On Design—Decorative Motifs

Hard edge geometric pattern and a later torn paper geo-floral in the David Hicks collection.  From David Hicks on decoration—with fabrics published by Britwell Books, 1971

Mt. Fuji, Sailing Boats and Pine Trees
When I worked in the David Hicks design studio in the early part of 1970s, David and the rest of us in the studio often referred to Owen Jones’ tome, The Grammar of Ornament.  It provided useful starting points for design ideas, especially for flat patterns.  Characteristic decorative devices representing the main cultures of the world are gathered together on its pages like a sampler of designs that we used to adapt, modify and develop to suit our purposes—usually for textile or carpet designs.  We did not copy.  All we needed were hints to nudge the creative grey cells into generating something new and then we only turned to its pages when we did not have something else to inspire us.

The section on Japan was always a particularly fruitful source of inspiration. By the time I joined the studio and became chief designer in 1969, David had already had some success with a collection of geometric textile designs for an American furnishing company.  But we needed a set of follow-up designs.  Turning to our copy of The Grammar of Ornament, there were plenty of decorative devices in the Japanese section to get us started.  What actually happened, however, was slightly unexpected.  We ended up developing a collection of geometric printed fabric designs originated in torn coloured paper.

One of my geometric designs for David Hicks.  Was it inspired by a Japanese pattern?  From David Hicks on decoration—with fabrics published by Britwell Books, 1971

Of course, geometric designs are not the only ones of which Japan can be proud.  All craft disciplines in Japan have used simplified graphic depictions of mystical as well as natural flora and fauna.  Auspicious symbols have also been used extensively on pieces of pottery, for example, as well as no textiles, on pieces of furniture and as architectural ornaments as well.  And significantly, of course, on lacquerware, too.  Add to this illustrations of landscapes with buildings and natural phenomena and you have an almost complete lexicon of design ideas that have been used for centuries.

My own impression of Mt. Fuji in the modern age, photographed from near Enoshima.

There is, however, one pictorial element that seems to have a special place not only in the Japanese vocabulary of decorative motifs but also in the hearts of the Japanese people as a whole—images of Mt. Fuji, sailing boats and pines.

Despite looking through a number of books on patterns and having done a search on line, I really cannot find anything that comes close to this kind of imagery in traditional British design.  Perhaps I have not looked hard enough.  It may exist but I do not think that it would be anything like as commonly used as this stage set like assemblage—usually three sailing boats along with pine branches or trees all set against a backdrop of Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji itself is such a powerful icon that it is easy to see how it might become a motif.  Also, the scene actually does exist.  Seen either across the waters of Suruga Bay or from a vantage point over one of the lakes that flank this sleeping volcano with its almost eternal snow cap, the overall impression would have been etched on ordinary people’s minds and especially in those of a designer, craftsperson or artist as they passed by.  Nevertheless, that does not mean that everyone who depicted the scene would actually have seen it with their own eyes.

In Ninohe in the north of Japan there is a lacquerware archive containing some small dishes that may date from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, although this cannot be verified exactly.  Many were made as samples to offer to eateries and inns by travelling salesmen.  Or they were made for wedding and funeral banquets held in a village headman’s home, which acted as a “community  centre”, and stored there for just such an occasion.

A relatively realistic depiction of Mt. Fuji with sailing boats from the collection in Ninohe.
A more graphic and rather loose rendering of Mt. Fuji, clouds, sailing boats and some shrubbery from the collection in Ninohe.
This lively, abstracted rendering in a painterly style with a medium which usually 
inhibits spontaneity.

In this rural area far from Mt. Fuji the person decorating these simple dishes may only have had another depiction of the scene or a verbal description from which to work.  The informed opinion is that the dishes were probably made from unseasoned beech, which accounts for the distortion to something close to oval from an original circular form.  The lacquerwork, too, is not especially good and certainly not up to the standard of Wajima’s highly durable and robust lacquering techniques.

The rendering of the scene, however, is really interesting.  There are more or less realistic representations of Mt. Fuji with sailing boats and pines, others which are more graphic and still others that are nothing less than an abstract impression of the scene.  When I first saw one of these impressionistic renderings I joked with the officials from the archive that the scene looked so spontaneous that perhaps the artist was anxious to get home early on a Friday evening and hurriedly completed the rendering of the scene with a few sweeps of his brush.

A magnificent makie rendering of the same scene on the lid of a bowl in the collection 
of Sojiji Temple.
The same scene can also be found in a more realistic and elegant rendering on a lid of a bowl held in a collection of old lacquerware at Sojiji Temple on the Noto Peninsula.  Now, Noto is not far from Mt. Fuji as the crow flies, so the artist/craftsman who decorated this piece of fine lacquerware may well have seen the mountain with the naked eye.  But, they could also have seen any number of other depictions of the scene, which had migrated north to Noto from Kyoto via Kanazawa, both important centres for craft production for many centuries.  In which ever case the scene on this lid is just one of a multitude of similar images immediately recognisable as an enduring icon of Japan.  And it epitomises the nation in a way that no other image can.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Suspended in Time

Using a small palette attached to his thumb, Toshio Ebata charges his “rat hair” brush with lacquer.

Makie Master—Toshio Ebata
On a warm Sunday morning in June 2015, I went to see Toshio Ebata.  I had met him for the first time a few days before, so after exchanging simple greetings where he stood waiting for me at his doorway, we went into the porch and removed our shoes.

The ground floor clearly housed the domestic quarters.  The muffled sound of a radio or was it a TV immediately created an image in my mind’s eye of the kind of interior that had become so familiar.  I have been very privileged, firstly during my 24-year-stay in Japan and since then on a number of other visits.  Without the slightest hesitation many people have welcomed me into their homes and workplaces.  Being tall I have always been told to mind my head on the low beams or asked if I am able to cope with sitting on the floor but that is all.  There is never any awkwardness, or even shyness on the part of my hosts.

I followed Toshio up a narrow staircase leading off the small porch leaving my shoes waiting for my departure.  No doubt someone would warm-heartedly turn them round and line them up, so that I could slip into them with little difficulty as I left.

Sitting where he works close to the light from the window, Toshio spelled out the real essentials of his work—patience, dedication, accumulated skill and the satisfaction in completing something to be proud of.

The stairs were steep, so I had to take a good deal of care ascending the narrow shiny wooden treads with my camera bag.  The smell of lacquer wafted down the stairs and heralded the opening of a portal into another world. 

At the top of the flight of stairs we entered a room flooded with light from a large window at one end away to the left.  This was Toshio’s domain.  And it was easy to see that it was truly a place of work.  Not a place of heavy labour but more akin to a watchmaker’s workshop.  Essentially speaking, it was a room that could hardly have changed in appearance for an awfully long time.  It may well have looked virtually the same in 1915, or 1815 or even earlier but inhabited by Toshio’s forebears, of course.

There were drawers and small cupboards, a cushion facing a bench near the window, brushes and very little else.  And yet is was certainly a place of “work”.  At the end of the room by the window there was an area of tatami matting spread out on the wooden floor.

 The hair of these brushes used to come from rats.  Just like the brushes used by a miniaturist, the long hair absorbs the trembling of the hand and even the beat of the heart.

Tatami matting is usually composed of a fine reed topping stretched over a thick rice straw substrate.  Although later on they came to be used wall to wall, originally one mat was used as a seat signifying the elevated status of the person sitting on it.  In this room the area of fine reed matting alone was indication of where the master sat and worked.

Sipping freshly made green tea, we talked about the makie work that is Toshio’s speciality.  His work is delicate, perfection epitomised, and like jewels of the art and craft of lacquerware born in a world suspended in time.

The snaking trunk of a willow tree is seen against its slightly raised and delicately rendered festoons of foliage on a natsume—a small caddy to hold the powdered green tea used in a tea ceremony.

Compared to Toshio’s willow tree tea caddy, the more than one-hundred year old lidded box from his collection has a robust character of a piece of household ware.  The decoration is striking and yet delicate, simple and yet full of life.
A glazed paper packet holds the tiny chips of gold with which Toshio decorates his work.  In this case, contrary to what the proverb says, all that glitters is gold.

The multi-layered pattern on this box took many hours to complete.  The jewel-like character he has achieved, however, more than justifies the time and effort expended in its decoration.
 There is almost a kaleidoscopic quality when the patter is seen in closeup, with a shower of sparkling gold drifting across the surface like a shower of drizzle.

Toshio still relies on a “rat hair” brush fixed to a sprung bamboo compass to draw arcs and circles.  The spur of bamboo holding the brush is pulled toward the pointed element with fibres from a vine, just as it has always been.

Each glossy black dish holds a galaxy bursting with energy emanating from the pool of gold chips at its centre.
Makie—A generic term covering many decorative techniques, often involving powders of gold or silver mixed with lacquer.  It may result in a flat painterly rendering of motifs or shallow relief.  Sprinklings of chips of gold or silver as well as pigment may also be used in this technique which has been developed and enhanced over the centuries.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright
Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.


Miyashin—A Feast for the Eyes

Texture, colour and substance—Tofu 
is the main ingredient.
Presentation Perfect
Since visiting Japan for the first time in 1974, its presence on the world stage has gradually become more prominent.  Back then, however, few members of my family or friends could barely comprehend the merit of such an adventure and some could hardly even point at Japan on a map—“is it part of China?” they would exclaim.  The shadows of an old enemy were also still firmly fixed in some people’s minds, despite the fact that just ten years previously the success of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had helped to raise the profile of the country enormously.

This gradual change of how Japan is perceived, has had much to do with the increasing number of people who have visited the archipelago.  Tourists and more longterm visitors have returned home, just as I and my wife Lou did, with favourable stories of their experiences, the beautiful places there are to see, the politeness of the Japanese people, the highly civilised bathing arrangements and so much more.  This in turn has encouraged more and more people to visit.  It has even prompted overseas broadcasters to have correspondents stationed there and foreign corporations, too, have found it necessary to strengthen their trading status by having offices in Japan.  Natural disasters aside, the general level of safety in urban Japan in particular has given many people both young and old the confidence to travel there totally unescorted.

And then there is the food.  Forty years ago some people in England would have expressed all that they knew about Japanese cuisine by saying with disdain “they eat raw fish, don’t they?”  That alone was the extent of their knowledge.

A meal setting at Miyashin.  More Wakashima lacquerware to compliment 
the skills of the chef.  A real feast for the eyes.
More recently everybody now knows that sushi is a generic term for a dish, although they would be hard pushed to define it in detail.  Check your dictionary and you are just as likely to find not only sushi but the word sashimi, too, both fully explained.

When we returned to live in the UK in 2000, some of the locals were eager to know how to make sushi and Lou was even commissioned to make some for parties.  The fishmonger in the nearest town sells fish fresh enough for sushi but at a price that makes us think twice about making a purchase.  In London there are a number of fast-food outlets selling “sushi” although it usually falls short of the real thing.  There are even what we used to call guru-guru sushi  bars or conveyor belt sushi restaurants in major cities in the UK.  So there is no doubt that sushi is here to stay.

But what else has happened?  How else have Japanese culinary aesthetics influenced chefs around the world? About twenty-five years ago French cuisine took a new direction—nouvelle cuisine.  This was not only a new approach to the preparation of food but also a very conscious attempt to develop its presentation.  It seems that how Japanese food is presented was particularly influential, especially kaiseki-ryori—a selection of various foods served in order and presented like pieces of art.  Such food is as much a delight to the eye as it is to the palate.  The season of the year may well be reflected in the choice of ingredients and equal importance is given to the selection of the tableware and its grouping.

A picnic-style setting from the far north of Japan on Magnolia obovata leaves.
The development of nouvelle cuisine as well as more direct influences from Japan have had far reaching consequences even in Britain.  Top quality restaurants up and down the country all try to make the food they serve look “well presented”.  In so many cases, however, the whole effect is spoiled by the first lunge with a knife and fork.  A much more elegant, careful selection of individual delicacies from the ensemble with chop-sticks would be so much more appropriate.  Sadly, this is unlikely to catch on.

Large pieces of tuna on a beef steak plant leaf and bed of shredded daiko radish.
If you are lucky enough to go to Wajima and visit Miyashin for a meal, however, there will be much to delight the senses.  Feast your eyes on the arrangement of ingredients as well as the beautiful lacquerware.  It is almost a crime to disturb the composition.  But it must be done.

Sushi and indirectly kaiseki-ryori have played their part in raising people’s awareness of Japanese cuisine.  And they have also influenced the way we perceive food.  What’s next you might say?  Well, at present London is experiencing something of a ramen boom—check the Net.  Suppliers are quick to follow a trend and even the noodles can be bought online.  I, however, make my own.

Miyashin is located close to the City Hall in Wajima.  Meals start from about ¥3,500.  Site in Japanese with some English at:  http://www.wajima.or.jp/miyashin/store/index.html

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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Superstitions, Good Luck, Bad Luck

Sea salt from one of the salt pans flanking the Japan Sea near Wajima.
Good Luck!
Are you superstitious?  Some people will definitely say no but the majority of us are at least a little superstitious.  It is very common in the UK to throw a pinch of salt over your shoulder into the eye of the devil who is said to always be standing behind us ready to cause trouble.  People either do it to ward off bad luck or simply to make up for spilling this precious commodity.

The cleansing properties of salt are recognised in Japan, too, in rather particular ways.  When a person returns home from attending a funeral, for example, they will ask a member of the household to toss a little salt over them.  The intention is simple—warding off bad luck and more specifically to keep death from crossing the threshold.  It must be said that these days such a custom is less common.

A saké cup emblazoned with the name of one of principal brews—Suehiro
Nevertheless, occasionally two small heaps of salt can be seen at either side of an entrance to a house.  They signal the desire to keep bad luck at bay.  You might even see a small heap of salt at the side of a door to a bar.  This is to keep troublesome customers away.  A Japanese friend of mine living in London has four small dishing with salt in them positioned in the four main corners of her apartment.  This is something she learnt from her grandmother as a way of warding off bad luck.

A dish decorated with a draw-string money bag, sometimes called a Shingen-bukuro after a famous feudal lord.
Remember this is all to do with superstitions—something we belief in and yet cannot really be proved.  Salt has real cleansing or purifying properties of course.  Our superstitions just spring from that fact.

Take your pick:  Some of the saké cups for a tasting.
There are many charms and objects in Japan that are said to bring good luck.  Hidetake Wakashima was commissioned to produce some small cups and dishes for the Nakajima Saké Brewery in Wajima.  They were made for visitors to try the various sakés they offer.  Some are decorated with such auspicious motifs as a draw-string money bag alluding to the acquisition of wealth.  Another has a small mallet on it.  Swinging the mallet is said to bring good luck and is associated with the Seven Gods of Good Luck.

The Seven Gods of Good Luck.  From left to right:  Ebisu, the deity of fishermen and tradesmen.  Daikoku, the happy god of wealth and the farmers saint.  Bishamon, the missionary and warrior deity of militarism.  Benten, art, literature, music and eloquence are her strengths.  Jurojin, the deity of longevity who drinks much saké.  Fukurokujin, sees the future and performs miracles for the benefit of mankind.  Hotei, a figure of abundance who has attained the wisdom of Buddhism.
The cups have a variety of pleasing shapes and are lacquered.  The decoration is done using the makie technique, employing precious metal powder and pigment mixed with lacquer.

What a pleasure—taking a nip of saké in a cup wishing me Wealth and Good Luck.  What could be better.

Access the Japanese site of the Nakajima Brewery to at least see the product line.  Oyaji no Tezukuri—Dad’s Homemade Brew—can be throughly recommended:  http://www.notosuehiro.com

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

Do feel free to pass on the address of this blog to anyone you think will be interested.  Or post it on a social media site.  Should you wish to leave a comment, please do so by clicking on the comment mark at the bottom left of this or any of the other posts.   If you have found this blog interesting, why not become a follower.