Lifestyle | Kateigaho International Japan Edition

A toast to mingei: Living with the rustic beauty of Japanese folk crafts

As a very young boy, Jeffrey Montgomery was entranced with a Kiyomizu sake bottle from his Norwegian mother and a set of 18th-century white porcelain from his maternal grandmother, and he has been collecting enthusiastically ever since. When he started out, he recalls, he had no idea that the things attracting him were Japanese, or that they belonged to a category called mingei.

Olives and fishes: Olives from nearby Italy are served on a fish-pattern dish made by Jiro Kinjo (1912-2004), who was a National Living Treasure from Okinawa. | HIROSHI ABE
Olives and fishes: Olives from nearby Italy are served on a fish-pattern dish made by Jiro Kinjo (1912-2004), who was a National Living Treasure from Okinawa. | HIROSHI ABE

“I was merely acquiring things that appealed in a direct way to my soul,” he says. And his soul led him to amass a large number of folk-craft treasures from Japan.

“Japanese art is completely different from the art of other Asian countries,” he says. “For instance, suppose we take a painting of a single bird. The bird in a Chinese painting would be very realistic and absolutely magnificent, with its wings caught in the act of flight. But the bird in a Japanese picture would be shown with a sense of pent-up motion, as though it were about to take off at any moment.”

Pot and kettle: Shelves in Montgomery's living room display iron kettles, drinking vessels and ornamental pieces from the late 19th century. At far right on the second shelf from the top are three small kettles shaped like eggplants. These are among Montgomery's favorites. The contemporary birds, made by a French artist, fit in quite naturally beside Japanese ironware. | HIROSHI ABE
Pot and kettle: Shelves in Montgomery’s living room display iron kettles, drinking vessels and ornamental pieces from the late 19th century. At far right on the second shelf from the top are three small kettles shaped like eggplants. These are among Montgomery’s favorites. The contemporary birds, made by a French artist, fit in quite naturally beside Japanese ironware. | HIROSHI ABE

Guided by his innate sensitivity to the latent beauty in everyday objects, rather than by specific knowledge or theory, Montgomery has found great pleasure in the aesthetic of items long put to daily use by common people in Japan.

Table decor: Flowers fit perfectly in a vase by ceramist Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966). | HIROSHI ABE
Table decor: Flowers fit perfectly in a vase by ceramist Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966). | HIROSHI ABE

“There’s an energy that pervades these pot hooks and other utensils,” he says. “Made from wood, clay and other natural materials, they were meant to be passed on and carefully used by one person after another through the decades and even centuries.”

Unlike paintings, sculpture and other artworks that have been created to be admired, things like pot hooks and household implements derive their shape and coloring from necessity and use. This gives them powerful beauty.

Preserved heritage: This set of 10 lacquer plates was made in the 18th century in present-day Okinawa. Such antique pieces of Ryukyu lacquerware are extremely rare even in Japan because so much was lost during the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. | HIROSHI ABE
Preserved heritage: This set of 10 lacquer plates was made in the 18th century in present-day Okinawa. Such antique pieces of Ryukyu lacquerware are extremely rare even in Japan because so much was lost during the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. | HIROSHI ABE

In Montgomery’s view, folk-art objects are the heritage of all humanity. “In our world of ever-accelerating materialism, I think they’re the physical embodiment of humanity’s universal need to return to something more basic,” he says.

From time to time Montgomery takes different hangings and other items out of storage to change the displays around his home. And whenever good friends and family gather, he delights them with home-cooked food served on his valuable dishes, and freshly cut garden flowers arranged in antique vases. Montgomery’s is a living collection. The beauty of each item only deepens with frequent use at his home on Lake Lugano.

This is the first installment in a four-part series on Jeffrey Montgomery’s mingei folk crafts collection.

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