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The Beauty of Everyday Things

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The Beauty of Everyday Things is a book of essays written by Soetsu Yanagi between 1920 and 1959. The title essay is not as well known as In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, first published in Japanese in 1933 and first translated into English in 1977. I initially had doubts about why another book championing Japanese exceptionalism albeit aesthetic would be written circa 1933 but Yanagi was an ardent enthusiast of Korean ceramics and, in 1920, wrote an open letter to the Korean people expressing his sadness at Japan’s annexing the country in 1910. I believe Yanagi was genuine when he wrote

“In painting and sculpture Japan boasts some masterpieces of which it can be immensely proud, but in general there are few works that have escaped the influence of China and Korea. Rare is the work that can compete successfully in terms of strength and profundity. In the face of the magnificence of Chinese art and the elegance of the Korean, there is nothing that we can unhesitatingly hold up for comparison.

“However, when we come to the craft of miscellaneous things, we meet with an exception. Here we find something particularly Japanese. Here we find solid reliability, overflowing freedom, and unfettered creativity that is neither duplication nor imitation. Among the arts of the world, we can proudly say that this is Japanese. Miscellaneous things are a clear expression of the climate and customs of Japan, its sensibility and way of thinking. They have their own particular Japanese raison d’être.”

p. 51 Michael Brase’s Penguin Classics translation, 2018

In the recent translation, miscellaneous and everyday are interchangeable and the Japanese word mingei is translated as folk craft but could alternatively mean folk art. In the western world, arts and crafts were never conflated but they did at least exist side by side until the 1930s when handmade objects were diminished and sidelined in favour of machine-made consumer objects. In that same 1930s in Japan, Yanagi was bemoaning the “cheapness” that machine manufacture was already bringing to everyday things. He had several criteria for these everyday miscellaneous things and all of them are worth revisiting because we now know that some things are best when precision machined and manufactured and other things benefit from showing sings of a human hand at work. Yanagi’s everyday objects aren’t Fabergé eggs updated for the machine age. They are

  • made by anonymous crafts people
  • produced by hand in quantity
  • inexpensive
  • used by the masses
  • functional in daily life
  • representative of the region in which they were produced.

For the past hundred years we’ve had people championing machine manufacture and value-adding design for objects that did perfectly well without it. What we’re left with is poorly designed and overpriced goods. Yanagi’s criteria don’t really tell us anything we weren’t already half aware of.

made by anonymous crafts people: This is in direct opposition to the culture (cult?) of designer goods in which the worth of objects is determined by who designed them and not by how they were made. True, artisan silversmiths and goldsmiths existed prior to the cult of the designer but they were both designer and smiths – craftspersons – and diminishing their role was essential to establish the cult of the designer. We’re supposed to thank Walter Gropius for this but machine-made goods were already plentiful in 1930s Europe and in Japan as well. In passing, a surprising number of the selection of 1930s teapots below are made of metal which is a stupid choice of material for something supposed to keep a beverage warm. It’s not a surprising choice though, as machine production is better suited to the working of metal than ceramic.

produced by hand in quantity: It’s true of any repetitive work that one gets better and quicker at it, but if hand production can compete with machine manufacture in terms of speed then the whole argument falls apart. It’s an unfair comparison though because, in 1930s Japan, one person could conceivably produce sufficient ceramics for one village and possibly a surplus to sell in cities. Our village craftsperson now has to make a decision. Does he take time off from production to travel to a city and market them? Or does he offload them at reduced cost to a wholesaler who will put his own price on them? Or, does he entrust family members to do the job at little or no cost? He loses money either through opportunity loss or by middlemen entering the system.

inexpensive: A machine based facility may be able to churn out objects equivalent in some sense but the distribution and marketing costs don’t go away. In fact, the more concentrated and high-volume the facility, the greater they become. Our solitary potter would have supplemented word of mouth advertising with his own, and the workshop would have been its own marketing and distribution system as well as retail outlet. Overheads were low. The cost of the finished product was a reasonable indicator of the cost of materials, the amount of labour spent, plus of course a premium the market was willing to pay for not having to make their own bowls. Once middlemen enter the system however, they need to be remunerated and that money has to come from somewhere. The good thing about machines is that they can work long hours, don’t need time off to eat or sleep, and don’t need to be paid.

used by the masses: Yanagi’s everyday objects aren’t luxury goods that people delight in possessing or flaunting the possession of. They’re unpretentious and don’t pretend to be art or other objects of high monetary value. They’re not precious. A shattered bowl is just replaced with another.

functional in daily life: This is much the same point and is self-explanatory. Everyday objects are objects that people use everyday and so many are bowls, plates and other receptacles for the storage, preparation or consumption of food and drink. Teapots. Everyday things encompass textile design but those designs are more likely to be for the functional and everyday yukata than the decorative and ceremonial kimono.

representative of the region in which it was produced: Our village potter would have used locally-sourced materials and may even have sourced them himself to eliminate labour and procurement costs (but not the opportunity cost of sourcing them). He may have preferred to do so to maintain quality control or to guard knowledge such as where to find the best clay.

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I believe Yanagi was right but, with hindsight, can now see it was never a question of design superiority. What Yanagi described was the kind of design that results from a very simple relationship between producer and consumer. We don’t have this anymore and probably haven’t had since oh, about 1850. Instead we have a situation where we purchase and use whatever is most profitable for the owners of the means of production to manufacture, distribute and market. Design is relevant only in terms of the cost of manufacture.

One important quality of everyday objects that Yanagi doesn’t mention is their lack of uniformity. This is surprising because it’s an indicator of having been made by hand and an important part of what beauty is to be found in them. Yanagi makes special mention of the Japanese horse-eye pattern made up of six to eight spiralling ellipses arranged around the rim of a plate. It looks daunting to draw even once let alone evenly sized and spaced five, six or seven times around a rim yet this is the type of work a craftsperson could knock out tens of per day and without anxiety. Importantly, each bowl was unique not because of the design but because those differences are evidence of a human mind and hand at work. Examples.

There’s a similarity between the five, six or seven spirals on any one plate and those on each plate are different while remaining recognizably the same. Any one of these designs could be photographed and used in a lithography process to transfer it to an unglazed bowl but it would be the same every time. However much the finished product looked like a one-off, we would know it wasn’t.

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The new problem (at least for me) is how to make machine-made goods look like handmade ones. Sure, this is misappropriating machinery for purposes for which it was not designed and in denial of the machine aesthetic but that’s the situation when the need to replicate the “individuality” of handmade goods has to be reconciled with the need to produce them cheaply to cover the costs of marketing, distribution and sale. With this in mind, I thought I’d take another look at my everyday things.

This first plate with the Australian motif is fine bone china that, true to its origins, is made in China. The motif is slightly raised with no difference in height between different colours. It’s not hand-painted and was probably applied using some type of photo-lithographic process similar to how semiconductor circuits are “printed”. It’s pretty but the pattern and the means of reproducing it have no connection. The process is indifferent to the pattern that could be anything. On the other hand, it’s ovenproof, dishwasher and microwave safe.

This next plate has a simple motif with each line slightly raised and most likely applied using a process similar to the one for the plate above. Each line is different and the effect as a whole is of something that conceivably could have been applied by hand. There’s even two lines that meet, and two that cross. This decoration may have been drawn by hand but it has not been applied by hand. It’s one level of pretense, of dishonesty.

These next three plates and bowls have the same motif that I liked because it looked hand-drawn if not necessarily applied, and because food always looks good on or in ceramics having this color. I can’t see any repeats in the pattern on the long plate so it was probably applied in a single action that was probably photolithography. Looking closely, the motif on the shallow plate in the middle repeats three times and this makes me think a single process was used three times to make the photo-mask or, more likely, that three identical masks were combined to make a single larger one. This difference in process probably has something to do with the bendability of the mask and the curvature of the sides of the bowl because the motif of the deep bowl is made up of four repeats inside and outside. Still, I like them.

This bowl and saké cup are in the Japanese style and color perfect for a bowl of unshelled mung beans in summer. The bamboo motif looks as if it could have been hand applied but is drawn with no fully bounded portions and this makes me suspect a stencil. It’s also recessed, supporting this conclusion.

The motif on this next plate is Japanese in style and applied using a two stage photo-lithographic process. The fine line linking the fin of the fish and the border line shows the design was first hand-painted and then used to create a photo-mask for the lithography. The dot of the eye and the triangle around the head of the fish are a darker blue applied as a second stage as they are raised. I don’t know how they were applied but it’s subtle. Again, it’s that wonderful blue that makes mandarins look delicious.

As far as I can tell, the ceramic bases of these two teacups in the Japanese style are identical even in the irregularities of the ripples around their bodies and the indentations around their base, implying manufacture by machine. However, the unglazed coloured portions are recessed. The one on the left cup looks as if it has been applied in a single stroke by brush while the clay is still soft, while the one on the right has seven unevenly spaced dots and an unglazed lower portion. The dots are recessed in what looks like a manual application of simple stencils. The one with the dots is a replacement for one I mislaid somewhere but I would have to buy and compare another to see if the differences are identical. The same online marketing and extremely low prices point to machine manufacture but frankly, I can’t tell.

I have only one example that I can be sure is hand made and decorated and it is this bowl made in Italy in 1956. The rim of the bowl is uneven and the bowl’s motif irregular. It’s about 10cm in diameter, 100% handmade and a joy to look at but not to use since it’s irreplaceable and so will never be an everyday object of mine. I’m in two minds about this but the best I’ve been able to do so far is fill it with olives on special occasions.

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