Did you have any difficulties creating the partition?
I fundamentally feel there is nothing you can’t produce if you ask an artisan to make it. I know the extent of the artisans’ techniques, so I knew they would not say it was impossible. While they may at times be surprised or at a loss as to how to proceed when something unprecedented comes up, I knew that they would achieve the end result.
The resulting piece uses artisanal techniques to create something sturdy and highly beautiful.
The wood used was selected by the designer. For our part at OONOYA, we feel we should let our techniques shine, so the material isn’t up to us.
However, given the potential for some materials to warp or break when dried, we could not make the piece out of a single sheet of wood. The utmost care must be paid to regulating humidity when working with wood. We let the wood sit for six months to a year before using it. Even so, there are still times when small factors can cause it to warp. The artisans can tell how dry the wood is just by touching it, so they exercise careful judgment as they go about the work.
A partition must not be too heavy, but also be sturdy. We devised how to do this at OONOYA BUTSUDAN, then consulted with the woodturner, employing techniques to make it lighter while ensuring it was structurally sound. However, we found that cutting the curvature was impossible with our existing machinery…so we borrowed some equipment, cut four boards into a curved R-shape, and put a lattice-shaped wooden frame inside to make it more sturdy. In order to create a curve while ensuring it didn’t warp, we combined wider rectangles and finally adjusted them such that the joints were invisible, removing them with a hand planer. To reinforce the inside, it is double thickness, and thin nails were inserted. We also consulted with the painters so that the nails would be covered with urushi (lacquer). We use nails that are thin enough to fit neatly in and not obstruct the finish when it is applied.
Were there any difficulties in the lacquering process?
I mentioned earlier that the quality of urushi (lacquer) coating changes depending on how it is dried. Since the partition is so large, it took quite some time and effort to dry it. To get a mirror finish, it needs to be polished and buffed to a luster after the urushi (lacquer) hardens, so it takes at least two weeks from application until it fully dries. It felt more like it was a race against time due to technical difficulties.
What is your vision for sharing these artisan techniques, that have been handed down for close to 170 years, with the next generation?
We do want to continue creating more interesting pieces in a freeform way. I don’t think products have to necessarily look like something that would come out of a Buddhist altar shop. In the old days, people might have criticized this approach. They might have said, “it’s not putting artisanal techniques to good use.” However, we want people to look at traditional crafts in a new light and see them as cool, make things that are unexpected, surprising, and inspiring, and in line with the changing times and trends.
Our goal is to create products that move people and that they themselves would want to share with others, such that those around them also want to purchase the product.
I hope it is something they share with others and pass down to their children and their children’s children for all to enjoy. We have lots of ideas we’d like to put into practice, such as creating items that could be presents or suitable for children, something kids could use to play with, and much more.
Would you say that the subtlety and beauty of traditional crafts are being conveyed here in a different way from before?
I would say that the product itself was already inherently appealing, and we enhanced it by bringing added value through traditional craft techniques. In turn, traditional crafts have their own appeal in terms of their resilience, delicacy, beauty, and recognizability as a brand. Some people like the texture of the wood, some prefer a matte finish, while others think urushi (lacquer) looks cool. As I mentioned, urushi (lacquer) has a lot of inherent appeal and is resistant to water, making it a resilient material. Lately it has also been drawing attention for its antibacterial effects. I hope people will rediscover this material as something cool and surprising, and then be delighted to find out it is a traditional craft. For our part, we should be on hand to explain the techniques and benefits it provides, such that they want to share that with someone else. This should lead to new contexts and venues where we can share that delicacy and beauty. So we want to actively create those kinds of spaces and support artisan crafts and the culture around them such that people rediscover their core value.
What is the significance of making things by hand in this day and age for OONOYA BUTSUDAN?
To the extent possible, we mechanize what we can. The tools are more convenient today, and so the basic techniques are the same, but the way you move your hands when doing the work has changed, so to speak. The wood and urushi (lacquer) are living and breathing items, so they can warp, and the way they dry changes depending on the temperature. It might be possible to mechanize things further, such as identifying where the trunk on the tree is, or which part of the tree is more rigid, such as checking the hardness via imaging or computer vision, but it costs money to develop and deploy equipment like that. Working by hand involves leveraging all of your experience, expertise, and physical sense of touch to produce things using the holistically best method. If we ignore the individual and mechanize this, it won’t turn out right. The wood might just crack or wrap at the wrong time, and the result would not be aesthetically appealing. If someone were to ask me, “Why do this by hand when it can be mass-produced?” my answer would be, “It can’t be mass-produced, which is why we do it by hand.” Things that are truly beautiful and delicate can only be made by hand, and that is where their value lies. If you have a craftsman logically explain to you why a certain process is done a certain way, it’s a tangible piece of knowledge you can take away with you. But when it comes to actually using your own hands to make something, there may be cases where someone can’t physically do it even if they understand the theory behind it, or where someone does not know how to proceed because the material is different from the norm. So a great deal of adaptability is needed. There is value in this precise delicacy and making things by hand is meaningful.
Is there a certain type of person you are interested in having use these products, which are the result of considerable time and artisanal effort?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you find our work beautiful for even a moment. Naturally, we have paid considerable attention to the aesthetics, so we hope people will treat these items with care. But it is up to the person themselves to decide how they want to use it. We hope people will appreciate our artisan techniques for their beauty and attention to detail. For instance, they may happen to see the item when in a good mood and find it to be beautiful, or may enjoy seeing the way the sun reflects on it on clear days. Or they may be feeling a bit gloomy during a rainy day, but seeing our product gives them a boost. Some people may take an interest in the item thinking it is a traditional craft good, while others may just find something cool and attractive about it, only to realize later it was a craft good. Frankly, we are quite delighted when anyone finds our products appealing, no matter who they are, and whether they find it beautiful, charming, cool, stylish, or something else.