It all started back in 2012 when prominent Dutch designers Scholten & Baijings and Karimoko New Standard creative director, Teruhiro Yanagihara, created two contemporary ranges for traditional Japanese porcelain manufacturer Momota Touen. The phenomenal success of these designs encouraged a group of Arita porcelain manufacturers to put their trust in a new project that would bring together 16 of the world's best contemporary designers and nine traditional porcelain houses to celebrate 400 years of porcelain making in Arita. The project was announced in April 2015 at Rossana Orlandi's design emporium in Milan and came to fruition precisely one year later with an exhibition of the new collection held during Milan Design Week and a spectacular book published by Phaidon, that documented the project from beginning to end.
Arita is a town in the Nishimatsuura District, Saga Prefecture, on Kyushu Island in southern Japan. The town has been making porcelain since 1616 when a Korean master Ri Sam Pei, introduced porcelain pottery to Japan after finding large scale Kaolin clay deposits in the area. Arita has a large number of companies specialising in porcelain manufacturing to this day and are well known for their traditional Kakiemon, Arita Blue & White and Imari styles.
The task for Scholten & Baijings and Teruhiro Yanagihara was to remind the world of Arita's incredible skills in porcelain making by injecting a contemporary design language. To do this they selected 16 designers to work closely with specific companies to develop the Arita 2016 collection. Many were from the Netherlands where there is a strong historical trading involvement with Asia and a high level of interest in porcelain but there were also designers from several other European countries, Japan and the US.
The list of names invited to participate is an interesting mix of established names and young up-and-coming studios. Scholten & Baijings contributed a large collection of plates that experiment with their favourite themes of colour and pattern while Yanagihara designed a stackable low cost dinner service in plain white and an unusual uneven grey glaze. As creative directors of the project the trio oversaw the relationships between designers and manufacturers and facilitated the presentation and promotion of the entire project. Day to day direction of the project however was undertaken by David Glaettl, an experienced Kyoto-based design director and consultant who works for brands such as Karimoku New Standard.
The other designers to contribute were the BIG-GAME and Kueng Caputo studios from Switzerland, Pauline Deltour from France, Stefan Diez, Saska Diez and Christian Haas from Germany and Shigeki Fujishiro from Japan. Spanish designer Tomas Alonso was also invited along with Dutch designers Studio Wieki Somers, Christien Meindertsma and Kirstie van Noort. There were also a couple of Swedes, Ingegerd Råman and TAF Architects and a lone American, New York based designer Leon Ransmeier.
The project was sponsored by the Saga Prefecture, Japan in co-operation with the Creative Industries Fund NL and involved nine of Arita's key porcelain factories: Fujimaki Seitou, Momota–Touen, Hataman Touen, Kawazoe Seizan, Kin’emon Toen, Koransha Pottery, Kubota Minoru Ceramics, Sehyou & Co and Tokunaga Pottery.
Each of the nine potteries involved in the Arita 2016 project specialise in different styles and produce porcelain using a range of techniques. Part of the initial brief to the designers was to seek out and utilise these differences to highlight the range of skills available in Arita but also to discover new possibilities and new techniques. Due to the number of designers working on the project it is impossible to cover all the work developed for the Arita 2016 collection without the post ballooning out of all proportion. Just a small selection is shown below but the entire collection and a host of behind the scene details and interviews are available on the Arita 2016 website here.
Scholten & Baijings took the most decorative approach to the project, choosing to confine their experimentation to the application of different glazes types, colours and patterns within the set parameters of a more-or-less circular plate shape (with a few exceptions). While the edges of some plates were scalloped and the sizes varied the overall impression was less about form and more about the application of a decorative surface.
Kueng Caputo is a young Swiss studio founded by Sarah Kueng and Lovis Caputo. For the Arita 2016 project their objective was to illustrate the incredible skill set of the craftsmen and women they were partnered with. They discovered that while many of the porcelain production processes in Arita are industrial to keep prices down, many of the processes still involve handwork and a large number of careful steps that can only be achieved by highly skilled artisans. Partnering with Kin’emon Toen pottery, the studio embraced the specialist technique of airbrush painting called fukitsuke for which the company is well known but pushed the process to a new level. The technique enables soft gradients of colour and texture to be applied to the surface of the porcelain. Kueng Caputo and Kin’emon Toen developed a variation of this surface covering that blurs the edges of an object, creating an optical illusion by playing on the qualities of light and shadow.
In direct contrast to the soft optical approach taken by Kueng Caputo, Tomás Alonso worked with Sehyou Pottery on an array of geometric shapes with overtly defined edges that operate as much as a decorative composition as they do as functional vessels. For the collection Alonso and Sehyou pottery developed a new process of colouring the clay with pigments applied to the body of the cast vessels before firing. This process avoided the anomalies introduced by traditional glazing techniques and allowed the objects to have an extreme uniformity of colour so that the shape became the collections defining factor.
Based on the understanding that traditional Japanese ceramics have a reputation for fitting the hand in a pleasing way, New York based designer Leon Ransmeier decided to design his forms to have the same tactile nature but with a more technical visual vocabulary. He wanted to create a dialogue between the two elements comfort and work and to reinforce this visually the handles of his vessels reference the sort of tool handles found on saws and wood planes. The outer surfaces of Ransmeier’s collection are left unglazed, further increasing the tactility of the objects. Working with Hataman Touen pottery to develop his collection Ransmeier chose to use a highly vitreous Amakusa porcelain that due to its high firing temperature becomes glass-like and highly stain resistant.
Most people would summarise Arita porcelain as predominantly ‘blue on white’ but designer Shigeki Fujishiro discovered that red also plays a major role. The very application of paint to porcelain in Arita is called ‘aka-e’ (meaning painting red), after the Chinese porcelain of the same name. Red is of course also the symbolic colour of Japan and Fujishiro decided to make it the central feature of his collection. Fujishiro worked with Kin’emon Toen pottery and together they developed a process to obtain an incredibly dense vibrant red using a mixture of red pigment and glaze. After the initial glaze, an additional glaze is applied using an air-brush painting technique that is a speciality of Kin’emon Toen pottery. Fujishiro made a conscious decision to design shapes that emphasised functionality and that would work equally well within the context of either an eastern or western table setting,
To my mind Studio Wieki Somers (Wieki Somers and Dylan van den Berg) has a remarkable affinity with Japanese culture. Their Mitate collection of lights from 2013 were fundamentally contemporary but full of references to traditional Japanese forms, materials and techniques. The studio is also well versed in the the production of ceramics having worked extensively with the material since the early 2000's. For their collaboration with Koransha pottery for the Arita 2016 project they created two tea sets that combine traditional crafts with advanced technology. Showcasing the iconic ‘Koransha blue’ glaze, an ancient decorative technique that employs metal stencils to create sprayed motifs on the vessel's surface, the studio abstracted it by using parts of the porcelain objects as stencils - for instance a lid, or a handle of a cup. The forms that appeared during this process refer to one of Japan’s most enduring symbols: the moon.
In April the entire Arita 2016 collection went on show at a venue in the centre of Milan that had coincidentally been used a couple of years before for an impressive Nendo x Cos show. The open white architectural space and simple shelving allowed the porcelain pieces to hold their own despite the number of shapes, colours and styles being placed side by side.
For a limited time there will be an 'Arita House' located adjacent to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Within an historic building dating from 1925, an exhibition will promote the unique cultural exchange that has existed between Japan and the Netherlands since the 17th century and present the design and production processes behind the new items from the 2016 collection.
Arita House will be open from Thursday–Saturday 10.00–18.00 until late December 2016 at Ruysdaelkade 2-4, 1072 AG Amsterdam.