Sep 20

JQ Magazine: Book Review — ‘WA: The Essence of Japanese Design’

"WA is an excellent reminder that the analysis of everyday objects in our lives can be more insightful than we might first think, examining the roles of myriad mediums in Japanese daily life in ancient times to today including practical uses, religious ones, and political statements." (Phaidon)

WA is an excellent reminder that the analysis of everyday objects in our lives can be more insightful than we might first think, examining the roles of myriad mediums in Japanese daily life in ancient times to today including practical uses, religious ones, and political statements.” (Phaidon)


By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazineA bibliophile, writer, translator and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at Ishikawa Prefecture’s New York office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York.  Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.

Whether you like looking at furniture, crafts, art, and everything in between, in museums, magazines, or even Pinterest, you’re sure to appreciate the awe of a magical table, that from some angles is almost invisible, not to mention the rustic austerity of handmade materials for the Japanese tea ceremony and many other fascinating objects featured in WA: The Essence of Japanese Design. Throughout history, design and craftsmanship have had important roles in everyday life and practical uses, as well as in the arts and even in the political arena. WA explores the changing faces and development of Japanese design through the mediums themselves.

The book is divided into sections that include: Wood, Bamboo and Lacquer, Paper, Metal, Fabric and Textiles, Ceramic, and Synthetic/New Materials. Each section features a few dozen stunning photographs of objects, crafts, or even furniture, and a short essay that highlights pieces made from a particular material that, along with the photos, support its discussion about the development of that medium in Japan in a manner approachable for all readers. The contents of the book are written and selected by Rossella Menegazzo and Stefania Piotti, who are both scholars of East Asian arts and crafts, and they have successfully created a beautiful, approachable book on the subject.

WA explores the Japaneseness of Japanese design that has evolved throughout its history of ancient influences, from continental Asia and the Silk Road, through Japan’s periods of isolation, and continuing through today with its integration and innovation of Western design and cultural needs. WA is a very approachable book; the essays are not heavy with jargon and relate more to the pictures, which provides a very special and immediate connection to Japanese arts that would only be rivaled by holding the items themselves featured in the photos.

At times the supplemental text is so powerful that it functions as wonderful substitute to encountering the pieces themselves. One noteworthy passage appears in the discussion of ceramics and the raku ware used in tea ceremony that developed in Kyoto, “…the coarseness of the irregular surface, takes us back through the sense of touch to the earth itself, the origins and mystery of creation. Human intervention—the hand of the master potter—is visible but silent; behind the scenes the master prepares a performance that involves accident and improvisation, applying the fruits of experience to the union of fire, earth, powders and metal oxides. “

Crafts could certainly demonstrate wealth and power in tangible ways, such as the superb craftsmanship involved in making the blade and accoutrements of a katana and a samurai’s garb, and also in subtle ways, such as the prestige demonstrated simply by using valuable ceramics during the tea ceremony. The fact that valued aesthetic in the Sengoku period of Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who used their tea ceremony pieces as political tools, was austere and simplistic to the point of emulating rustic poverty is an intriguing contrast to the reverence for opulence and splendor in Western ruling classes, such as that found in King Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles.

WA is an excellent reminder that the analysis of everyday objects in our lives can be more insightful than we might first think, examining the roles of myriad mediums in Japanese daily life in ancient times to today, including practical uses, religious ones, and political statements. The first essay features a fascinating thesis on the role of emptiness and its connection to kami and the delineation of space. In several essays the unique and remarkable cyclic dismantling and reconstruction or Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture is discussed in relation to the DNA-like destruction and regeneration of Japanese architecture by natural causes or human influence and the persistence of and growth of the design itself. It also ties into another important concept, a theme that echoes back from Japan’s sense of mottainai: the importance of reuse and sustainability and a commitment to the environment.

The book has many fascinating things to say about the past, but it does not by any means dwell there exclusively—sustainability is perhaps more important now than ever. Shigeru Ban is a noteworthy architect who won the 2014 Pritzker Architecture Prize for his brilliant use of resourceful design to create low cost structures made from recyclable materials such as paper tubes, recycled plastic, and wood which have been used for disaster relief efforts and recently for temporary shelter in Tohoku in the wake of The Great East Japan Earthquake.

Also on display are how certain artists and their crafts have updated the Japaneseness of traditional arts for the present Western influenced sensibilities and living, from something as simple as chairs that are off the ground but retain a sense of Japanese design, to traditional-looking tableware that is dishwasher safe.

WA is several things at once: It is a book about craftsmanship, a book about art and design, and a book about history. But it also an art book, full of photos of amazing pieces that serves as work of art and fine craftsmanship in itself. The white cover is adorned with wax-like drops of red, which matches red thread stiched binding that holds 300 pages made of double wide paper folded in half. It may just be my impression, but when picking up the delicate-looking but surprisingly substantial book, you get a sense from the binding of it being handmade with great care. The design of the book itself brilliantly epitomizes its own thesis of Japanese design embracing and updating traditional crafts for modern sense by being a work that evokes past bookbinding techniques in a way that is pleasing to look at and pleasing to handle.

If you enjoy books on art and design, or if you enjoy looking at pictures of sculpture and furniture, perhaps even if you just spend a lot of time browsing for home decorations on Pinterest, you will find WA: The Essence of Japanese Design to be enjoyable to leaf through. And if you are interested in reading about the evolution of Japanese design and crafts through its history, then you will find the essays in WA to be very approachable and interesting to read with its many visual references. If you enjoyed Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows,you will find the text very relevant to much of Japanese aesthetics, and it will give you a new appreciation for contemporary crafts. If you are an artist or designer, you will also find a unique and fresh perspective in the book that is sure to inspire you.

WA will always be on my coffee table, and it looks fabulous there. Why not try it on yours?

For more information and a picture gallery of WA, click here.

For more JQ magazine book reviews, click here.

Comments are closed.

Page Rank