as an aspiring apprentice or a wealthy patron, the rewards are profound because they allow you to live in the secretive world of the craftsmen. It is in this world that an understanding of the past mixes with the magic of the present and informs the unknown possibilities of the future.