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Passions of Artisans We ask Rin crossing participant manufacturers about their wishes regarding manufacturing.

Home > Passions of Artisans #015 Ceramic Japan Co., Ltd.

#015 Ceramic Japan Co., Ltd.2014/11/06

A fusion of practicality and artistry
Design ceramics from the birthplace of “Setomono”

A collaboration between talented designers and traditional skills

Seto City in Aichi Prefecture, a place naturally endowed with good potter’s clay, is the birthplace of “Setomono”, distinctive ware with a history and tradition said to go back 1,300 years. Of Japan’s six oldest pottery centers, it is the only one to have used glaze since the Kamakura period. This is also an area where ceramic industry has always been developed in a spirit of enterprise.

In this historic location, Ceramic Japan Co., Ltd. has continued to produce innovative ceramic ware in a collaboration between talented designers and traditional skills, based on a consistent design policy. Its products have won various design awards and have been selected for the Permanent Collection at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in New York), illustrating the high praise they have won both in Japan and abroad.

The company was established in 1973. It all started when Toyokazu Sugiura (older brother of the President and CEO Masayuki Ohashi), then aged 30, met Masatoshi Sakaegi, a product designer strongly influenced by Scandinavian design concepts.

President and CEO Masayuki Ohashi adopts the stance of a manufacturer proposing new value to the market. Despite a series of hardships in the gap between design and technology, Mr Ohashi still smiles as he says, “When we finally decide on a product’s appearance, we get a real thrill every time.”

“Our family business was originally a production area wholesaler for Japanese tableware, and my older brother succeeded to that after a 10-year apprenticeship with a wholesaler in Tokyo. But he wondered if it was enough just to deal in conventional tableware. He felt a kind of freshness in the simple yet sophisticated designs of Scandinavian ware, and started out with the idea of creating new craft with our own hands here in Seto.”

Four years later, Mr Ohashi himself left the construction equipment firm he had been working for, and joined his brother. At first, they rented space in a pottery, making the products they wanted to make while doing part-time jobs. Gradually, however, they started to catch the eye of department store buyers and the like, and their brand became established.

Not identifying needs, but proposing the new

“What we seek in our design concept is ‘things that don’t yet exist’. As these are products, I don’t think their design can be called good unless they sell well. Nevertheless, rather than identifying consumers’ needs in order to sell our products, we think about new proposals that we ourselves can make.”

 

“Crinkle” series Super Bag launched in 1975. A classic work by Makoto Komatsu, faithfully reflecting the natural creases on paper and plastic bags. Selected for the Permanent Collection at MoMA.

 

徳田Bud vase in the “Still Green” series designed by Yuko Tokuda. To realize this beautiful design with its hollow interior, highly skilled craftsmen went through a repeated process of trial and error until finally succeeding in creating a product.

Products created by the company are never short of amazing; examples include the wrinkle-patterned “Crinkle” series with creased surfaces like paper, and the “Still Green” bud vases made with a pipe structure representing the outline of the vase only. While the circle of designers approving of this attitude widens, the brunt of the work has been borne by the “manufacturers”.

A system of specialization exists in the Seto ceramic industry. As such, Ceramic Japan takes care of design decisions and producing prototypes in-house, while the actual manufacture is outsourced to several cooperating concerns including molding works, clay works and kilns. With this setup, designs not found in conventional tableware became problematic. Not only were they time-consuming, but they gave no room for error. “We can’t make this!” and “It’s not worth it!” were among the reactions received.

Prototypes are made in-house, based on design drawings. They are individually hand-made by craftsmen who have specialized in the study of ceramic art. There are nine members of staff. Of these, two are designers responsible for proposing OEM designs and others, as well as original products.

“From the viewpoint of a specialist in ceramic ware, it would appear to be an unreasonable demand. But there are innovative ideas that emerge precisely because the creator does not know about ceramic ware. Materializing these ideas is interesting, and helps to stimulate the production area. There was a time when, to get local concerns to understand our rationale, our staff would all make a big curry for lunch together at the beginning of the week and invite the kiln workers, thereby intensifying friendship,” he says with a smile.

In this way, the company’s wish to create crafts with value together with craftsmen gradually permeated the mindset in Seto. And over the last 40 years, a strong relationship of trust has been built up with motivated and highly skilled cooperating concerns.

Sales strategy based on maintaining value and selling through product power

The company has teamed up with numerous talented designers, including Tatsumi Kato, responsible for design at the Arabia ceramic works in Finland, and recently, Oki Sato of the Nendo company. Even so, designs are selected with emphasis on “shapes not found elsewhere” and “making life more enjoyable”, irrespective of a designer’s sales record or name.

“It’s hard to explain as it’s a question of feeling, but we first consider why we would make a given product. Our target is to introduce three new series per year, but we reckon on about 18 months from planning to production, through a succession of trial and error. Moreover, because no similar products are on the market, it takes time for products to rake root. Sales tend not to begin in earnest until around the third year after launch. Although it’s a somewhat inefficient policy, we want to make quality products that have a timeless quality.”

“Products made for Ceramic Japan have subtle curves and other features, and these require intricate handiwork and skill. This in itself provides motivation, and could only done in Japan, not overseas. We work hard toward the goal of quality rather than quantity,” says Yasushi Kawamoto, President of the Kawasho Seito kiln works.

 

The shape of a vessel is made by pouring clay into a gypsum mold taken from the prototype. Depending on the design, techniques such as “open casting”, “pressure casting” and “wheel turning” are used when forming shapes.

 

Glaze is applied to the dried products, which are then fired in a shuttle kiln at a temperature of 1,300°C.

Products made in this way are completely unlike conventional Japanese tableware. Ceramic Japan products are basically only available in “one store per city”, mainly involving high-sense select outlets like Ginza Matsuya, Aoyama Spiral Market and BALS. There is no interest in mass markets, and no discounts are offered.

“We would rather value the power of products than win through price competition. We are also considering publishing in magazines, etc., in line with the product concept.”

Using Rin crossing to challenge new sales routes

The company has been active in acquiring the G mark and exhibiting at design shows. It also draws on reliable technology and superior sense in its OEM products, which account for 40% of its sales. Among others, it has attracted interest through its “Toraya mini dishes” and “Sori Yanagi black and white tableware and Japanese tableware series”.

President Ohashi has included overseas expansion in his field of vision since succeeding to the business. Since 2010, the company has exhibited at Ambiente, an international trade fair held in Germany, with financial support from Aichi Prefecture.

“It is hard for companies on our scale to challenge world markets without adequate backing and public support. I am happy that we have been selected by Rin crossing, as it means that our corporate attitude and product value have been recognized. I hope we can harness the brand power of SME Support Japan to open up new sales routes, including overseas ones. And through collaboration with other pottery types and materials, etc., I would also like to link this to the development of new materials and new techniques in future.”

The fired products are individually polished by hand to give a smooth finish to unglazed parts.

Ceramic Japan Co., Ltd.

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