The Timeless Beauty of Urushi, Japanese Lacquerware



Over millennia, the production of urushi art has been elevated from a traditional Japanese craft into a highbrow art form that’s celebrated for its use of natural, long-lasting resources. It’s often synonymous with Japan itself and, as the work of award-winning artist Naoya Takayama proves, it shares a few commonalities with the commitment that Mazda pours into its head-turning designs.

Naoya Takayama, urushi artist.

“Urushi sap has been used to decorate and protect objects, combining art and function, for 10,000 years.”

Touch it, and it feels as soft as skin. Gaze at its surface, and it mesmerizes with its deep lustre. Japanese lacquerware, coated with thin layers of urushi tree sap, is the pinnacle of ancient tradition and craftsmanship. Now, with the world turning to environmentally sustainable products, there’s never been a better time to celebrate urushi art.

Urushi sap, taken from a type of tree that only grows in East Asia, has been used to decorate and protect objects, combining art and function, for 10,000 years. An urushi-painted surface is resistant to corrosive acids and alkalis, making it tough and durable, and because it dries by absorbing the air’s moisture, it gives off a delicate glow. “That’s why the coating seems moist and soft, and has a unique lustre,” says Naoya Takayama, an award-winning urushi artist in Hiroshima. “The skill lies in how you bring out this texture.”

It’s a tricky and patience-testing task: the artist applies dozens of layers of urushi coating, waiting days at a time for each layer to dry before sanding them down to 0.03mm thick. Takayama is lauded for his dexterous take on the akebono-nuri technique, creating black and red gradations over several layers rather than one, adding depth to the decoration.

So effective is the use of paint layers for adding depth and maintaining delicate details, Mazda incorporated the technique into its robotic Takuminuri paint technology, which, using various data points, mimics the touch and technique of a human painter to incredibly precise detail. 2022 marked both the tenth anniversary of Takuminuri and the launch of a new, eye-catching colour: Artisan Red. The bold new Takuminuri paint is designed to accentuate strength and beauty through form while providing a richer depth, stronger reflections and, overall, an eye-catching aesthetic to the vehicle.

Takayama’s well-honed craftsmanship also relies on the hand and eye, an intricate balance of adding coloured lacquer then polishing it. Urushi artists also get creative in choosing what to add to the milky white sap in order to create a new colour or texture. Takayama sources his signature ingredient, powdered oyster shell, locally in Hiroshima, also home to Mazda HQ. He adds it to his base coating, a crucial layer that makes the finished piece resistant to water and humidity so it won’t erode even if it cracks. “I want these bowls to be used every day, so I pay extra attention to safety,” he says.

The coastline along the Seto Inland Sea doesn’t just offer oyster shells for Takayama—it also fuels his imagination. “I feel at peace when I’m gazing out at the islands in the ocean,” he says. “The beautiful sunrises and the sunsets there provide inspiration for my work.”

“I want to make new things with timeless techniques.”

naoya takayama

While urushi pieces have been crafted since prehistoric times, Takayama tries not to feel restricted by tradition, which is perhaps why, when out on drives, he listens to modern hip-hop artist Green Assassin Dollar. Innovation is key to his design philosophy, he says. “The generations before us have been developing the craft with the future in mind, so we should also strive to advance the design. I want to make new things with timeless techniques.”

A Product for Our Times

Made from natural materials, Japanese lacquerware is a smart choice for the environmentally conscious. “It’s light and durable, and it can be used every day by both young and old,” Takayama says.

Urushi art embodies the idea, common in Japanese aesthetics, of the work being alive, of possessing an independent vitality. If a piece of lacquerware gets damaged, urushi craftspeople are on hand to give it new life. They mend it using an ancient technique called kintsugi—using the strong adhesive properties of urushi sap to artistically fuse chips and cracks together using gold and other metals, creating a new way of the art form being expressed and perceived.

For those trying out urushi products for the first time, Takayama recommends soup bowls: “Pour hot soup into the bowl, hold it and the heat will transfer gently into your hands. Japanese people sip straight from the bowl. Try it and you can enjoy the skin-like texture against your lips.”

Urushi in many forms

Check out these two artists for more inspiration on bringing urushi art into your life.

Kazumi Murose

World-renowned urushi artist Kazumi Murose sprinkles coarse powder ground from gold or silver ingots onto an urushi-painted design to make interior pieces from stationery boxes to cabinets. Murose’s works have been exhibited in top museums, such as The Met and the British Museum, but you could also decorate your own home with a maki-e-style piece. “Try jewellery boxes or small bowls,” he says. “They look beautiful displayed in the room.”

Small cabinet “Fresh Pine” (Makieradenkodansu Seisho), made in 2006 by Kazumi Murose.

Mio Heki

For Kyoto-based artist Mio Heki, the time it takes for the sap to be taken from the tree, or for the urushi to dry with each coating, is part of the joy of her craft. “The period of waiting is precious, much like waiting for the change of seasons or watching your child grow.” Heki makes urushi jewellery, from earrings to bracelets to hairpins. “The lustre of an urushi piece grows the more you use it, so choose something you’ll use every day,” she says.

It’s not just about homeware. This butterfly-inspired urushi jewellery was made by Mio Heki.

Words Mariko Kato / Images Irwin Wong

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