Ancient Urushi craft

I would describe myself primarily as an Urushi Artist and I work together with my wife Marina who is similarly skilled. I am also a designer/cabinetmaker and it was through my work in this trade that I became aware of Urushi lacquer decorative finishes. Urushi is the name given Japanese lacquer – the material is 100% natural as it is derived from the sap of a tree. It has been used in the Far East for over 9000 years as a protective and a decorative lacquer. After acquiring the traditional skills, we have developed contemporary decorative finishes incorporating unusual materials such as gold, silver and bronze leaf/powders, shagreen, eggshell and combinations of pigments to produce beautiful and unique effects. We have always been keen to push the boundaries and have succeeded in bringing this new approach to a traditional craft to the attention of interior design professionals worldwide. Our work can stand alone as wall panels/screens, artwork or as a feature on high end furniture.

Describe your profession, with details on products, services, expertise and know how.

I would describe myself primarily as an Urushi Artist and I work together with my wife Marina who is similarly skilled. I am also a designer/cabinetmaker and it was through my work in this trade that I became aware of Urushi lacquer decorative finishes. Urushi is the name given Japanese lacquer – the material is 100% natural as it is derived from the sap of a tree. It has been used in the Far East for over 9000 years as a protective and a decorative lacquer. After acquiring the traditional skills, we have developed contemporary decorative finishes incorporating unusual materials such as gold, silver and bronze leaf/powders, shagreen, eggshell and combinations of pigments to produce beautiful and unique effects. We have always been keen to push the boundaries and have succeeded in bringing this new approach to a traditional craft to the attention of interior design professionals worldwide. Our work can stand alone as wall panels/screens, artwork or as a feature on high end furniture.

What materials do you use? Where and how you purchase them?

We work exclusively with authentic materials and tools and we buy 95% of these from our suppliers in Japan. The urushi lacquer is a naturally occuring resin harvested from the Rhus Vernacifera tree and the very best quality originates in Japan.  There are various grades of the sap and it is important that the natural lacquer is untainted – the quality of Japanese sourced material is the absolute best. However, because the amount of Japanese urushi harvesting is limited and we often work on very large items such as tabletops, where necessary, we purchase urushi harvested in China but processed in Japan. The brushes and tools are also acquired from Japan where there is the very widest choice available.

What is your “ideal” client’s profile?

We have a very wide client base and work directly with Interior designers, artists and private clients. We also collaborate with specialist cabinetmakers, often applying decorative urushi lacquer finishes to their furniture. I think that as my first profession was cabinetmaking, my ideal clients are based in this profession as well. It doesn’t seem to matter from which country they are, we seem to speak the same language of ‘furniture making’ and naturally share the same appreciation of each other’s work and skills. There are no shortcuts, no places to hide mistakes and accordingly there is a constant strive towards perfection in all we do.

At what age and under what circumstances did you start this job?

I have to start my answer by saying that I have never thought of what I do as simply ‘a job’. I did discover the beautiful world of Urushi completely by accident but I was intrigued by it from the very first time I saw this ancient decorative art. I was restoring a French Secretaire from the early 1800’s that had Japanese lacquered panels incorporated. As restoration of these panels was outside my abilities at the time, I contacted the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for advice and they gave me the name of a respected Urushi lacquer artist based in the Netherlands. When my wife Marina and I went to meet her and saw the urushi samples and art work at her studio, we both immediately knew that we wanted to learn more about this very unusual craft.

Where and how long have you been trained before you were ready to start your own business? In a training institute, with a craftsman or both? What do you think is the best way to learn your job today? Schools, training with craftsmen ...?

It was approximately 15 years ago that we first became aware of Urushi and with-in a few weeks we started lessons with the Urushi lacquer artist Mariko Nishide who we had met by chance as a result of my work on that French Secretaire. We were her pupils for 2 years. At the beginning, the skills and techniques that we learnt from Mariko were incorporated as additional finishes to my designs, but we soon started to receive commissions just for the decorative urushi finishes and it very quickly became the main part of our business. As a consequence, we formed a company offering a wide variety of unique and very special finishes. I would say that Marina and I were very fortunate to have been introduced to a Urushi artist resident in the Netherlands – I think it would have been impossible to develop the requisite skills other than studying in Japan. There are not many people who work with this medium at the highest-level outside of Asia and the training time can be very long term. It is known that many people have an allergic reaction to the urushi sap when it is still in it’s liquid form and so some who start to learn this ancient craft quickly discover that they are unable to persist with it. 

Describe the techniques, the tools and the materials you use in your work.

The basic technique in our Urushi artistry is to apply a number of layers of lacquer to a base material. The lacquer can be ‘clear’ or we can colour the lacquer using natural pigments. In every case, the various coats have to be completely dry before the application of the subsequent layer and it is this multiple layering that gives the depth of beauty and hardness to the finished effect. Some finishes require previously applied coats of lacquer to be sanded back to expose the contrasting materials used with-in earlier layers. However, there are 100’s of different techniques that the urushi artist can use and many that we have developed ourselves. We introduce metal powders such as gold, silver and tin, Mother of Pearl, and fragmented eggshell to name just a few of the decorative finishes that we offer. As even the most basic single colour finish can require 20 layers with the more intricate finishes needing up to 60 separate coats of lacquer, you can appreciate that it is a very time consuming art. To apply the lacquer, we use wooden spatulas in various shapes, together with a wide selection of brushes which might be made of rabbit, horse or human hair. We have also developed specialist tool designs to fit the processes unique to us.

What role do "talent" and "creativity" play in your profession?

I would say that in our situation, it was a desire to replicate the selection of Urushi finishes that we first saw that morphed into a talent for the work. Over time, the talent developed into a passion that then inspired the confidence to investigate “what if” when working with the various materials. This in turn gave rise to the creativity and artistic viewpoint which is now such an important part of what we do. 

And what about innovation, what are the changes since you started? Do you use new materials, tools, or processes in manufacturing and marketing? What is the impact of innovation on your performance? How could your profession be even more innovative?

Urushi lacquer has been used for the protection and decoration of objects in China and Japan for at least 9000 years. Accordingly, it has traditions which are well respected and observed in the region and changes there have been limited because of this reverence. Marina and I found success in what we did, because we viewed the opportunities without feeling the need to only do what had been done before, and were therefore not restricted in taking the possibilities forward. As mentioned previously, we have developed our own processes and techniques, explored the use of novel materials and also invented new tools to facilitate these new aspects on large scale projects. This is how we are constantly innovating. Innovation is also coming from the producers and suppliers of the raw materials who are developing the range of lacquers and publishing the information on the internet. The use of social media sites such as Instagram, to introduce a wider audience to the beauty of the craft is also very welcomed.  However, the best tool for innovation is your own Brain…

What is the best way to learn your profession?

I believe the best way is training on a one to one basis by a Master. The techniques involved are very precise and in the early stages of learning this craft many mistakes are made. You really do need the individual tuition to inform you as to where things went wrong and why. This explanation is not so easily available to find. When we started to learn the craft, very little information was available written in English. This has improved with the growth of the Internet but there is no substitute for learning from someone with experience.

What is your message to younger generations who might choose your profession?

Don’t be afraid of difficulties and barriers – be aware of them but not afraid of them. Believe that you can succeed, make long and short term goals and work towards them. Perhaps you will not reach all of your targets, but the journey to success can be such a joy!

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