I cannot graciously highlight my excitement towards our latest print series with Matthew Johnson without first explaining the path which brought us to working with this talented photographer. Matthew is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area – the East Bay, between Oakland and San Jose. He made his way to the East Coast to get a sense of the unique culture of New York – a city he describes as a “rite of passage”. It was around this time that we first met Matthew during a photoshoot for Cereal magazine at our storefront. Straight away we appreciated his sensitivity in each frame he captured and have been following his career path as a photographer ever since. We’ve traveled to Japan with Matthew (photo essays from an especially memorable trip can be found in a two part series here and here) and dived into numerous video projects.
The most valuable aspect of our collaboration has been the friendship we’ve developed over the years as we work alongside him and witness his personal life evolve simultaneously. Since our first encounter, Matthew has married his then girlfriend, Amy, rescued an adorable dog named Rye, and has moved to Hudson to embark on an exciting new retail venture of his own called Say Collie. We headed North one afternoon to catch up with our friend and see what’s new at his home and studio.
Matthew’s home is an inspiring mix of his wife’s interior found objects and wall art – many of which are his own photographs, and the works of other artists we admirer like Nicole Patel.
If the lens is where the mind meets the world for the photographer, then Matthew’s lens is out to tell a story. Each image has a narrative quality that undoubtedly stems from his background as a writer. His ability to create images that have a tacit familiarity yet stand out as something important to show the world is a rare gift.
Light is central to all photographs but especially in Matthew’s as it is his way of creating shapes. Accordingly his photos never feel like random snapshots. His use of light is intentional and his way of capturing an incredible black and white tonal range, especially in 35mm film, has always amazed us.
Whenever we look at the print series Matthew created throughout our journeys in Japan, it slows us down a moment to decipher the time and place. The photographs achieve a sense of timelessness in that manner – there is something so special about them but as I continue to search for the words to capture Matthew’s language in photography, I can’t find anything that will do it justice. So I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
View Matthew Johnson’s limited edition fine art photography series here.
At times with beautiful dishware comes the feeling of not wanting to use them! We’ve experienced this firsthand over the years but with the help of the artisan’s who have given us pointers on how to care for their handmade works in a way that brings out the best quality of the materials, we’ve overcome this impediment. Nowadays, we can safely say that we’ve grown from admirers to proud users of all the handicrafts we bring home. With this new Journal series, we hope to instill a bit more confidence in anyone who is hesitating to break in their pieces. After all, the only way to ruin a piece, is to not use and enjoy them.
Our first care guide is on urushi lacquerware. Traditional urushi lacquerware is made from the sap drawn from the trunk of an urushi tree. There is none better then Ryuji Mitani – the king of crossing limits between art and objects for everyday use – to give us his urushi daily care tips. Luckily caring for urushi is much simpler than we imagined. Here are instructions adapted from Ryuji Mitani’s notes during our exhibition with him.
1. If non-oily foods were used in the piece, rinse the piece under lukewarm water.
2. If there are oily areas, instead of solely lukewarm water, use a mild dish detergent and soft sponge to gently clean the piece. Rinse away all soap residue. Do not use metallic scrubbing pads, as they will cause the urushi to scratch and eventually peel.
3. After rinsing, fully dry the piece with a soft cloth. Leave the piece out to dry on a dish rack overnight before storing.
4. Store the piece on a shelf or in a cabinet with good airflow.
– Avoid soaking urushi pieces in water for prolonged periods.
– Leaving urushi wares in direct sunlight for an extended time may cause discoloration.
– Urushi tableware will become less glossy and more matte as time goes by, this is expected and will give the piece a rich texture.
– It is not recommended to place in microwave.
– Urushi wares are not dishwasher safe as this could cause dents in the wood.
– Drastic temperature changes may cause the wood to warp therefore we do not recommend placing in the refridgerator.
The ‘White Urushi Rimmed Bowl’ pictured in this guide can be found here.
It’s the perfect time of year to make an Apple Crumble. This family recipe by Momoko and Tetsuya Otani was made into recipe cards to share with guests during our exhibition with the potter couple. Here’s an online version in time for the holidays. Bake it in a Medium Clay Baking Pan and serve in a Blue Lotus Dish with ice cream for a quick and easy holiday dinner dessert!
– 5 small apples peeled, cored and sliced about 1 inch thick
– 2 tablespoons butter
– 3 tablespoons sugar
– ½ a lemon’s juice
– 2 tablespoons water
– ½ cup walnuts cut into small chunks
– 1 cup all purpose flour
– ½ cup sugar
– 3 ½ oz butter cut into small cubes (about ½ inch wide)
1. Mix flour and sugar in a mixer, then add butter. Blend just until the mixture comes together, until it has a crumbly texture. Note: Crumble can be made in advance and chilled in the refridgerator.
2. Preheat the oven to 190 °C / 375 °F.
We are pleased to present the curated mix by Pablo Luis that played during the opening reception of our Ryuji Mitani exhibition, Blurring Boundaries. The full-length version is available to listen to above and can be downloaded here.
Last month was the month of Ryuji Mitani! Almost everything sold out at the exhibition but there is a small selection of items that are currently going online. It’s a bitter sweet feeling for us to hand off these rare pieces that sold but its given rise to an unprecedented amount of documentation from the team. Our favorite images is a 35mm series that Ingmar Chen took around the store during the installation and opening, a vintage feel fitting for Mitani-san’s personal style. Here they are mixed in with images from our adventures with Mitani-san in upstate NY.
We designed low display tables for this exhibition to showcase Mitani-san’s collection from a low vantage point. The beauty in his works lies in the urushi lacquering within the pieces and we wanted to showcase that feature from above.
The opening was an amazing night! So many people came out to see Ryuji Mitani. We were especially eager to welcome the avid collectors who flew from all over the world to attend. Junko-san, Mitani-san’s wife, flew in from Japan along with some of their close friends like Natsumi-san (wife of architect Yoshifumi Nakamura). Mitani-san brought cross-shaped cookies from his gallery in Matsumoto called ‘10cm’. The shape is the Japanese character for the number ten, a motif you can see in a lot of Mitani-san’s works like the Jū Cross Plate and cross trivet.
We had been dying to work with our neighbors Momofuku KO since the day we both simultaneously opened our doors for business on Extra Place and felt like this was the perfect occasion. They went above and beyond to provide bites for the opening. The menu included Uni Tart, Chicken Oyster, Arancini and Scallops served on Mitani-san’s large Serving Trays. The work of culinary and woodworking greats, though in different industries, married beautifully.
Throughout the rest of the week we did some site seeing with the Mitanis in New York. Mitani-san also wanted to bring us to the Hancock Shaker Village Museum in Massachusetts as he fondly remembered his experience there over a decade ago when he went with Yoshifumi Nakamura. We packed a car and headed North with the Mitanis along with Aya, her husband Atsushi Miwa, and Natsumi-san.
We could see why Mitani-san liked the museum. The Hancock Shaker Village is utopia for craft lovers. The grounds of this particular Shaker settlement, that dates back to the late 1700s, is incredibly well maintained, there are original Shaker craft items abound, and many are available to touch and use. They also have demonstrations of the machinery and farming tools that you can try your hand at.
Visiting the Hancock Shaker Village became a catalyst to take a trip to Hudson for antique shopping. We met up with Matthew Johnson who recently moved to Hudson with his wife, interior designer Amy Row, and had a lovely family din at Rivertown Lodge where we were staying. It was a nice chance to reminisce on the making of the exhibition video Matt created.
When we were back in the city, Mitani-san spent much of his time at the exhibition, giving visitors the opportunity to put a face to the work, an extra special experience for people bringing pieces home with them because Mitani-san has stories about all the pieces he makes.
Every exhibition we organize a collaboration piece with the artisan or designer. In commemoration of our Blurring Boundaries exhibition, we worked with Ryuji Mitani to create a piece that blends both cultures and traditions – American sundaes and traditional Japanese craftsmanship. The goal was to produce the ultimate ice cream cup! Which is what we effectively tried to do by means of a perfectly round bowl that fits comfortably in the hand, signature white urushi lacquer finish and footed circular stand. Not visible in the photos is the best part, which is the beautiful brush strokes at the bottom of the bowl much like the marks of the White Urushi Rimmed Bowl. We love the idea of eating your way to the bottom of a piece to reveal a beautiful surprise. Unfortunately, we sold out out of the ice cream cup in a day but the good news, for those patient enough, is that Ryuji Mitani is making a limited amount for 2018!
The night before they left back to Japan we gave Mitani-san a vinyl record that we had made him as a souvenir with the help of Pablo Luis. Pablo curated the mix for the exhibition opening, a continuing tradition that goes back to our very first exhibition at the store. The full-length mix that played at the opening reception is available here.
We’ve had the opportunity to spend quality time with Ryuji Mitani, we’ve learned his language with wood and we have memories that will carry on for a lifetime but we couldn’t have pulled off this particular exhibition without the help of a lot of people coming together to make it happen. Huge thank you to Ryuji Mitani, Junko Mitani, Aya Nihei, John Medley, Armando Rafael Moutela, Matthew Johnson, Pablo Luis, Ingmar Chen, Ainsley Moy, Nau Kim, Riza Arrieta, Faraday Okoro, Sujin Lee and the team at Momofuku KO.
A selection of works from Ryuji Mitani’s extensive collection is highlighted in this video to reflect the attributes of each handmade piece. The video draws from the artisan’s exhibition statement on Blurring Boundaries as it relates to the color white and his memories of the snowy landscapes of Fukui, his birthplace.
Videography and Production: Matthew Johnson
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 lexicon 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.