There's always art behind design

by D.H. Rosen

For some, life-changing moments involve a traumatic experience or a piercing epiphany. For others, something as simple as a teapot can elicit transformation.

So it was for ceramic designer Masatoshi Sakaegi, who as a high school student in 1960 happened upon the work of the ceramicist Masahiro Mori at a Tokyo department store. What would seem to be banal happenstance sparked aesthetic ambitions that have culminated over 40 years later in “Ceramic Design of Masatoshi Sakaegi: Rhythm and Waves,” currently on exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT).

The 1960s in Japan were a time of acute social transformation. The postwar “economic miracle” was in full swing and an influx of wealth brought with it a new demand for well-designed, high-quality material goods.

Designers such as the aforementioned Mori were meeting this demand with a new style of design, one that strove not only to make products that functioned well, but also had aesthetic value independent of their utility. Though Japan had long been home to a celebrated tradition of craft, the concept that artistry could be coupled with mass production was quite new. Designers remained largely invisible.

Then in 1960, the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) established the “Good Design Award,” its mission to select outstanding examples of industrial design based on their form and function. This was an important step in formalizing design as an important cultural endeavor and establishing designers as artists in their own right. Mori was one of the first to bring this kind of artistry through design to the masses in Japan, and it was the simplicity and accessibility of his designs that appealed to Sakaegi.

“I became immediately interested in industrial design when I saw Mori’s work,” says Sakaegi in a recent interview. “It was amazing to me that, even as a high school student, I could afford something so beautiful and I liked the idea of things of beauty being available to everyone.”

By the time Sakaegi entered the Craft and Design Department of Musashino College of Art and Design, the term “craft design” had become a buzzword in Japan. Upon graduation, he was immediately placed on the design team of a large-scale ceramics manufacturer, where he eagerly learned the tools of his trade and honed his skills as a designer.

But facilitating short product runs in large numbers left him feeling stifled as a creator, and just three years later he left to establish his own venture, Ceramic Japan, Inc. With his own company, he found greater freedom in creating a vast variety of designs for small-lot production.

Through the ’70s and ’80s Sakaegi continued Mori’s legacy of redefining the role of the industrial designer as an interpreter of the social landscape. The diversity of his designs reflected the diversity of lifestyles in a country that was in a constant state of flux. However, Sakaegi’s success lay not only in his ability to reflect contemporary culture and remain pertinent to the times, but also in his fierce commitment to the objects he creates.

While he adamantly refers to himself simply as a “designer,” this label surely cannot aptly describe the vast array of tasks he undertakes with consummate mastery. In fact, for many of the ceramic works now on display at MOMAT, he drew the original sketches, handcrafted the masters to be cast, designed the surface decoration and even formulated many of the glazes himself. This level of involvement by the designer is practically unheard of, but therein lies the power behind Sakaegi’s work.

“If you are going to create successful ceramic work, I think you have to be engaged with each step in the process,” explains Sakaegi. “Vessels are created to be held in the hands, so it’s important to me that I first feel the final product in my own hands, before I release it into the world.”

This commitment and attention to detail is pervasive in Sakaegi’s work. With billowing edges and flowing curves, his “Clay Wave” series exhibits extraordinary movement and truly embodies the “Rhythms and Waves” title of the show. As individual pieces they are quaint, but it is when they are arranged as a set that the full vision of the artist become apparent.

Though Sakaegi’s first love is clearly vessel ware, he also creates nonfunctional work that incorporates the same sense of flow and movement we find in his utilitarian pieces. One such example is “Burare,” a relief tile installation that seems to be more of a footnote than a feature of “Rhythm and Waves.” This flirtation with fine art in no way suggests that Sakaegi has loftier goals. On the contrary, he refers to his nonfunctional work as “sculptural exercises” that will later provide hints for new functional forms.

In a world where mass production has reached a harrowing pinnacle, “Rhythm and Waves” is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps instead of “products,” the work in this exhibition might be more appropriately likened to prints from a lithograph. Each piece may not be the only one of its kind, but the artistry behind the original is undeniable.

“Ceramic Design of Masatoshi Sakaegi: Rhythm and Waves” at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till Feb. 13; admission ¥420 (free on Sun. Feb. 6); open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.);, closed Mon. For more information, visit