Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [final part]

Interview with Shuji Nakagawa of NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI [final part]

A commitment to craftsmanship that identifies materials and their compatibility, and then gives shape to them with knowledge, experience, and skill while imagining what the other party is seeking

ANAORI: We asked you to make the wooden lid of the ANAORI kakugama.

Nakagawa: Yes, I was in charge of making it. This was the first time I had taken on such a job, as we don’t usually produce products in hundreds or even thousands of units. I originally didn't set out to make these lids at first, but it all started when Mr. Nishimura of ANAORI had some prototype lids built elsewhere, and he said they always end up deforming.
The whole thing began when a mutual acquaintance told Mr. Nishimura that he knew someone who was very knowledgeable on the subject, and he advised him to consult me. When we talked, it was not with the intention of making them. When he first showed me the prototype, it was obvious to me that they were using a type of wood that would easily distort in a direction that would make it easy to warp, and contact with steam would instantly cause this distortion. Thus I started giving him some advice, to change this or that, or to use this kind of wood.
I explained to him by connecting to the Internet the characteristics of the wood, its quality, what kind of wood was suitable or not, and many other things. At the time, I thought we would not go further than this discussion, as we are not a workshop that is suited to mass production. But he was very attentive to what I was telling him about the wood, and he asked and persuaded me to create a prototype, which I did. He then experimented with it by steaming it and drying it quickly.
We then discussed in a scientific and very precise way, quantifying various aspects, for example how much the wood expands according to its water content, and it was very interesting. What surprised me was that they steamed the prototype lid for about an hour, then immediately dried it in the microwave for about six minutes. For us, asking people not to microwave our products was a matter of common sense. I came to realize through these endurance tests that industrial products could be microwaved and dried quickly. It was fun to experience the endurance tests and exchange the information in real time over the Internet..
I was surprised by the rigor of these tests, because our products are rather delicate and our customers also use them with great care. But through these endurance tests, I found it very interesting to be able to observe with numbers the results of these discussions. We were discussing ways to make one piece of wood by joining three pieces, or how to join the pieces so they wouldn’t come apart even under steam, etc. We worked so hard on this that we came to a point where we thought no one could make this lid without knowing all the circumstances of its design. We are not really a workshop capable of manufacturing in such large numbers, but Mr. Nishimura finally persuaded us to do so.
At first, we agreed to make about 300 pieces, but the number kept increasing, and soon reached 1000 and then 2000 pieces. It was a great opportunity for us to take on a new challenge, and we are now very grateful. It was also in a way a form of collaboration for us. Just like the way we collaborated with designers, we also collaborated with the technological side or this industrial side. I found it very interesting to witness this moment of innovation that was based on traditional techniques.

ANAORI: In fact, how are these wooden lids made?

Nakagawa: When ANAORI first sent us the design, the grip and thickness were unique features. We struggled to find a way to complement these aspects with our techniques. The first prototypes were not ours, but were designed by other manufacturers using a CNC machine tool, which only created the shape. This would have been a very time-consuming approach. So, we thought about how to combine these parts. In fact, we assembled the lid by combining three boards.
Another reason we did this is that if you assemble it with a single board of wood, the wood grain that is prone to warping will be included in a single board. Since only this part would warp in this case, we wanted the wood grain to be as straight as possible. We chose the lumber that the annual rings were perpendicular to the board. At the time, I thought it would be more efficient to use three boards rather than one. To make the most of this design, its groove handle portion has a structure that assembles three recessed pieces which are machined separately.
We used rivets at first, but sometimes they would pop out due to steam, so we had to find a way to fix them on the inside, without showing them. We have a round bar here that goes through the core, and I modified it to get this structure. Even if it is not visible on the surface, there is a lot of attention to detail. Also, the wood used here is Japanese cypress, which is characterized by its pleasant aroma and heat resistance. The reason we use a wooden lid is that it helps adjust the moisture content of the food. That’s the same reason why we use an Ohitsu (wooden containers for cooked rice) in our house. If freshly cooked rice is left in the rice cooker, the steam may settle on the back of the lid and fall back onto the food, but the wood absorbs the steam, so it will not fall back onto the food. Whether it is an old Japanese rice pot or a Hagama (broad-brimmed cooking pot for rice), the pot is made of a metal, iron, and it has a large wooden lid on top for that effect. When the steam cools down again, it turns into water droplets, which, when falling on the food, can make the food taste bad or even spoil easily. The wooden lid has the effect of absorbing steam, which is also an element that has been taken into account.

ANAORI: As a craftsman, what do you keep in mind regarding your work? What do you value most?

Nakagawa: This is also true for wood, but I am particular about how to find out the qualities of materials and the suitability for its use. For example, when an order comes in from a designer or a regular customer, sometimes they don’t know what they really want, so it’s very important for us to understand their expectations.
It’s like trying to figure out the qualities of wood. For example, when a designer designs something with a cylindrical shape, they quickly draw a long, thin cylinder. But in fact, when the human eye sees a cylindrical shape, it looks as if the bottom has expanded, like an optical illusion. In such a case, I will narrow the bottom. In short, by reducing the lower diameter compared to the upper diameter, it adds a sense of straightness that the designer was really striving for. It is not a matter of building strictly according to the blueprint, but of giving the shape that the other party really wants.
The same thing happened this time with this lid, but I’m very keen to work by imagining what’s inside what the other party wants to achieve that can't be seen on the surface.

ANAORI: What kind of attention do you pay to usability and design for buckets you make yourself, without them being orders from designers?

Nakagawa: Ease of use is already the basis. But I now place a lot of importance on the aesthetic side. The reason for this is that there was a time when every household had a large number of buckets, because they were a tool to support human life. But now that it is on the verge of disappearing, I think the bucket has gone from being a tool to support people’s lives to a tool to support people’s minds and spirits.
It is therefore normal that it has changed its form while changing its purpose. Thus, I think that a beauty capable of providing a sense of relief or appeasement is necessary for the future of buckets. That’s why this aesthetic aspect is very important to me and why I create beautiful buckets with an elegant or soothing appearance.

ANAORI: Going further into it, what do you consider important in the use of wood?

Nakagawa: When working with wood, it is important to use each piece for the purpose for which it is best suited. Since wood is a natural material, it is sometimes straight, and sometimes curved. If you want to use it in a manner that is not wasteful and that fits the bucket, it is important to use straight pieces for straight work and curved pieces for works that require curves. Because the interior of the wood is not visible from the surface at first glance, it is important to imagine it while making it into an object.

ANAORI: What are the charms of wood?

Nakagawa: In the end, when you work in crafts, you end up outputting everything you have accumulated inside, and gradually you start to feel empty inside. But the charm of wood is that it is a natural material, so it has shapes and parts that you wouldn’t expect. That’s why, while making works, there is a constant input from wood. This way, I can output as much as I want and never end up feeling empty. I think that is the greatness and kindness of wood.
ANAORI: I think most everyone wants more wood in their lives and to be surrounded by trees. But there are cheaper and more convenient components, and many people choose them. As a craftsman who specializes in wood, how do you want people to interact with it? 
Nakagawa: For example, in the past, the corridors of townhouses and private residences were lined with wood, and the pillars were bare. So, there was probably not a day that went by where you didn’t come in contact with wood. But now, when living in an apartment, the pillars, originally made of steel, are built-in and covered with wallpaper, and the floor is covered with a carpet. Thus, the opportunities to touch wood are diminished. I think the gentleness of wood is that when you touch it, the feeling it gives back is very gentle.
If you have metal and wood at the same room temperature and you touch the metal, you feel it is cold. The surface temperature is probably the same for both materials, but when you touch the wood, it doesn’t feel cold. Wood has a gentle side, so if you see a wooden product in a store that appeals to you even a little bit, I recommend asking to see it and have the experience of touching it. I think you will then feel something about it that warms your heart a little.

Photographer: Kentaro Kumon


Shuji Nakagawa


Born in Kyoto in 1968. Graduated from the Faculty of Arts of Kyoto Seika University, majoring in three-dimensional art in 1992. Upon graduation, studied under his father Kiyotsugu (a living national treasure and holder of important intangible cultural assets) at NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI. Has been running NAKAGAWA MOKKOUGEI Hirakoubou in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, as the third successor since 2003.

1996: Won the prize for excellence at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
1998: Won the Grand Prize at the Kyoto Art and Crafts Exhibition
From 2001 to 2005: Worked as a part-time lecturer at Kyoto University of Art and Design
2010: Produced an official champagne cooler for Dom Pérignon
2016: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London, UK
2017: The KI-OKE STOOL made of lignitized Japanese cedar became part of the permanent collection of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts), in Paris, France
2017: Selected as a finalist for the Loewe Craft Prize
2021: Won the 1st Japanese Culture Grand Prix
2021: Won the 13th Creating Tradition Award
Additionally, he has participated in many individual and collective exhibitions both in Japan and abroad. He has been a member of GO ON, a group of young traditional craftsmen in Kyoto, since its formation.

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