I.D. International design
By Lucy Birmingham
The tide is turning for traditional Japanese crafts. Though the country's artisans are highly skilled — many have studied for years to perfect techniques such as imono (metalwork), bunaco (beech coil), wappa (bentwood) and urushi (lacquerware) — interest in their work has been declining for decades. "Most Japanese thought of the products as being no more than provincial souvenirs," explains Yudai Tachikawa, founder of t.c.k.w., a Japanese creative development company. But sensing the makings of a major revival, Tachikawa began offering a service in November called Ubushina which partners designers, artists, and architects with craft workers.
Tachikawa founded t.c.k.w. in 1999 to capitalize on the contemporary design consulting work for which he was already known. That same year, a group of craft representatives invited him to visit their studios with hopes that his ideas could inject some life into their fading industry. It was a networker's dream. When t.c.k.w. was commissioned four years later to help renovate a 35-year-old hotel, Tachikawa hired the Japanese design firm Intentionallies and paired it with one of the metalworking studios he'd visited in Toyama Prefecture. The team came up with custom-made brass light fixtures that employed traditional Namagata casting, the same process used to create tea ceremony utensils. "We were all amazed at the results," Tachikawa says. He then happily added matchmaking to t.c.k.w.'s menu of services.
Before Ubushina, it was tricky to locate any craftsperson, let alone one who was skilled and reliable. Artisans often live in remote areas, following in the dusty footsteps of their ancestors and using idiosyncratic design languages that baffle contemporary practitioners. "Even though everyone is Japanese, we often end of playing the role of interpreter throughout a project," Tachikawa says.
Among the many techniques Ubushina offers, lacquerware is the most popular. Kennichi Otani, creative director for the Dunhill shop and event space in Tokyo's Shinjuku Isetan department store, hired t.c.k.w. to help him surround the store with a dramatic lacquer-coated wall. "Like most Japanese I grew up using lacquered bowls and utensils for special occasions," Otani says. "I always admire their beauty, but it wasn't until I saw Ubushina's lacquer samples that I started to understand the breadth of its modern design possibilities."
Tachikawa brought Otani's sketches to a craftsman and worked with him to resolve concerns such as lacquer's potential to set off allergic reactions. The result was a stunning exterior wall finished in rich, glossy black and bordered at the base with vertical stripes of silver.
Part of what Otani sought to exploit by using old-school techniques for Dunhill was the growing appreciation among Japanese trendsetters for traditional culture — "the new keyword in Japan is 'roots-conscious,'" he says. But he also achieved a visual effect he couldn't have gotten from a mass-market alternative. "Japanese black lacquer is a warmer more inviting black," he says. "The glossiness of high-quality lacquer makes it look like water, and you start to wonder what's hidden beneath the surface."
Though t.c.k.w.'s clients are mainly Japanese, the company is getting inquiries from abroad. The Canadian firm Yabu Pushelberg, which designed a W hotel in Times Square and renovated Tiffany's flagship store on Fifth Avenue, is considering using Ubushina for an upcoming hotel project. For Tachikawa, this is a very good sign. International designers, who have so often taken inspiration from traditional Japanese design, can now harness its beauty in a more modern, collaborative way. "Ubushina is about going backward, but forward at the same time," says Tachikawa. "We're digging into our DNA and finding that traditional techniques and materials can have a very cool, timeless beauty."