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  • 01.30.12

How Japan Melds 21st-Century Tech With Ancient Handicrafts

Japanese designers exploit old materials and techniques in new, business-friendly ways.

We’re all familiar with traditional Japanese handicrafts–the lacquer and the Washi and the exquisite metalwork. Perhaps less familiar is the fact that a new band of Japanese artists and designers has kept those traditions alive in the production of distinctly 21st-century objects, including everything from iPhone accessories to LED-illuminated platform shoes.

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A two-day exhibit at the Capsule Studio in New York next month will highlight “the merging of New World and Old World methods” in today’s most innovative Japanese handicrafts. That encompasses both designs that exploit old materials in fresh ways, such as a mast-shaped humidifier made of Japanese cypress (which will be presented by the starchitect Kengo Kuma); and designs that find new uses for ancient techniques, like a hand-lacquered iPhone cover or the aforementioned shoes, which have stiffened Washi platforms and leather covered in silver and gold leafing–a technique typically used to create Obi (sash belts).

There’s a compelling business case to be made for this kind of design. “In today’s society, demands are being made for a paradigm shift in the sense of the world’s values,” the show’s organizers say. “[N]ew movements have begun in the world of luxury items, constituting a return to the careful creation of objects based on craftsmanship.” Put another way: The compass of what constitutes a desirable luxury good is shifting away from mass production. Today’s consumers don’t want another bag plastered with the Louis Vuitton logo; they want something unique and handcrafted. Even if it’s just to slap onto their mass-produced iPhone.

Future Tradition WAO opens February 10. More info here.

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.

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