While innovation and technological evolution are part and parcel of the modern world we live in, have you ever stopped to think about the survival of tradition in the face of this dizzying rate of change? After witnessing first hand the transition of manual intensive industrial production to automated machinery courtesy of his job in a food production factory, Jun Anzai did – and it troubled him deeply. The dilemma ultimately sparked Jun’s ten year journey into the world of lacquerware.
In the past decade, Anzai has made remarkable progress from art novice to professional lacquerware artist. Along the way, he’s arguably revolutionized the lacquerware game completely with his modern minimalist take on the centuries-old craft. Intrigued to discover more, we caught up with Anzai on the eve of his first ever international solo exhibition in Hong Kong.
Despite having no formal training in art, Anzai’s nostalgia for tradition led him to seek out artisanal craftwork across Japan. Of all his discoveries, it was the art of lacquerware which struck him the most. Anzai recalls his experience with eating rice from a lacquerware bowl for the first time. “The rice I ate tasted very special and different. The lacquerware had evaporated all unnecessary liquid whilst still keeping enough moisture in the rice.” Having become accustomed to using daily products made from plastic his whole life, lacquerware was a revelation for Anzai.
A Change of Direction
Fueled by this new found passion for lacquerware, Anzai eschewed his Applied Biology degree and quit his job in the food factory to enroll in the Kyoto Traditional Crafts College. Here, he received a rigorous introduction to traditional handcrafts. However, it was the school’s unique approach to teaching which has influenced Anzai’s work the most – and not in the way you’d expect.
“What is unique about this school is that they encourage students to spend a lot of time to produce just one piece of art, rather than many,” explains Jun Anzai. “For me however, lacquerware pieces are supposed to be daily, functional objects. Not precious, inaccessible artwork.”
With this in mind, Anzai’s design ethos revolves around making lacquerware functional and appropriate for daily use. In this, he has been especially influenced by his time working with lacquer master Akito Akagi. Akito is renowned for his unique blend of traditional artistry with a progressive, contemporary aesthetic, and this is something that comes across in Anzai’s minimalist designs.
“Traditional lacquerware was invented for use in rituals and ceremonies. But of course, our lifestyle is different now. While this type of lacquerware may have lost its function, I think we can always invent new uses for lacquerware.”
— Jun Anzai
The Art of Lacquer
For his first international solo art exhibition, Jun Anzai turned to nature for design inspiration. “For this collection, I started with creating these delicate vases. I wanted a vase for the smaller flowers native to the countryside of my home, but everything I found was too big.”
What’s interesting about Jun Anzai’s work is the juxtaposition between the look and actual feel of his pieces. Visually, his pieces look robust and sturdy, as if made from bronze or clay. However, physically-speaking, they’re incredibly light weight.
To achieve this, Anzai has used a dry lacquer technique called Kanshitsu. Traditionally used to produce Buddhist statues brought from China to Japan in the late seventh century, it involves lacquering layers of hemp cloth around a clay core. The result is an agile yet durable object, which he has fashioned into a range of beautiful dinnerware and vases. For the final touch, Anzai’s pieces feature a decorative layer of mixed copper and silver for a naturally burnished look.
A New Era for Lacquer?
Whatever your preconceptions of traditional handcafts may be, you can rest assured that Anzai’s work will blow your assumptions right out of the water. There’s no sign of old-fashioned, fussy, decorative pieces here. Nor do Anzai’s designs look impractical for daily use. Overall, in its simplicity and modesty, his collection is the epitome of minimalist modernity. And that’s perfectly in keeping with Anzai’s goal of modernizing the art of lacquerware. “I hope people become interested and want to know more about lacquer after seeing my work,” reveals Anzai. “I want to bring lacquerware to a new audience”. How do you think he’s done?
*All interview answers have been translated from Japanese.