The Magic of Japanese Craftsmanship (Can Italy Learn From It?)

April 22, 2013

in design, maker stuff

Yagi-san at work

[Pictured above: craftsman Yagi-san from Kaikado company, Kyoto]

Another edition of the Milan Design Week (or Salone del Mobile) has come and gone. Thanks to serendipity and my friend Nobi I managed to visit what would was probably the most relevant exhibit for my personal and professional interests: the Japan Handmade exhibit that was part of MOST, a space curated by British designer Tom Dixon at Milan’s Museum of Science and Technology.

At MOST I met a bunch of amazingly talented craftsmen from Kyoto, Japan, that were showcasing their art, which merged several generations of high quality work (some of the craftsmen represented the 16th generation of their family dedicated to that specific activity) with modern interpretations of simple everyday object and luxurious accessories for the home.

I was surprised not so much by the beauty of the products, which I gave for granted (being a fan of the Japanese culture, I’ve become accustomed to their beautiful high-quality and detailed products and services) but by the youth and kindness of the craftsmen. Several of them were probably in their mid-20s and not only did they exude passion for their craft but also they were eager to explain, showcase, and interact with the visitors in a humble way.

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A particular thought goes for the kindness of Yagi-san, who creates beautiful Chazutsu, or tea caddies and who gifted me with a personalized “tea spoon” (seen at the end of the video below), that I will use everyday when I prepare my daily cup of Sencha or Gyokuro green tea, and the good humor of Tsuji-san, who specializes in metal-knitting and who – by his own saying – resembles the character Takeshi Gouda, AKA “Gian” in the Doraemon anime/manga.

While I enjoyed the stimulation of these bunch’s products, it also brought some sour thoughts to mind when contrasted with the current state of Italian craftsmanship, especially in relation to young artisans or – actually – the lack of them. These Japanese craftsmen were young, hardworking, passionate, extremely talented, interested in promoting their land and craft (in fact they invited me to visit their workshops, which I will certainly do in my next visit to the country of the rising sun) but above all they were proud of their work, which sells at extremely high prices (e.g.: the stools made by Nakagawa-san retail for something between 5,000 and 10,000 dollars each).

Italy has – for centuries – been the cradle of some of the most talented craftsmen in the world but that seems to have come to an end. Yes, you can still find a few ageing workers, while others have given birth to huge companies (like Ferragamo or Gucci). The issue is that in the last decades, the hard work required to become an artisan, from apprentice to master, has become totally uncool for the youth, who are more attracted by the artificial lifestyle, promoted by mainstream media, of footballers and “veline” (a mix between showgirls and cheap models).

I visit Tuscany often and from the the vines to the design workshops I hardly see any young Italian apprentices. In most cases they are Asian (mostly Korean and Japanese, who sooner or later return to their land to further develop their newly acquired skills, imprinting them with their own culture) or Eastern European (especially those doing the hard work in the fields or in the high quality food industry). During a recent visit to a Parmigiano Reggiano cheese production facility in the province of Reggio Emilia (thanks to Andrea), the “cheese master” told me that even though they make some of the best Parmigiano in Italy and offer very competitive salaries (an average of 6,000 euro/month) they are desperate for finding young hands to work in such a demanding job.


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I wonder what it would take for Italians to pride again in the country’s legacy of craftsmanship and if it will be too late or not to stimulate a new renaissance. Some authors like Stefano Miceli (Futuro Aritgiano – “Artisan Future”) express how Italy’s DNA contains the right skills to get back in track.

At the same time, I’m surprised that the Maker movement – which represents a sort of renaissance of craftsmanship, albeit using modern tools and technology – is not as strong or cohesive in Italy (it is growing but IMHO way too slow). Apart from the USA, where a big part of the Maker movement has been booming for at least the last decade, I’ve seen more enthusiastic and collaborative makers in cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and London.

Will craftsmanship recover it’s allure in Italy? Can young italians re-learn to value the hard work, dedication and as a consequence become proud (but humble) of their craftsmanship once again?

I believe that both in its classical (woodcrafts, jewellery, leather, wine makers, etc) and modern (“makers” using CNC machines, 3D printers, Arduinos, etc) versions they pose one of the most viable ways to create high quality jobs and valuable products for the world, regaining ownership of our cultural heritage and projecting it into the future, a magical way through the current economic and financial crisis.

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