In this Journal entry, we present Part II of a two part guest series by Ryuji Mitani. View Part I here.
As we eagerly anticipate our upcoming exhibition, Blurring Boundaries, we continue to offer insights into the ideas that have shaped Ryuji Mitani’s prominent career. Known as a visionary for his introduction of the color white in urushi lacquer wood wares, Ryuji Mitani has paved the way for a new outlook on traditional woodcrafts. He has lead organizations and written multiple books that propel a movement called Seikatsu Kougei. As a result he has inspired an entire generation of artisans in his pursuits of blurring established boundaries in his field.
The entry below was translated from Japanese to English.
I handle wood and urushi lacquer every day. Japanese urushi ware has traditionally been made in either a deep red or black color. Red urushi is usually made with cinnabar or iron oxide. Because of the high cost of cinnabar, a vivid color that expresses nobility, it has historically been applied to special items used for celebratory occasions. On the other hand, most aspects of our daily life are informal and special occasions to use formal tableware are few and far between. It’s almost innate to use red urushi wares less often. When I thought about the color of tableware that was ideal for our everyday lives, the color white came to mind.
Since I started making urushi wares, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with traditional Japanese styles like the red urushi I’ve mentioned, and I’ve never been able to integrate it into my work. Considering I belonged to the field of woodworking, which differs from the field of urushi, and because I was not a professional urushi artisan, I was afforded the liberty to select white as my color of choice. Going against the standards that professional artisans established without questioning my actions was privilege for an amateur like me at the time.
White is an essential color in my opinion. I realized that white, which is seen in white shirts, white walls, and white tableware like ceramics or kobiki glaze, are my favorite. My memory of the color white dates back to when I lived in my birthplace, Fukui, the snowy prefecture in the Hokuriku district. The wall of white snow cover that once reached the second floor of my house was impressive and unforgettable. Because I placed priority on finding my identity as an artisan over following established Japanese ways, I discovered a new world of white urushi.
Jukō Murata, known as the founder of Japanese wabi tea, noted the importance of blurring boundaries between the Japanese and Chinese culture. He established an original wabi-cha tea style from the method of blending the two. He united the tea culture of China with the Zen philosophy of Japan to create a unique new Japanese tea tradition. Similarly many things currently exist in Japan that are the result of blurring boundaries between Japanese and Western cultures.
The modernization of Japan started over 150 years ago as a result of Western influence. Our life in Japan is not only the result of such modernization, but also the new Japanese-like style that differs from purely Western style. It’s inaccurate to say that modern Japanese architecture, fashion, music, movie, manga, animation, food and more are all Western style influenced. Instead, It seems like we’ve been slightly converting them into our preferred modern way of living, while simultaneously accepting Western habits.
Japanese home cooking has a wide variety of cuisine such as Japanese, Western, Chinese, and more. Since we cook all kinds of meals every day, it’s almost impossible to prepare tableware in each style for each dish. Versatile tableware with undefined functions that can be used for all kinds of meals is particularly appreciated. Unlike the old days, our homes and clothes are almost entirely Western, but old living customs still remain like taking off our shoes before entering a house, for example – a habit derived from our desire to live clean. While we’re adopting Western styles we are also converting our way of living into what we prefer. I think this modern Japanese way of life is being well received in the US, and people are beginning to appreciate it.
I hope many can experience Japanese lifestyle from this exhibition while finding the joy and beauty of our everyday lives.
Works by Ryuji Mitani featured in these images will be available during the exhibition.
Photography by Armando Rafael Moutela.
Seikatsu Kogei is a Japanese term that has become part of our vernacular ever since we began working with some of the people at the forefront of this movement, Ryuji Mitani, Kazumi Tsuji and Masanobu Ando, to name a few. The term Seikatsu Kogei translates to “Life Industrial Arts.” It represents a new standard in household crafts that phased in near the end of Mingei, the Japanese folk art movement. We are pleased to present a guest entry written by Ryuji Mitani in which he describes what the term means to him.
The entry below was translated from Japanese to English.
There was a moment when I looked around at my surroundings and noticed that the city where I lived and the houses where people led their lives had become full of stuff. Stuff was overflowing everywhere. When I became aware of that, I began to think that we should change our attitude towards consumerism. I saw that there were limitations of happiness in which material objects provided. Since that realization I’ve put a sudden halt to crafting unconsciously. Creating and refraining – these opposite powers began to evolve in me. “Is this right?” I began to ask my hands and myself.
I realized that the perspective I had of my own work was the same as what the users were having. Someone once asked me, “…why don’t artisans create more ordinary everyday items?” and this question still deeply remains with me. This person resolved that it was the self-satisfying, egotistical satisfaction of creating that some artisans pursued. They suggested that instead we should create objects that we personally wanted to use in our daily lives, instead of crafting for self-expression. It is true that the artisans at that time pursued originality and uniqueness. Many artisans tried to explain their works with abstract, difficult words to understand. Those who understood were a tiny percentage. Artisans like this shifted more towards specific genres of craft, eventually closing off and staying within their communities. In a sense, they had strayed far from quotidian life.
Meanwhile, other artisans had a re-discovery. A new perspective of people who live and eat by their own hands, gave rise to a newfound reason for making, and a “craft” based on the realities of ordinary people. We found new value in “craft” and we have been paving a new road for the evolution of “craft” for the past 30 years.
We prefer to be simple rather than special, to be genuine rather than pretentious. We believe in choosing form carefully to make our work meaningful, as if selecting one line from a rough sketch makes the line stronger. For us, being simple has power.
With my seat at the table of a quaint soba restaurant in Japan directly at the opposite end of the acclaimed Ryuji Mitani, I wondered, how did I get here? I could tell by glancing at Steve that he was thinking the same thing. Now miles away back in New York, staring at a massive album of images from this visit on my computer, I wonder, how do I even come close to describing one of our most enlightening artisan visits?
As long time fans of Ryuji Mitani’s wooden tableware, spending the whole day with him let alone being invited to his studio and home, was a dream come true. Mitani-san epitomizes the way in which we strive to live. Surrounded by space, and emptiness, the only objects that seem to qualify in his world are the ones that are at once beautiful and essential. Though Mitani-san’s collection of work is diverse, the same principles he lives by are exemplified in every piece he creates.
Our visit with the artisan is partitioned between stops at his gallery 10cm, his studios and his home in Matsumoto, Japan. With our upcoming exhibition with Mitani-san, Blurring Boundaries, on the horizon, we hope this Journal entry gives insight into the life and work of one of the most well respected artisans of our time.
10cm gallery is both a place to showcase his own works as well as the works of others but more importantly, a place to gather objects from artists and designers who have a similar approach to “crafts”.
Mitani-san’s tableware is rare to come by outside of Japan but even rarer still is a collection of wooden brooches that we were surprised to see at 10cm occupying a small shelf. The brooches are actually the first objects he made when he began woodworking at a young age before he went on to focus on tableware, eventually becoming a leader of the Seikatsu Kogei movement in Japan. We’ve mentioned Seikatsu Kogei in the past but are still trying to pinpoint a clear English definition with the help of others in this movement such as Ryuji Mitani, Kazumi Tsuji and Masanobu Ando. The direct translation, “life industrial arts”, has always seemed “cold” in our opinion. Until we find a better translation, our best description of Seikatsu Kogei is essentially the pursuit of creating an object with artistic value that is also useful for daily life.
Mitani-san gave us two yellow chick brooches that we treasure so immensely we asked him to bring some to the exhibition in October. There will only be a small handful so consider yourself lucky if you can get your hands on one!
We were greeted at Sanjiro by a graceful older woman. It was an establishment for soba purists, in respect to taste and atmosphere. Kintsugi cups, a well-worn communal table and antique sculptures – the place was affected by time which is what we ultimately found the most attractive.
Another signature of Mitani-san’s is his unique way of applying lacquer, otherwise known as urushi in Japanese. Not sure if it is Mitani-san’s naturally calm demeanor but he approaches the technique almost as if it is a medical surgery he’s done a hundred times. He puts on a canvas work jacket, lays all his tools on a clean empty table and starts preparing the materials. A special lacquer mixture is carefully sifted through a contraption he made to remove impurities. Once the mixture is completely smooth, the procedure begins.
At the end of the day, he places all the pieces neatly into a cabinet allowing them to fully dry before the application of another layer can occur. He continues this process several times until the piece is complete. The resulting layers of lacquer protect and seal without entirely covering the wood grain.
We’ve seen so many types of lacquer ware that we now notice the nuances. Mitani-san’s painter-like approach to lacquering, his technique of underpainting, overpainting, and artful semi-transparent strokes gives it a uniqueness that other lacquer ware lacks.
After the studio tour Mitani-san drives us a short distance down a hilly path to his home. Not to our surprise, it has the same aesthetic sensibilities that define his gallery and studios. The difference is that Mitani-san’s home has deliberate places for contemplation – a custom-made fireplace, a study stocked with books, a living room with chairs facing a view of nature and a large dining room table to congregate over tea. His home is clearly a place of rest.
Observing all the corners of Mitani-san’s home, my main takeaway was that he has crafted a world for himself that is simply perfect. The attention to detail is evident across every room, nothing looks expendable, and everything has a purpose. Even the places where his wood tableware collection is stored are not collecting dust. They are stacked and ready to be grabbed for preparing meals, tossing salads, and serving dinner. We could identify the effects of usage on the pieces. They tell a story and give them soul. Fading, softened edges, and overlapping scratches that wood naturally gains with each passing day are all aspects that remind us of Mitani-san’s mission to create functional objects that can be used for many generations.
Throughout our perfect day with Ryuji Mitani, I kept wondering what values and rules govern his life that allow him to make it look so easy? Now that time has passed and the term Seikatsu Kogei is on our minds, it all makes sense. Our time spent with the artisan proved that he whole-heartedly creates and lives by this concept. We realize now that Mitani-san is so beloved because he stands for the simple idea of elevating the everyday. From a large urushi wooden bowl to a small cherry wood teaspoon, each object he creates aims to link crafts to a better quality of life. Maybe that’s what makes Ryuji Mitani’s wonderful world look so effortless.
Photos by Armando Rafael Moutela
The name Aya Nihei has been making its way more and more into our features ever since this talented writer started contributing for us. We’ve briefly mentioned her in our past Journal entries but since we’ve begun to carry her ‘Best of Brooklyn’ series, we wanted to do a proper introduction to showcase the face behind these guidebooks and also the face behind a lot of the work that goes on behind Nalata Nalata.
Aya is originally from Japan but currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Miwa, and their cat, Michiko. We’ve gotten to know her through the development of a series of random encounters, and now find ourselves in a relationship forged upon a mutual love of handicrafts. It’s not often we find someone who is more obsessed with collecting handmade objects as us. One look at Aya’s home serves as a sign that they exist!
Aya has all kinds of items made by artisans that we know and love like Tajika scissors, wood bowls by Ryuji Mitani (who we’ll be having an exhibiton with in October) and artwork by Keiko Yuasa (a painter based in Nagoya who is the wife of Tatsuya Yuasu, the graphic designer behind ‘Best of Brooklyn’).
In addition to having a wonderful eye for these pieces, Aya also has great stories to accompany them. Sitting on her windowsill is a white ceramic house that stands out amongst her collection. I wasn’t surprised when she said it is her favourite. She tells us that the “White House”, capitalized as if it has a personality, is made by Japanese potter Jissei Omine (大嶺實清) from Okinawa. It has special meaning because her and her husband bought it during a studio visit with the potter instead of buying an actual house somewhere in Japan. She explains, “That’s our house that we can live in mentally, not physically, and bring everywhere.”
Another meaningful collection of Aya’s is her series of number “5” objects. She says that the Ni in her last name, Nihei, means 2. The Mi in her husband’s last name, Miwa, means 3. When they got married, it symbolized 2+3, which equals 5, so they married on May 5th and had their wedding ceremony on October 5th. Since then, they’ve been collecting “5” things, their lucky number, like the Mitsuhiro Konishi Number 5 Spoon!
We are so grateful for the friendship we’ve gained with Aya and can’t wait to have her all over our site in due time as we prepare for an exciting new series with her! Keep up to date with all of her latest projects like new books and cat articles on her site here.
Momoko and Tetsuya Otani came and left the city in what feels like a blink of an eye, leaving an impression on New York not to be forgotten. Our OTANI’S exhibition was a big success and our time with the potter couple and their daughters was one of the best.
Thank you to all who came to the week’s events. Below is a collection of images that were taken during our one-week period with the Otani family. They include photos of everything from the exhibition opening to Tetsuya’s coffee demonstration.
The day before our exhibition openings usually entail late nights and lots of action – packing, unpacking, transporting and help from many hands. It’s all hustle and bustle but well worth it when everything is ready to go the next morning. Calm in contrast and beautiful in a way where the collections speak for themselves.
The only thing left to do is to look over some last minute details. Momoko and Tetsuya and their daughters Hana, Fu and Midori dropped by in the morning to explain the different types of sake that we would be serving during the opening reception. They brought the sake all the way from their home in Shiga.
This metal pencil case Tetsuya pulled out is amazing! He’s had it since he was a child. It has scratches and dents, all signs of a well-used, well-loved item, the same type of wear that exists on his Peugeot coffee grinder that you’ll see later in this post.
We prepared recipe cards for our Nalata Nalata ‘Recipe Files’ – an Apple Crumble dessert Momoko and Tetsuya wanted to share. If you didn’t get a chance to get a hard copy, we’ll be posting it on the Journal soon.
Guests had a chance to drink from Momoko and Tetsuya’s sake cups. Their styles of pottery are so different, it’s interesting to see who gravitates towards whose works. Momoko’s sake cups are stoneware and have a rougher texture whereas Tetsuya’s are smooth and feel sheer to the touch like paper.
Another series we were fond of were the dinner plates Momoko and Tetsuya collaborated on as an exclusive series for the exhibition. We displayed them with Fish Cutlery by Yuichi Takemata who is a really close friend of Tetsuya’s.
The night was fun as always! When it was lights out at the end of the event we caught this heartwarming moment when the Otani family gathered as one unit, supporting each other as they overcame not just a busy day but also the effects of jet lag.
The following Sunday morning we rolled out of bed and headed to the store for a casual pour-over drip coffee demonstration by Tetsuya.
Tetsuya set up a roasting station outside the store on Extra Place and stirred the white beans with a custom made wooden spatula by Takashi Tomii (who is another close friend of the Otanis).
It was fascinating to see the beans slowly go from light to dark as Tetsuya stirred them in one of his baking pans. When the beans were finally fully roasted, the husks were fanned off leaving the most perfectly plump and fragrant coffee beans. Tetsuya then ground the beans in a Peugeot grinder he has had for years. Apparently it’s a model that the French car company released for a limited time awhile back. It’s a rare item that Tetsuya managed to get his hands on. We didn’t even know Peugeot made coffee-grinders, but now we want to track one down.
We will definitely miss the Otani family as they head back to Japan to prep their daughters for the new school year. It was such a great exhibition we hope to have another with the family again soon, but until that time comes we continue to lust over the small amount of pieces we have left, enjoying them for all their handmade qualities.
This exhibition will bring the works of Momoko and Tetsuya Otani from Japan to New York for a special exhibition of their respective collections.
Videography and Production: Matthew Johnson
“An Exhibition of Ceramic Works by Momoko and Tetsuya Otani”
Husband and wife ceramicists, Momoko and Tetsuya Otani handcraft their works in a shared pottery studio adjacent to their home in the Shigaraki mountains. Their styles are different – Momoko creating works from iron-rich local clay that has decorative surface texture, while Tetsuya prefers porcelain and a minimal aesthetic. Although there are dichotomies, their pieces are similarly functional for everyday use and combine in perfect harmony at a table setting.
The exhibition expands our selection of Momoko and Tetsuya’s collections to include their full range of work for one week only. In addition to their individual collections, we will present collaboration pieces. One such collaboration, between the duo themselves, is a series of plates that are first made by Tetsuya with his signature matte porcelain, then completed by Momoko’s dark blue hand painted line drawings.
On Friday, August 18, the Otani couple including their three daughters will be present at the Opening Reception of this exhibition, in which refreshments and specialty Shigaraki sake (brought by the Otanis from Japan) will be served. On August 20, there will be a pour-over drip Coffee Demonstration by Tetsuya Otani from 1-2PM.
Full details below:
Please RSVP to the Opening Reception here. All items will become available for purchase on a first-come, first-served basis when doors open at 7PM on opening night.
Note: The collection is available in limited quantities. Most items will be available for immediate take away. Pick up dates on a selection of items will be scheduled upon checkout and begin following the final exhibition day.
Poster image by Armando Rafael Moutela
One morning in January, it was with immense joy that we hopped on a train from Kyoto bound for a small station in Shigaraki where we were to meet Momoko and Tetsuya Otani – husband and wife, potters, and parents to three daughters. The Otanis are interesting because although their work is distinct and their brands are separate entities, it’s difficult to speak of one without the other as they not only share a physical studio space and kiln, but their studio is also an extension of their home.
Since Momoko and Tetsuya work and live on the same property, and even have a showroom on the premise, it feels as if their work and private life are one. Our conversations start with work and always inevitably integrate anecdotes of personal life.
Such a wonderful life they’ve built for themselves in the Shigaraki mountain tops! Their three daughters and golden retriever ran around the house while we all talked over tea about their upcoming exhibition at our store in August (details coming soon!).
Their cupboards and shelves are full of beautiful works – some very familiar pieces by friends but mostly of their own pieces. Their individual pottery style is very different from one another but their collections can be used at the same table setting in a harmonious way.
Tetsuya’s smooth white pieces against Momoko’s decorative works are in many ways the perfect combination and there was no better place to see how they play off of one another then in their recently built showroom.
The top of their kiln is lined with pyrometric cones that absorb heat to determine how a kiln fire is progressing. Each firing can only hold a certain amount so when we looked at the number of pieces drying on the shelf that are in line to enter the kiln, it really put it into perspective the limited quantity they are able to make. It really is just two hands making each piece! We started preparing for our August exhibition with the couple two years ago and even with that much notice, creating all the pieces for the show with their busy schedule seems like an insurmountable task. We will all be able to breathe easy come the opening on August 18th!
Once in their studio, it was clear that they each had their own working space. Momoko’s area is colourful with paintbrushes, bright green paint and pencil crayons lying around. She has all kinds of tools for scratching and marking and an inspiration wall pinned with pictures of lotus flowers and cats.
Watching Tetsuya quietly sitting as he made a strainer for a teapot, one tiny hole at a time, gave us a lot of insight into his work. The lifestyle of a potter seems well suited for his temperament. The whole time he was doing this, he had a smile on his face. Not all people have this kind of patience.
On the other hand, there’s an artists’ sensitivity that Momoko brings to the table that is nothing short of inspiring. I look at her hand painted and sgrafitto works with all of their colour, strokes and texture and think that she has a talent that only a handful of people apply in their everyday professions. She has managed to do what she loves and make a living out of it.
We’ve always known Tetsuya is a coffee lover, with all of the coffee accessories that he makes, like the pour over coffee dripper. But it was only on this trip that we discovered the extent of his coffee making mastery. He’s broken the steps down to an art involving scales and timers (and iphone light!). We were so entranced by this moment that we knew we needed to have Tetsuya do a drip coffee demo at the store in August for everyone to enjoy (again, details coming soon)!
It is always sad to say goodbye to this amazing couple but we can’t wait to reunite in August. For all the ceramic lovers out there, if you can make it to the exhibition it will be well worth it. The whole family is coming to NY including their three daughters and we will have their full range of works outside of what is currently online. It’s going to be a fun one!
Thank you to the Otani family for the incredible hospitality!
Photos by Armando Rafael Moutela.
We were recently interviewed by intelligence Magazine and wanted to thank their team for the in-depth feature! Check out the latest issue for the full sixteen page story where we reveal our top ‘objects for living’, talk about our enduring store concept and what it’s like to work with your significant other!
Special thanks to Chais Mingo who we had the pleasure of being interviewed by and to Matthew Johnson for photographing us and the store.
We all have cutlery we consider “our faves”. The ones that get us excited to set the table, to actually properly set it. Mitsuhiro Konishi’s cutlery is that type. Knowing this, it should not have come as a surprise how enjoyable the installation was for our Table Elements exhibition. The days leading up to our exhibition openings are usually a whirlwind of activity and prep work but this set up was quite the opposite. It was a breeze because Konishi’s work is so beautiful it speaks for itself. For those who were unable to attend the show, here’s a recap of our exhibition week.
We spent the night before the opening reception emptying the store, bringing in new fixtures we designed specifically for the event, unpacking and setting up. The long and low tables were a way to showcase Konishi’s comprehensive collection in a concentrated area of our space. In our opinion, the store never looked better. It was expansive and calmer than usual.
After we laid everything out and opening night came around, we took a step back to realize that the connection between Konishi’s background as sculptor and his cutlery was even clearer to see when his complete collection, including his artwork, were side by side. We hope that everyone was able to get that sense, especially after viewing his metal wall hangings and wire sculptures.
The “Smoky” series, a collection of abstract wire sculptures embedded behind frosted glass, enticed viewers to come in close, while the metal wall hangings looked like medieval armor in their stark black frames. He continues to make artwork although his main focus these days is to develop the cutlery line.
Konishi’s cutlery have so much rich texture, layering and intricate details that people’s first instinct is usually to pick them up and look at them from all angles, much in the same way they observe his artwork. The number one question is usually, how are they made?
To better explain the process, we prepared a display that showed an abbreviated example of all the steps it takes to get to the final product. Konishi uses a variety of methods to make cutlery. Recently, he has been forging metal but this display showcased a different process wherein he uses a template to cut out a sheet of stainless steel. There are approximately ten steps to creating a Serving Spoon, from hammering the form and finally ending with boiling the steel head in green tea to prevent tarnishing.
To commemorate our long-standing relationship with Konishi, we embarked on a project to design the perfect cutlery piece to launch at this exhibition. As pancake addicts, we have always longed for a serving utensil that could stand alongside the handcrafted dinnerware elements at our breakfast table. Now the only dilemma we’re left with is, Silver Dollar or Dutch?
So much has been said about Konishi’s skills as a metalsmith and the beautiful characteristics of his work that he has managed to go unsung for his great personality. He’s a genuinely humble and talented guy. We loved hanging with him in New York as much as we do in Japan. We also had the pleasure of getting to know Kimiko, Konishi’s wife, who came to New York all the way from Gifu for the occasion. Both are sculptors and actually met in art school so we all had common ground from the get-go.
The two of them really impressed us during their stay in New York because in a short period of time, they managed to hit up a museum everyday, the big players to boot – like Met, Dia Beacon, Moma and Guggenheim. We knew they would be in their element visiting art museums but one major architectural site we had to bring them to was the Oculus designed by Calatrava… sure enough the two of them were instant fans of the sculptural structure.
It was an honor to spend time with Konishi and Kimiko in New York. Their company was a reminder of the simple idea that art should not be separate from the everyday objects that we use and moments we experience.
You can view the Mitsuhiro Konishi cutlery collection here. It has recently been updated with a few new items and several more series will be added in the coming weeks. Special thanks to Konishi, Kimiko and everyone involved in this exhibition – Aya Nihei, Matthew Johnson, Riza Arrieta and Faraday Okoro. Also thank you to Fujiko of mochi Rin who provided beautiful mochi we sadly did not get any pictures of (trust us, they were beautiful and equally delicious). Also, thank you to Sakaya for expertly selecting sakes from the Gifu district for opening night.