An ambitious project aims to boost the traditional Japanese porcelain in its 400th year
Meissen in Germany, Limoges in France, Delft in Holland and Stoke-on-Trent in the UK are all places that spring to mind when we think of ceramic centres, but mention Arita in Japan to some people and you are met with a blank expression. Well, the quiet town of 20,000 inhabitants in the country’s western-most island of Kyushu is celebrating its 400th anniversary of porcelain production this year. Like so many traditional high-skill centres in the world, Arita is struggling against cheaper, foreign competition as well as an ongoing domestic recession and changing tastes.
Production of Aritaware is currently a fifth of what it was in the early 1990s, triggering officials from the local prefecture of Saga to launch a major international promotion of its great heritage as well as its relevance in the world today. Recognising that it is a crossroads moment for the local industry, 2016 marks the start of ‘episode 2’, according to Saga officials. Their efforts are part of a new chapter to energise Arita porcelain for the next 100 years. The prefecture has 17 projects on the go, all part of a carefully choreographed international campaign to communicate the skills and knowledge that are still honed and perfected in Arita. The two-day tour I joined confirmed such skills, covering a variety of unassuming workshops dotted around the town and amid its hilly and forested terrain.
Firstly, I visited the original quarry where, back in 1616, the Korean potter Yi Sam-pyeong identified that the local stone possessed the ideal properties for porcelain. I then witnessed the noisy and dusty grinding and filtering of the stone into different grades of porcelain clay; the precision carving for the original moulds; the arduous process of creating the myriad paint pigments; the effortless formation of identical vessels thrown entirely from memory; and the unbridled levels of concentration required to hand-paint intricate patterns.
A promising revival initiative for Arita is the formation of a new brand called 2016/ that launched at Milan Design Week in April under the creative direction of Japanese designer Teruhiro Yanagihara and Dutch design studio Scholten & Baijings, together with local businessman Noriyuki Momota. In this instance, the unity of Japanese and Dutch is not accidental. During the mid-17th century, the highly covetable Arita porcelain was exported through the Dutch East India Company to European aristocracy. The Netherlands was establishing itself as a powerful trading nation across the world’s oceans; re-establishing the link between Arita and the Netherlands aims to mirror that golden age.
The new venture incorporates the skills of 10 manufacturing companies with 16 international designers including Ingegerd Råman, Leon Ransmeier, Pauline Deltour, Kueng Caputo, Stefan Diez and Tomás Alonso. Over a period of two years, these designers undertook residencies in Arita, learning the traditional qualities and processes while injecting a valuable outside perspective into a vast collection of objects for everyday use. ‘The idea was to work with people of different ages and nationalities – with ceramic experts as well as people who are new to this material,’ state the creative directors (also contributors to the new collection) in the introduction to the forthcoming book about the project. ‘Some were hands-on, some unconventional; we worked with minimalists, experimental designers, people with humour, technical ability… each person has a different approach.’
The results are certainly varied: London-based designer Tomás Alonso embraced Sehyou pottery’s exceptional accuracy in porcelain, deciding on a collection of geometric forms using circles and squares; New York-based designer Leon Ransmeier scrutinised the cultural differences in dining etiquette between East and West, creating cups, bowls and teapots of ergonomic perfection; Studio Wieki Somers of Rotterdam created a service for high tea, eager to showcase the iconic and very deep ‘Koransha blue’, creating striking contrasts between white and blue with the use of stencils; Dutch designer Kirstie van Noort was driven by an interest in the by-products of porcelain production, adding waste material to her clay bowls with subtle nuances of tone that bring variety to serialised production. These examples only scratch the surface of the 300-plus works in the collection.
‘When we set out, we imagined what our ancestors 400 years ago would have done with today’s technology,’ says Teruhiro Yanagihara. ‘One thing we found remarkable was the discovery that, while the potteries in Arita had known of each other for years, often for generations, they had never visited each other’s factories. This triggered a newfound spirit of collaboration and togetherness.’ This ambitious project, commercially available in the autumn, is on display at the newly launched Arita House in the grounds of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The results will no doubt challenge the public’s perceptions of Japanese ceramics. ‘Japanese craftsmanship is bound by tradition,’ admits Yanagihara. ‘This is simultaneously a benefit and a hindrance. Change is difficult and uncomfortable – at first. But it is necessary. Our role has been to give confidence in that change.’
Arita / Table of Contents: Studies in Japanese Porcelain is published by Phaidon in September, £49.95 hb. Arita House is open at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam until the end of 2016.