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Functional Art in Everyday Life: An Interview with Ceramic Dealer Hirose Ichirō

Culture Art Design

Ceramics have long been appreciated as fine art but are now gaining popularity as functional objects. The owner of a gallery in Tokyo’s posh Nishi-Azabu district explains the growing appeal of pottery for everyday use.

Hirose Ichirō

Born in Tokyo in 1948. Earned a law degree from Keio University. Has worked in publishing and managed a restaurant. Since 1987 has managed the Toukyo Gallery, a shop dealing in craft items in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district.

Slightly Extravagant Items for Everyday Life

In the early 1990s, the term bijutsu-kōgeihin, or fine art objects, brought to mind expensive pottery or porcelain prized purely for decorative purposes. Such items were usually displayed in major department stores or famous galleries. But this changed with the collapse of the bubble economy in the mid-1990s, and since then seikatsu-kōgeihin, or craft items for everyday use, have gradually grown in popularity. 

People in Japan and overseas are increasingly visiting Japanese potteries and galleries in search of craft items such as pots, woodcrafts, and glass items. Creations by famous artisans are popular, but shoppers are also buying pieces by less-known craftspeople to infuse their everyday lives with slightly extravagant items. 

Hirose Ichirō, owner of the gallery Toukyo in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district, has been dealing in seikatsu-kōgeihin for 30 years. Our visit to his gallery coincided with an exhibit by contemporary potter Yokoyama Takuya. Describing the small ¥3,000 bowls and tea cups on display, Hirose states that “Yokoyama’s pots are neither traditional Japanese or Western-style tableware. They are modern and sharp, and his style is always evolving.” It was amid this scene that we spoke with Hirose about why seikatsu-kōgeihin has gained in popularity.

Toukyo Gallery owner Hirose Ichirō (left) and potter Yokoyama Takuya.
Toukyo Gallery owner Hirose Ichirō (left) and potter Yokoyama Takuya.

Harmonizing with Nature

NTERVIEWER  What are some features of Japanese craft items?

HIROSE ICHIRŌ  Pottery is similar to clothing in that you use every day. As a utensil, it is the closest thing to us physically.

In the past, pottery was dominated by a small number of enthusiasts who enjoyed expanding their knowledge of clay and techniques. But from about thirty years ago, people from all walks of life began to enjoy pottery as everyday utensils.

One interesting feature of craft items are their bidirectional flow. The potter may create a piece with a specific use in mind, but the customer is free to innovate and come up with different ways to use the item, adding a fresh dimension to it. This mixing, matching, and changing represents a new way to enjoy ceramics.

Potters like to say that a piece is finished not when it is unloaded from the kiln, but when it is used to display food. The owner of an item imbues it with life by matching it with certain cuisine and arranging it with other vessels.

There are many splendid ceramicware produced in Europe and China. Tableware makers like Royal Copenhagen or Richard Ginori generally produce sets, with each piece serving a specific function, such as soup bowl or bread plate. In addition, much of European and Chinese tableware is porcelain,(*1) which is durable and easy to use. However, it doesn’t develop any kind of patina or change from use over a long period of time.

Works by Yokoyama Takuya, a potter from Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture.
Works by Yokoyama Takuya, a potter from Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture.

Then there is Japanese tableware, which is more fluid in function and combines vessels of different shapes and sizes. Pottery(*2) of this sort is made from stoneware clay, is thicker than porcelain, and can absorb moisture even after being glaze-fired. With use, the glaze color will show changes and a piece will gradually develop a patina.

Japan’s abundance of natural materials is central to the great variety of craft products and pottery that are available. Pottery-producing areas around Japan like Bizen, Hagi, and Karatsu have good quality clay and are blessed with bountiful forest resources. It is through the physical actions of human hands combining natural materials such as clay, wood, metal, and glass that crafts are born.

Harmonizing with nature instead of trying to control it is key to creating exquisite craft products, and it is delicate human sensitivity that shapes pieces. I think it is a characteristic of agrarian cultures such a Japan to not cut corners or be slapdash in their techniques. Taking a thoughtful, careful approach is crucial for producing quality craft items.

Tea Bowls made by Yokoyama Takuya
Tea Bowls made by Yokoyama Takuya

The Influence of Japan’s Merchant Class Culture

INTERVIEWER  What the difference between fine art and craft items?

HIROSE  The Western concept of fine art first came to Japan during the Meiji era [1868–1912]. In Europe, art objects were created for the nobility. Hierarchically, those at the top who made art were called artists, while ordinary workers or artisans producing craft items were ranked lower. Using a two-story house as a metaphor, fine art objects were on the top floor while craft items were relegated to the lower level. However, in Japan, fine art objects and craft items existed all on the same tier. There were some items for the privileged upper class, but from fairly early on aesthetic items like paintings on byōbu screens and fusuma paper sliding doors were incorporated into living spaces of ordinary people. Utensils for the tea ceremony, such as scrolls displayed in tokonoma [ornamental alcove] and flower vases  in washrooms, were changed according to the season. Commoners and members of the merchant class incorporated items into the everyday flow of life, rather than admiring them purely as decorative art.

The 150 years since the Meiji Restoration in 1867 seem to me like an experiment in how the various influences and impacts of Western culture could be remolded to fit Japanese aesthetics. Since the 1990s, foreign cultural imports have transformed into something altogether distinct.

A small bowl made by Yokoyama Takuya.
A small bowl made by Yokoyama Takuya.

INTERVIEWER  How has Japanese art and craft changed since the collapse of the bubble economy

HIROSE  Up until the 1980s, a lot of ceramicware in Japan was created as fine art rather than for actual use. However, after the bubble economy collapsed, Japan’s social structure changed from a phase of economic growth to one of maturation. People often speak of this period as the so-called lost decades, but at the same time, objects of art gave way to craft items that had functional uses in everyday life. 

The 1990s saw a flourishing of craft pieces, and by the 2000s, craft for everyday use had come into its own. Galleries, lifestyle magazines, and websites dealing with pottery made by individual potters started popping up everywhere. People frequented craft and pottery fairs in search of items, giving pottery a stronger presence in the world of craft. 

As a result, the number of potters making functional and versatile pieces grew, and over the last thirty years the diversity of pottery has greatly increased.

Starting with What You Like

INTERVIEWER  What will craft items be like in the future?

HIROSE  In the next ten to twenty years, I think that society will become even more divided and stratified. Crafts and pottery will split up into various layers. Some people will aim to produce vibrant and artistic pieces, while others will develop individual styles, work anonymously, or focus on items that are attractive and functional. Potters will diverge in their approaches until they end up not having any point of contact whatsoever.

In a sense, it will become an age when only potters who truly have talent or are of interest can survive.

Whatever it is that the potter has set great store by, it will always be tangible in the pottery they have made. The best works are the ones that customer are compelled to pick up, and it is the impetus of potters to create such pieces. Developing the sensibility of what you like, what seems to be good, and being particular is what is important.

Gallery Toukyo

(Originally written in Japanese based on an interview by Doi Emi of Nippon.com. Banner photo: Hirose Ichirō at Toukyo Gallery. All photos by Kawamoto Seiya.)

(*1) ^ Pottery is mostly made from stoneware clay. Silica and feldspar are mixed into the clay to prevent cracks developing in finished ware. It is generally thicker and has a warmer feel than porcelain.

(*2) ^ Porcelain clay contains very finely ground stone material, mainly quartz and feldspar, that gives it glasslike qualities. After firing, porcelain is extremely hard and much thinner than stoneware pottery, and is nearly pure white in color.

crafts pottery ceramics stoneware