Issey Miyake’s “U-Tsu-Wa” filled with character and inspiration

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In Japanese, the word utsuwa literally means “vessel” or “container,” but it can also be used to describe a person’s character. Someone said to have a “large utsuwa” (“utsuwa ga ookii”) is a person of high caliber or someone with tremendous capacity or generosity. When celebrated Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake conceived the “U-Tsu-Wa” exhibition, on display now through May 10 in Tokyo at Roppongi Midtown’s 21_21 Design Sight, he undoubtedly had both meanings of the word in mind.

“U-Tsu-Wa” focuses on the work of ceramic artist Lucie Rie, with whom Miyake shared a warm friendship until the Vienna-born potter died in 1995. Most of the Rie pieces on display are from Miyake’s own collection, and the personal connection between these two creators is palpable, both in the sheer number Miyake has and in the collaborative work on display. Like most collaborative projects, there is a story to its origin.

In 1984, while showing his new clothing line in England, Miyake happened upon a catalog of Rie’s work at a bookstore in Covent Garden. At the time, Miyake, who is known for his unpretentious blending of beauty and function, was struggling to stay true to his roots in a fashion world increasingly influenced by the flamboyance and excess of the bubbling ’80s. Miyake was deeply moved by the warmth, beauty and unassuming elegance of Rie’s vessels, and he immediately arranged to visit her workshop, which doubled as her home.

Rie, who was 82 at the time, welcomed Miyake with tea and cake and presented him with the first piece of what was to become a large collection: a simple white bowl sitting on a shelf in her workshop that Miyake had furtively admired from across the room.

Miyake returned home determined to share the work of his new friend with the rest of Japan. This vision was realized in a 1985 solo exhibition titled, simply, “Lucie Rie,” which showed in both Tokyo and Osaka. Organized by Miyake, it debuted at the Sogetsu Gallery in Tokyo, an art space designed by pre-eminent architect Tadao Ando, who would later team up again with Miyake to design 21_21 Design Sight. But it was not until later that Miyake and Rie would truly collaborate, and Miyake first had to look to the past before looking to the future.

Prior to World War II, Rie was already an established ceramic artist working in Vienna. She had shown her work across Europe, and in 1937 she won a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition (Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne), the exhibition for which Pablo Picasso painted his famed “Guernica.” But as the end of the decade drew near, the long reach of the Third Reich had enveloped Austria, and, as a Jew, Rie was forced to flee the following year to Britain. To make ends meet in war-torn England, Rie made and sold ceramic buttons as a means of income.

More than 40 years later, Rie showed Miyake these buttons on one of his visits to her workshop, an event that had come to be routine. Moved by the objects’ unique history and heartfelt charm, Miyake designed a line of clothing around the original accessories. The new Miyake designs featuring Rie’s buttons debuted in 1989 to the delight of Rie and fashion fans across the world.

Fast forward to 2009. Rie died almost 15 years ago (leaving her entire button collection to Miyake in her will), but her work still fits well into the mission of 21_21 Design Sight, a relatively new venue to the Tokyo art scene that shows everyday objects in an artistic light. Also committed to exhibiting work relatively unknown in Japan, Miyake decided to include two mid-career artists in this second showcase of Rie’s work: German woodturner Ernst Gamperl and Scottish potter Jennifer Lee. As vessel makers, all three would normally find their work behind glass cases at craft shows or on museum pedestals, but Ando, who also designed the “U-Tsu-Wa” installation, is not one to adhere to convention.

Scattered among a sea of crushed glass, Gamperl’s driftwood sculptures look like abandoned edifices on a desert planet, and the installation as a whole has an otherworldly, outer-space feel. In the adjacent room, Rie and Lee’s pots are placed on translucent stands in a large pool of water, a device that makes the vessels appear to be hovering just above the water’s surface. While this unconventional arrangement doesn’t allow for close examination of the individual pieces, a point that is certain to raise eyebrows among conservative craft- lovers, the unique installation frames the works in a new light, much in the same way Miyake’s clothing designs breathed new life into Rie’s buttons almost 20 years ago. Though Ando’s sensibilities are evident in the exhibition, the utsuwa are the stars of the show.

“I don’t want the only Japanese words known outside of Japan to be ‘manga’ and ‘tsunami,’ ” shares Miyake. “I want the word ‘utsuwa’ also to become a household term. The world is moving as one now; values are changing. I want Japan to be a positive part of this, but not in a heavy- handed way. There has to be a lighter way to think about things. Economics are not the only consideration — how do art and design fit into the future?”

Perhaps Miyake is looking for an answer to such a thorny question in the vessels he has brought to the “U-Tsu-Wa” exhibit. As a designer, curator, and visionary, it is clear that Miyake himself has quite a large utsuwa.

“U-Tsu-Wa” is showing at 21_21 Design Sight in Roppongi through May 10; open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. For more information, call (03) 3475-2121 or visit www.2121designsight.jp D.H. Rosen is a ceramic artist based in Tokyo. He welcomes questions and comments at yakimonos@mac.com