From rice bucket to champagne cooler: Updating an age-old Japanese craft
Not satisfied with just crafting wooden vessels for utilitarian purposes of storing water, miso or rice, Shuji Nakagawa is updating the centuries-old art of ki-oke to function as wine and champagne coolers instead.
Long known for its fine woodcrafting traditions, where time-honoured techniques are passed down through the generations, Nakagawa Mokkougei has been Kyoto prefecture’s leading supplier of ki-oke (wooden vessels) for the last 60 years.
During the Edo period, households would use these wooden vessels for storing rice and miso, and bathing rituals. Smooth, tactile and fragrant, ki-oke is traditionally made with wood from coniferous trees like cypress, cedar and pine.
The vessels are made by hollowing out a block of wood and reinforced with small pieces of wood around the sides, that are bound with a hard wire, to prevent over-expansion from heat or water. Nakagawa Mokkougei’s level of craftsmanship, built on traditional methods that go back 700 years, results in a flawless finish, where it is almost impossible to see the joints of the wood.
In the last decade, the workshop has moved on from just utilitarian vessels to a repertoire of beautiful objects for everyday life, a move that is receiving resounding nods in the world of design. At the helm is Shuji Nakagawa, a third-generation master craftsman and contemporary artist, who has become well-known for his modern reiterations of the ki-oke.
Combing technical knowledge he picked up from his father, Kiyotsugu Nakagawa – regarded as Japan’s National Living Treasure – and his degree in fine arts, Nakagawa blurs the lines between maker and artist, past and future.
“Craftsmen usually tend to focus on technique and do not really pay attention to other things like design. But I can be very flexible about combining design with traditional craft products. By managing two different perspectives, I have found a way to create new items that people find relevant today,” he explained.
One of his most well-known creations is an elliptical ki-oke, that customers use to chill wine and champagne. “We discovered that ice melted very slowly and there was no condensation on the exterior. That integration of design and function opened my eyes to the endless possibilities for the ki-oke,” revealed Nakagawa. The Elliptical is now one of his most popular items, and was selected to be the official cooler for Dom Perignon in 2010.
Part of why Nakagawa has moved on to contemporary woodwork, inspired by the ki-oke, is because the demand for traditional forms has dropped significantly. “Ki-oke is disappearing from our lives. We have to adapt when society changes. This is a traditional industry, so we have to do something drastic to stay relevant. I think innovating or changing is also part of that tradition,” he attested.
Nakagawa’s father heads the family business in Kyoto, while he runs a personal studio in the mountains of Shiga (a prefecture east of Kyoto), where he creates covetable pieces of art that have found their way into London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.
By collaborating with international artists and designers around the world, Nakagawa is continually pushing boundaries and exploring new uses for his craftsmanship, such as upcycling wood shavings to produce large-scale tapestries. He was even selected as a finalist at the 2017 Loewe Craft Prize Awards for one of his upcycled creations called Big Trays of Parquetry.
Nakagawa believes that working with wood also protects the natural environment and reduces your carbon footprint. “With ki-oke, you can assemble, disassemble and reassemble over and over. As a society seeking sustainability, traditional crafts definitely complement our needs right now, compared to synthetic products.”