Can big names help the plight of small factories?

Crafted For Lexus' range of artisanal goods targets a new market for both the luxury car brand and Japan's traditional manufacturers

by Cameron Allan Mckean

Special To The Japan Times

The smooth, metallic surface reflects the sunlight coming through the window. Without touching it you can see that this is an object made with great care — even though it came from a factory. I’m inside a shop run by Lexus in Tokyo, but what I’m looking at isn’t part of a luxury car, it’s a small metal key tray designed by Masuko Unayama and made by a 12th-generation metalware craftsman. Unayama’s key tray was commissioned for Intersect By Lexus, a new Aoyama-district shop/cafe/space. The tray is included in a lineup of commissioned artisanal goods titled Crafted for Lexus, which is being sold at the first in a series of lifestyle spaces that the luxury car brand is planning to build in cities around the world. With an interior designed by Masamichi Katayama from Wonderwall, the aim of the Aoyama space, according to the company website, is to have visitors “experience Lexus without getting behind the steering wheel of one of our cars” — a comment reiterated over email by Lexus International PR staffer Mio Nakayama.

It’s part of an attempt by Lexus, a division of Toyota, to align itself with a different kind of lifestyle and a new market in Japan — much like the Mercedes-Benz Connection space in Roppongi, which features a cafe, a restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef, a “gallery” of cars, and a shop selling exclusive goods and merchandise. It’s slick, but whether Mercedes-Benz is getting what it hoped out of its venture seems doubtful when the ground-floor cafe is full of mobile workers and freelancers who likely can’t afford a luxury car.

Intersect By Lexus nevertheless aims to likewise attract a new group of customers through their exhibition space, restaurant and store. Nakayama explains that the shop is a space where Japanese artisans, who have been commissioned by Lexus to create “unique pieces,” can showcase their work. It’s hoped that the products will get visitors to “connect emotionally” with the brand, by associating it with authenticity, innovation and centuries-old tradition.

“I’ve asked myself why Lexus was interested in my work and I have no idea,” says Masuko Unayama, one of the Crafted For Lexus artists and the designer of the small metal key tray. Speaking in SyuRo, her shop in east Tokyo’s Taito Ward, she continues, “I asked many times, ‘Why us?’ I’ve never been in a Lexus or touched a Lexus.”

Unayama didn’t get a clear answer, but her involvement with Lexus reveals an interesting way Japan has started to reflect on its recent problems of manufacturing, tradition and craft: Are handmade objects simply vernacular and archaic or can they now be considered as luxurious because of their authenticity? Products such as Unayama’s metal key tray give us a momentary clear view of Japan’s ever shifting landscape of objects.

In the 1950s and ’60s industrial objects produced by small-scale factories helped create Japan’s miracle economic recovery after World War II. But those manufacturing days are in the past, as machi-kōba (small-scale, city factories) are being superseded by larger (and cheaper) factories in other parts of Asia.

Leading Japanese designers Kenya Hara and Naoto Fukasawa both feel that Japan is entering a new era of finding value in ideas, systems, interfaces and the environment, not in objects. And as the significance of objects deteriorates, ancient techniques and the way of life associated with them do, too. Brushes, woven bamboo baskets, knives and metal key trays are disappearing from Japan, replaced by cheaper mass-produced goods. It’s been happening for decades.

Hara and Fukasawa are right, but there are small pockets of resistance where old techniques are being reactivated through good design in a move to retain the tradition and techniques embodied in domestic crafts. Unayama and her shop, SyuRo, is one such space of resistance.

“Previously the shokunin (craftsperson) would make an object from nothing to finish — from planning to design, through to sales,” says Unayama. “But they don’t have a complete understanding of the world or the market anymore.” In her shop, Unayama sells everyday life goods that she has designed in collaboration with these craftspeople whose industry is disappearing.

Unayama says she’s not exactly sure of the group or lifestyle that Lexus is hoping to tap into through her work, but she feels it’s “a repetition of what happened in the ’70s,” referring to a time of rekindled appreciation for everyday life goods.

“The biggest difference between now and the ’70s is that there is more stuff, and less people who see the value in a single object,” she says. “I want to increase the number of people who really look at things and really understand the value of an object.”

But value according to whose perspective? Lexus, Unayama and the craftsman she worked with each use different qualities to define the value of the metal key tray. Lexus is capitalizing on an idea of “traditional Japan” as a luxurious and rich lifestyle, whereas Unayama is focused on making well-designed objects for daily life.

The craftspeople themselves, it seems, are having trouble understanding the value that companies such as Lexus see. The metalware craftsman who made Unayama’s key trays, for example, sees value in simply making the trays using special techniques handed down over generations and taught to him by his father. Artisans like this, says Unayama, “just want to make (items).”

Unayama on the other hand is a specialist of design, her desk in SyuRo is stacked with design-theory books. For her, design is a way to “encourage things that would otherwise diminish to flourish and grow.” And she has a strong emotional connection to this cause. She came to work with craftspeople in her local neighborhood after her father, a jewelery craftsman, passed away. “This is how I continue on his work,” she says.

When other Intersect By Lexus spaces are completed in New York and Dubai, it will be interesting to see how the brand negotiates and associates itself with the value of objects in those cities. In the meantime, the store in Tokyo reveals that major brands are willing to invest in dwindling industries to attract people who value goods made using authentic traditional skills. Whether those consumers are thinking on the same lines as the artisans creating such goods, however, is another story.

“I don’t tell them what they’re doing is wrong,” says Unayama of the craftspeople she deals with. “I try to make them feel that they could change their work to fit in with a different lifestyle.”

The techniques artisans have honed over decades have value, she explains, “but they’re not enough anymore.” Value now comes in a critical combination of technique, an understanding of contemporary design, and even an appreciation of “the space around the object,” she says.

In 1966, design theorist Bruno Munari wrote that manufacturers “think that their product can only be used for one particular type of goods. But with experimentation and good will, one can think of new things to make, and so enlarge the commercial possibilities of a given product.”

Unayama is a new variable in the manufacturing equation who helps think of those “new things.” She is a translator between the image conscious modern world and a 12th-generation craftsman wielding his 100- or 1,000-year-old techniques.

  • Aholl Urang

    One of the biggest problem of individual craftsman or small businesses that wants to go global is that from a foreigner’s prospect it’s difficult to them.
    Example: Type Japanese Garden Designer in any search engines outside of Japan. Results? Some bloke from UK or US.