On Design—Aesthetics

This is the first of what will be several articles on design and some of the underlying aesthetic criteria which I feel consciously and unconsciously guide the endeavours of creative people in Japan, especially in the disciplines of craft, design and in some cases architecture.

Qualities Shared
It was not until I was about to leave Japan after a 24 year-stay that I suddenly realised that there was an unexpected relationship between Japan and my childhood. 

Sadly by the time this photo was taken in the early 1960s, the wooden perimeter fence had be replaced by wire just visible to the left.  The steam locomotives, too, were also about to be replaced by diesel traction.
When I was a child, I lived with my parents and sister in Hatfield, about 33 km north of London.  When I was seven we moved to a house close to the main railway line between London and Edinburgh.  Even before that my paternal grandmother often took me and my cousin to watch the trains when she looked after us.  This treat was clearly pivotal because as I grew older, I would take every opportunity to go and stand by the railway and do what many young boys and some not so young men used to do, and that was train-spotting—simply collecting the numbers of the engines seen and underlining them in a book published for the purpose.

Hatfield Station had an engine shed, where locomotives were stabled over night.  All the paraphernalia needed to service the engines including wagons full of coal, produced an inevitable overall mantle of grime and oil as well as smoke and steam that added so much atmosphere to the whole setting, creating a complex and animated backdrop through which gleaming express trains thundered or unkempt goods engines trundled with their loads.  There was precision, there was patina, there was what today is called “shabby chic”, flaking paint, evocative graphics, sooty matt surfaces, bright gleaming metals, and all manner of sights, sounds and smells amalgamated into a total experience.

Glossy true lacquer, rustically daubed wall, printed paper, ageing—elements of a tea room seen as an abstract composition.  Okochi Sanso Villa, Kyoto.
I know it is difficult to picture just how this railway setting could have anything to do with what I was later to encounter in Japan but it did.  I know it did.  More than anything else it was the qualities of all the materials in this theatre of railway, but most especially the wooden fence beside the line.  Even now it seems to be the vital connection between my early childhood and the materials used in traditional Japanese architecture.

Weathered wood and metal at 
Zentsuji Temple 
on the Island of Shikoku.
This perimeter fence was made of thick, slightly spaced upright boards standing around two meters high.  The boards were dark, almost black and heavily weathered—their surfaces finely ridged where the softer parts of the grain had wore away.  Those who have been to Japan, will realise that I could easily be describing the finish of the timber of one of Japan’s ancient temples or folk houses.

So, I would say that I found in Japan what represented some of my happiest and most satisfying moments I experienced as a child.  Without trying to explain this by delving into the depths of psychology, about which I know very little, I feel this is the reason why so much of what I encountered in Japan gave me a feeling of deep satisfaction and contentment, when I first visited Japan and even now.

The asymmetrical arrangement of the Pagoda and Main Hall at Horyuji is a compositional feature peculiar to Japan—fundamentally characteristic of a Japanese architectural composition.
Japan’s timber buildings were not, of course, built with weathered timber.  In the case of a temple like Horyuji, which is now more than 1,300 years old, the wood was originally painted, although now there are very few traces of any colour on its buildings.  It seems that no one considered that it was important to repaint it.  It was allowed to grow old gracefully and, interestingly, the natural ageing of such a building in Japan is revered just as much as newness and renewal are admired.

In a sheltered corner at Horyuji 
there is still some paint on 
the bracketing.
But not everything in Japan is as rustic as that fence beside my childhood railway haunt.  The kind of beauty and precision of lacquerwork, for instance, in some way echoes the finely lined and painted body of an express locomotive.  The polished metalwork and appealingly aged appearance of all that I found beside the railway is, I feel, often represented in Japanese crafts, design and architecture.

Just like any other country or region, the culture of Japan has an assemblage of aesthetic standards that can be recognised as guides as to what the people consider “beautiful”, but not just because of how they look.  Sometimes it is because of their smell or how they feel in the hands.  All things can be judged in a multitude of ways.  I seem to share many of the aesthetic standards that exist in Japan.  Why did that happen?  Is it because of the railway line I lived near as a child or is it because of something else?

Horyuji Temple—The Pagoda is revealed as the wind blows the curtain at the entrance to the Main Worship Hall and the light from the setting sun sets off the weathered and untreated wood of the door.
All images by Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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