Toshio Watanabe: There's more to Japanese design than tea ceremonies

From a speech to the Royal Society of Arts, by the head of research at the Chelsea College of Art and Design

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1862 WAS the year when the British design profession had the first serious encounter with Japan. The focal point was the Japan section at the 1862 London International Exhibition. This was the first time a large number of British people had the opportunity to see Japanese art and artefacts. Export porcelain such as Kakiemon or Japanese lacquer ware was collected in Britain, but on the whole these were kept in exclusive country houses not open to the general public.

1862 WAS the year when the British design profession had the first serious encounter with Japan. The focal point was the Japan section at the 1862 London International Exhibition. This was the first time a large number of British people had the opportunity to see Japanese art and artefacts. Export porcelain such as Kakiemon or Japanese lacquer ware was collected in Britain, but on the whole these were kept in exclusive country houses not open to the general public.

The International Exhibition had over six million visitors. Also, it so happened that the Japan section was situated near the restaurant, which may also have helped the visitors to notice the display.

A number of British designers took note of this display and were taking inspirations from Japanese art. A good example is Christopher Dresser. There were sporadic cases of Japanese-inspired design before, but from 1862 the number of such cases increases suddenly.

Many of us have a fixed notion of national branding, riddled with stereotyping. What is Japanese design? Is there such a thing? In fact it is very diverse. Sometimes even completely opposite things can coexist.

Mostly what the British public could see in the 1862 Japan section was extremely ornate and highly decorative. The colours are often quite garish, not the subtle muted colours of tea ceremony.

Christopher Dresser's astonishingly simple designs are sometimes regarded as "proto-Bauhaus", but what he really loved in Japan was actually the Nikko Shrine, one of the most colourful and ornate buildings in Japan.

So if you don't like one type of Japanese design, perhaps there's something you really could relate to lurking just around the corner.

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