Japan, in Asia’s far east, first encountered Buddhism in the late 6th century, introduced from China after spreading from India. Many Chinese and Korean artisan techniques and inventions followed, including paper, ammunition and ideograms, along with new philosophies like Confucianism. Japan’s openness with other civilizations eventually came to an end, when, from the 17th to the mid-19th centuries, Japan cloistered itself from the outside world. This policy was so isolating that Japanese society developed in unique and often magnificent ways.
Many bamboo objects, including baskets and musical instruments, have been found preserved in Shōsō-in, the 8th century treasure house. Since then, bamboo found its way into every part of people’s lives, as a building material, as weaponry like bows and arrows, and even as fishing and farming tools.
Eventually, bamboo became an essential material in tea ceremony culture as it developed during the 16th century, when every tool used in a ceremony, including the décor set around the room, was considered to convey important and holistic expressions of esthetics, values and hospitality.
In the ancient capital of Kyoto, where many of Japan’s most elaborate fine crafts were established, highly delicate bamboo craftsmanship became one of the city’s signature industries, and master artisans passed their skills and titles—along with their pride—to successive generations.
It’s natural that bamboo was treasured as a material even in ancient Japan, as its durable and elastic nature offers strong, straight fibers that keep their shape in dry and humid conditions. For that reason, bamboo has been planted in Japan’s mountains and gardens to fulfill Japanese aesthetics since ancient times.
Bamboo forests became neglected when industrialization and rationalism began replacing bamboo tools with plastic ones, while the holistic arts and philosophies of the tea ceremony faded in the everyday busyness of modern life.
It is not difficult to imagine what has since happened to bamboo artisans.
Initially, the PET Lamp Japan project struggled to find skilled and independent artisans to prototype the new lineup of the Japanese series.
Traditionally, bamboo basketry artisans apprentice under a master artisan for up to ten years before pursuing their own work. However, modern demand is no longer strong enough to support the training of apprentices, and today more and more artisans learn their skills at professional craftsmanship schools.
Additionally, Kyoto art dealers typically arrange orders between buyers and the artisans. However, because PET Lamp Japan’s project involves ongoing creative dialogue with each artisan, establishing new relationships with independent artisans took extra time.
Without the guidance of a master or a dealer to support them professionally, many young, independent artisans struggle after graduation. Only innovative risk-takers can survive.
Beautiful basketry takes elaborate preparation and substantial training.
Because the preparation is an essential part of the final product’s perfection, the entire process is usually done by a single artisan. Mr. Ishida, eighty-two years old, master of Kyoto basketry, explains, “I would never let anyone prepare my material.”
The weaver splits each wide bamboo stalk in half lengthwise, then in half again, and again and again until each long, thin piece is near the final width. The pieces are striped to remove the interior of the bamboo, leaving only the hard and shiny bamboo exterior. Each strip is carefully planed by width and thickness until precisely within 0.1 millimeters of the required measurements.
Bamboo strips become limber when soaked in water, allowing weavers to work without breaking and cracking the strips. Only now is the final piece ready for weaving.
The challenge in the PET Lamp Japan project was to naturally incorporate plastic strips into bamboo basketry. The artisans struggled to pay the same care and attention to both the bamboo and artificial, slippery plastic. The intention was to show off the colourless, transparent plastic common in Japanese bottles, while maintaining the right balance of both materials to preserve the delicate characteristics of Kyoto’s fine crafts. The bottles’ necks were incorporated upside down to achieve the same purpose.
Each Japanese handcraft, more similar to a piece of art, is thought and designed as an unique product and reflects the artisan´s personality. Every artisan calibrates his bamboo stripes by using a special tool and works with wet bamboo, in order to gain flexibility, just as Chilean artisans do.
We were amazed by the intricate weaving artworks they achieve that hide the really rigid character of bamboo.
Currently, there is a new tendency among young artisans who opt for a self-teaching process and enter this industry as independent craftspeople. It is with these artists who we collaborated with.
Chiemi Ogura and Hideaki Hosokawa both established strong signature styles, creating products for new markets in Japan, abroad and for department store buyers. They both studied at Traditional Arts School of Kyoto where they learned from the grand master of Kyoto basketry artisans, Shoich Ishida. Our third artisan, Ayako Hosogaki, followed a different path, training as a lead apprentice under Mr. Ishida—when Mr. Ishida was still taking apprentices in his studio—and teaching Ogura and Hosokawa at school as Mr. Ishida’s assistant.
The Japan project has given us the unvaluable experience of spending time with these extremely honest artisans hoping PET Lamp has also been able of leaving a trace on them opening new doors.
Alvaro Catalán de Ocón
Special thanks to Minoru Watanabe
Japan local partner: