A new initiative brings together six historic Kyoto craft companies with the Danish design studio OeO to create artisan objects for a global audience. Thomas Lykke, creative director of Japan Handmade, explains.
Whereas once it was said that craftsmanship was dying, in the current market the appetite for artisanship is booming. In the last two months alone the Paris fashion house Chanel has bought the Barrie Knitwear cashmere mill in the Scottish Borders and luxury goods house Hermes has acquired the d'Annonay tannery in the Rhone Valley, one of its key providers of calf leather. The latest initiative to promote and nurture traditional skills is Japan Handmade, a new brand that was launched last week at the Maison & Objet design fair in Paris.
Bringing together six historic Kyoto factories that specialise in ceramics, metal-knitting, teaware and wood and bamboo crafting, Japan Handmade invigorates them for the Western market with new designs by Danish creative studio OeO. “The design is the meeting of the West and Japan,” says Thomas Lykke, creative director of OeO and founder of Japan Handmade. “We sought to build a coherent universe of daily life objects which people in the western part of the world can appreciate…. It’s not about creating new shapes that have never been seen before.”
The debut collection includes beautifully proportioned stools created by a company that usually makes buckets to a 700-year-old technique, contemporary bamboo lighting from a company founded in 1898 that specialises in woven baskets and a chair crafted by the same family firm that traditionally makes tofu spoons and tea strainers.
Part business initiative (the project received financing from the Japanese government to encourage exports) and part personal passion (Lykke readily admits his fascination for Japanese rituals and aesthetics), Japan Handmade is above all a story about family companies and the artisan techniques handed from father to son. “Part of the project is about the next generation of Japanese who no longer want to be just local and want to expand their family companies internationally,” says Lykke. “They are curious and hungry for adventure.” Never has craftsmanship been so ambitious.
Thomas Lykke’s definition of luxury?
This is where everyone says “time”. There are many types of luxury but I think real luxury is to be able to work with something that you are passionate about. Japan Handmade is my passion. It is a luxury to work with people that I like and work on something that makes a difference.
What is Japan Handmade?
Japan Handmade is collaborative. It’s an umbrella name under which are the artisan companies that we work with. The whole thing started in September 2012. I had been working with the fabric company Hosoo for just over a year who were very happy with what we had done with them. They were founded in 1688 and introduced us to similar artisans with a really long history. My company designs collections that we make with the craftsmen. The design is the meeting of the West and Japan.
What characterises the Japan Handmade collection?
We sought to build a coherent universe of daily life objects which people in the western part of the world can appreciate. That’s the ethos of Japan Handmade. It’s not about creating new shapes that have never been seen before. Rather, it’s about tapping into the traditional signatures of the craft.
If the companies are so old, why do they need to be part of the Japan Handmade project?
I come from an editorial background and was fascinated by Japanese companies like these. I’d also seen where they had maybe failed a bit because they tried to export something which is very local to the global market. It’s very complicated to try to export rituals and traditions such as the Japanese tea ritual. The first thing for us was to create universes which tap into where these craft companies come from.
Chanel just bought a cashmere factory in Scotland and Hermes just invested in a tannery. Why does there seem to be a rush to secure the sources of craftsmanship?
Because craft is dying. If nobody supports it we will lose it and everything will be about mass production. We want to nurture this craftsmanship. We call it ‘reason for being’. I want to keep their businesses going and to evolve their potential.
What is your personal relationship with Kyoto?
Since a child I’ve had a great fascination with Japan. When my relationship started with Hosoo I was introduced to another side of Japan. Kyoto is the epicentre of Japanese craft. There are other regions known for craftsmanship but this is the hub for artisanship in Japan.
What pieces of design and furniture do you live with at home?
I have a mix because I was interiors editor of Wallpaper magazine until 2003. At that time I lived very minimal and there has always been a little Japanese flavour with how I live. But I don’t live Wallpaper-like now! I have a mix of new things, old stuff, inherited furniture, things I bring back from my travels and prototypes. There’s still some Japanese flavour in my home.
Founded in 1688, Hosoo is a textile company that specialises in rare and ultra high quality fabrics. Their creations have been used by interior designer Peter Marino and in the fashion collections of Rick Owens. For Japan Handmade, the factory has created a series of contemporary designs based in traditional collage techniques.
The father and son team behind this woodcraft specialist are part of a long line of artisans who 700 years ago perfected the technique to create bathing buckets (ki-oke). Using the same skills, Nakagawa Mokkougei have adapted the buckets for Japan Handmade to craft beautiful stools.
The tea caddies produced by Kaikado are an iconic piece of design that has not changed since the company was founded in 1875. Until now – for Japan Handmade its artisans have created a series of teapots, vessels and trays.
Since 1898 this artisan company has been working with bamboo to create baskets, bags and other products. For Japan Handmade they are employing the same time-honoured skills on a series of striking lights.
Metal knitting – one of the oldest Japanese manufacturing techniques – is the specialty of this company that usually makes tofu spoons and tea strainers but for Japan Handmade has created a series of wine and writing accessories as well as an exquisite chair.
Generations of the Matsubayashi family have passed down the secrets of ceramic and porcelain crafting to produce delicate teaware used in the Japanese tea ritual. The family’s Asahiyaki contributes to Japan Handmade with a collection of porcelain home accessories, vases and objects.
Quotes on Individual pieces:
“This was based on a traditional bucket. No matter how long you spend making it, there is a limit to what people will pay for a bucket. But when you make an object that taps into that and make a beautiful stool then it becomes an object. And then it’s not a matter of price anymore. We also did a special edition of the stool using wood that is 2000 years old that was found underground near a volcano. That’s why it has this special silvery colour.”
- Thomas Lykke, Creative Director of Japan Handmade
“This vintage Library chair design is combined with the metal knitting of Kanaami-Tsuji
to make it more than a chair. It becomes an object. You’re probably never going to sit in it but you buy it because it’s so beautiful.”
- Thomas Lykke, Creative Director of Japan Handmade