Lacquerware: Modern Designs made New
“Lacquerware” is a sturdy product made through repeated layering of “lacquer,” a natural coating.
A tradition reaching back 400 years, Aizu lacquerware has been translated into new and highly inventive daily goods that suit modern living.
A traditional Aizu craft that is the product of history
The nuri (coating) process produces sturdiness through the repeated application of lacquer with a special brush and then drying to create multiple layers.
Just like artists who apply paint to canvas, craftsmen and women create beautiful designs with vibrant “color lacquer.” They clearly convey their artistry through their works.
Shikki (lacquerware) is sometimes translated as “japan.” Lacquered items dating back 2,500 years that were unearthed from archeological sites of the late-Jomon period (roughly 12,000 BC to 300 BC) in Aizu suggest that lacquer was used in much the same manner in ancient times as it is today. The natural coating that is made by refining sap from lacquer trees is resistant to heat and chemical agents. It takes on a stronger sheen and deeper color the longer it is used.
Lacquerware became established as an industry about 400 years ago when it was encouraged by the region’s feudal lord of the time. Since then, Aizu has grown into a major lacquerware producer. The industry includes the production of wood bases with the region’s abundant mountain resources and the cultivation of lacquer trees. Lacquerware production is largely divided into kiji (production of wood bases), nuri (coating), maki-e (lacquer decoration with metal powder), and other specialties. Even today, each is handled by craftsmen and women who possess extremely refined skills.
It is the “coating” that determines the sturdiness of lacquerware. Lacquer is applied repeatedly through as many as ten steps for a single item. The surface is further colored with a decorative technique called kashoku. Various techniques that include urushi-e (painting motifs with color lacquer), haku-e (creating picturesque designs by placing gold foil), and maki-e (sprinkling gold powder onto of a picture drawn with lacquer) create elegance. In its conventional forms, lacquerware is given traditional Japanese patterns and motifs. However, recently more and more lacquerware is demonstrating highly individualized artistry and featuring more modern designs that fit more easily into daily life.
Creating new items that are ready for immediate use
With modern motifs that feature parrots and parakeets, the works of Yumi Shiraiwa, a maki-e craftswoman, are blazing new frontiers in the world of classical design.
Made with a new technique for applying lacquer to glass, Kobo Suzuran’s colorful bowls and dishes have opened up new possibilities for Aizu lacquerware.
Lightweight and durable Aizu lacquerware comes in many shapes and forms, from small sake cups to tiered food boxes, plates, and trays. They do not require the careful handling of ceramics. And although they have an elegant artwork-like appearance, they do not require the polishing of silverware and crystal. They are easy to care for, as their sheen returns after simple washing in dishwashing liquid and wiping with a soft cloth. Additionally, unlike metal, they do not transmit temperature directly to the skin, which makes lacquerware cups perfect for hot beverages.
The lightweight and portable qualities of lacquerware have led to the birth of a new product genre: Lacquerware eating utensils that can be taken on hikes, picnics, and other outdoor activities. Among the products that are available are mugs of all sizes that come with straps, cups, and bowls and plates that can be easily cleaned with just a little water.
Recently, a new method for spraying lacquer on glass has been developed, leading to even greater efforts to create lacquerware for modern living. It can be used to produce beautiful shades of color for personal items as well as delightful gifts. Bowls, colored plates, and other dining utensils made with it brighten casual parties and are highly popular. New methods, new perspectives, and ingenuity will continue infusing modern concepts into the world of Aizu lacquerware.