Rethinking traditional urushi lacquerware


London, it appears, is a good place to learn about both past and present Japan. Last year, as Britain celebrated 150 years of cultural exchange with Japan, it hosted a number of major shows, including a large-scale matsuri (festival) in Spitalfields Market, a comprehensive exhibition of Utagawa Kuniyoshi woodblock prints at the Royal Academy of Arts, as well as a collection of ancient dogu ceramic figures at The British Museum.

This year, the Barbican Center continues the love affair with various events showcasing some of Japan’s most famous creatives. “Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion” includes designs from Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto; “Aspects of Japanese Cinema” features films from Akira Kurosawa and Takashi Miike; and a performance of the play “Complicite: Shun-kin” brings the popular actress Eri Fukatsu to the stage.

The big names are impressive; however, they shouldn’t overshadow smaller exhibitions, which often offer a closer, more personal look at Japanese culture. As Daisuke Tsuchiya, deputy director of the Japan Information and Cultural Center of the Embassy of Japan in London, pointed out, “There has also been an increase in smaller grassroots events, local and cultural, in London and also all across the U.K.”

Speaking at the Embassy of Japan, Tsuchiya was introducing one such event: a modest exhibition featuring 26 works set up in the embassy’s lobby area. “Collacqueration: Designed in the U.K., lacquered in Japan” is a collaboration between five U.K.-based designers and five lacquer craftsmen from Wajima in Ishikawa Prefecture. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in innovative design and cultural insight.

“Three years ago there was a huge earthquake in Wajima and a lot of buildings where urushi (Japanese lacquerware) craftsmen worked were destroyed. Since so many of the craftsmen were already quite old and they couldn’t continue to work, they just stopped,” said Emiko Oki, a designer and curator of “Collacqueration.”

“I was already interested in Wajima lacquerware and knew some of the artists,” she continued. “And one of them suggested that we do something to prevent the craft of lacquerware from being lost.”

“Collacqueration,” conceived by Oki and the urushi craftsman Takashi Wakamiya, aims to not only reveal the beauty of lacquer, but also to encourage viewers to see its possible future as a versatile medium for design. The five innovative designers participating were invited because of their connection with Japan or their interest in the country’s culture, and each of the craftsmen they worked with are represented by a number of their own unique pieces.

Urushi was so popular in the West during the late 17th century that when European artists began making their own imitations, it became known as “Japanning.” But as cheaper alternatives, such as plastic and modern enamel, became available worldwide, the demand for urushi diminished. Unlike plastic or enamel, however, creating an urushi piece involves much care and attention. The process of accumulating sap from trees for varnish, then layering it on carved wood and polishing it until it is gleaming is a time-consuming art form that the designers of “Collacqueration” respect and admire.

Max Lamb’s works illustrate the importance of such craftsmanship. His “Wood Stool,” constructed of four pieces of roughly cleaved wood, has a thin matte-black lacquered surface that shows off unpolished urushi. Some urushi pieces are in fact left deliberately matte, such as those of Wakamiya, whose artworks in the exhibition consist of carved figures of kappa, a Japanese mythical creature. Lamb’s work, however, reveals the raw nature of the wood beneath, which, in exposing the delicacy of a single layer of lacquer, emphasizes the amount of effort it takes to create a traditional piece.

Unlike traditional lacquerware, the collaboration works for this show, took a relatively short time. “The longest took about four months, the shortest about a month — which is crazy really because an urushi piece would usually take at least a year,” said Oki, whose own work in the show plays on the long wait that clients would expect when ordering lacquerware.

“Urushi is an expensive product, always used for special occasions . . . like a present.” she said. And the waiting, Oki explained, is part of the pleasure of ordering it. Appropriately, Oki’s designs are gift boxes, made from paper and ribbon and coated in urushi. “I wanted to freeze wrapping paper, which makes a gift special,” she said.

Perhaps a slightly more commercial work is Julia Lohmann’s “Kombu Dwellings,” a tabletop set of boxes that are decorated with her experimental kombu seaweed veneer. The cluster of containers was inspired by traditional buildings in Hokkaido, and the glossy urushi complements the unusual green tone of the woodlike sheets of seaweed.

Alongside Lohmann’s boxes is Gero Grundmann’s “Chinkin Sketchbook,” an unassuming bowl that on closer observation reveals delicate gold drawings of faces and skulls, the fine lines created by the traditional urushi technique of chinkin (gold inlay). Chinkin is also featured in a particularly creative manner by Yuri Suzuki, who chose to use the conductive qualities of the gold inlay to create circuits for his “Musical Interface #1.” The touchpad interface plays haunting notes when the gold parts of the lacquerware are touched.

Because of their personal value to musicians, instruments, said Oki, are perhaps suitable objects to be personalized by the expensive process of lacquering. Yamaha, who part sponsored this show, has included an additional piece to the designers’ collection: A lacquered electric cello. Beautiful to look at and fully functional, it perhaps sums up the aim of “Collacqueration,” an exhibition that aspires a revival of the traditional through the collaboration of modern minds.

For more information, visit