Mizuyo Yamashita is a Japanese ceramicist based in London. Mizuyo’s work focuses on making tableware and home objects mainly on the potter's wheel and applying surface decorating techniques that stem from Japanese and Korean traditions such as shinogi, mishima and kohiki. Her inspiration comes from a wide range of archaeological artefacts, everyday objects, the forms in the nature as well as materials and processes in ceramics and other crafts – fused together in beautifully functional objects she creates for the home.
Whilst we can’t be in Mizuyo’s east London studio with her at this time, here she shares with us the inspiration behind her craft; how she seeks to blend traditional techniques with modern sensibilities; and the interplay between an object’s functionality and its emotional significance to the owner.
1. When did you first discover your passion for ceramics and home decor?
I have always had ‘a taste’ for pottery as long as I remember. My grandmother, who was a kimono sewer had a small shop dealing pottery for everyday use (mainly Seto pottery). As a child I used to help her in the shop by cleaning shelves and unpacking boxes. There were some particular pieces I liked either for their shape, design or colour - I don’t remember exactly what they looked like now, but I can still recall the excitement I felt when I discovered a favourite piece in the deliveries to the shop.
While studying domestic design and working in interior design shops in Japan I admired the work by Tsé Tsé associées and Dutch industrial designer Hella Jongerius. Then in 2000 I moved to London. I came across a group of Grayson Perry pots in his New Labour exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery. His pots are very strong, decorated with political and social comments and technically interesting with layers of colours, incised patterns and prints. Soon after this experience I enrolled in an adult education college to learn pottery.
2. How important is the heritage of your craft to you personally, and do you seek to modernise this in your work?
The heritage of my craft is important in that in a sense it has given me an identity, a context and a particular taste to work within. It’s one of the conditions I was born into: like nationality, religion and family, I feel lucky to have grown to appreciate its rich history thanks to my family who loved handicrafts.
I prefer to think of what I’m doing as adjusting rather than modernising it. Most of my work is tableware and most of the concerns when designing my work are to do with the differences in food cultures globally. It is no longer so easy to generalise this as Japanese diet is changing, but for example in Japan we eat with chopsticks usually made in wood. The chopsticks don’t scratch the surface so I could use almost any kind of glazes on these tableware pieces as long as it’s safe to come into contact with food. The fact we hold the bowl whilst eating from it means it needs to be lightweight. These are small details but essential to consider when it comes to how an object will be used every day.
3. How do you navigate the balance between beauty and functionality in your craft?
This is my never-ending goal as a maker: I just keep making, improving and exploring other possibilities. For example, vases and home decor objects don’t necessarily need as much ‘functionality’ as objects used for eating such as cups and plates. This allows me to be more playful in the shape, size and glazes and decorative objects I produce.
If I think more about the relationship between beauty and functionality, actually I consider beauty to be its own kind of function that attaches to the objects, in that the objects can have physical, emotional and social functionality. For something to function well physically it needs to be designed and made to be used practically in the desired setting. To function emotionally the object can evoke an emotional reaction within us - we experience various feelings by having or using objects that we own. An appreciation for beauty is one of these feelings that I’m trying to achieve in my work as on the whole it makes us calm and happy.
Lastly for something to function well socially it needs to be produced in a way that is fair and beneficial for all parties involved. Since a lot of products nowadays are designed and mass-produced with cheap and ‘fast’ labour overseas this has consequently changed our relationship with the objects produced in this way. For me it is important that I make work with my own hands and I hope to impart this care and consideration into each piece that I produce.
4. Can you reflect on how we can learn to see beauty through everyday objects?
Since the last Century we have produced such a high volume of designed objects. The concept of design has been stretched to apply to a wider field now than it used to. In some ways this accessibility has improved society, but I feel it has also damaged our connection to possessions in some way. A lot of people still consume ‘design’ for their own benefits: the aesthetic look, the convenience that serves to please us, but more of us need to be aware of the impact that certain objects have to our collective mentality, the community or the society and the environment. Beauty is not just a façade - it should also be inherent in the spirit of the craft as well as in the method of production.
5. How does practicing your craft help you during times of uncertainty such as we find ourselves in now?
I’m very grateful to be able to continue my ‘everyday’ routine here in London while the city has almost completely closed down. Absorbing myself in my work is definitely stopping me from checking the news on a computer or mobile phone at every hour of the day. When I’m working with clay with muddy hands it’s physically impossible to do that! But also throwing clay requires a high level of concentration so it’s mentally occupying my attention, which I’m very thankful for.
Meanwhile, my relationship with clay remains the same: when I prepare clay properly, it listens to me and responds to my touch; changes the shape with the slight pressure from my fingers. These things are the most certain reality for me right now and how I can ensure that I am living in the present.
6. What advice could you give to embrace this opportunity to spend more time in our homes, to become even more familiar with our personal space and the objects that fill our homes?
I think spending more time in our homes is a great opportunity to consider our relationships with what we own. Japanese potter Kawai Kanjiro left the words 「もの買ってくる、自分買ってくる」translating as: ‘we buy things, we buy ourselves’. The things we buy are a reflection of ourselves. Sometimes we buy things impulsively or out of necessity, and then at some future point they don’t reflect who we are now in the present moment. I feel it is important to assess them once in a while to check in and see if they still speak to us in the same way as they did when an object comes into our possession. Also, with many of us having more time on our hands we can give some thought to what was going on inside of us when we bought those items. If this reflection brings you good feelings it’s great, but if you now associate an object with negative feelings or perhaps even unnecessary feelings I think we better get rid of it to free ourselves from the burden of them.
7. What is your favourite everyday object that you own?
My favourite object that I use often is ‘o-wan’. It’s a wooden bowl for soups my father bought from a wood carver’s shop in Hida Takayama, Gifu and my family has been using bowls similar to this for as long as I can remember. It is one of the few things I brought with me from my Japan in the early days of living in London. Every time I have miso soup from the wooden bowl it transports me back to my home.
I would say that my most precious item would be a teapot my grandmother bought. It’s an ordinary tea pot made by a craftsman in Hagi, Yamaguchi. It has been used in my family for 30-40 years and has developed an exquisite surface over the years from tea stain. It hasn’t got a handle – we hold it with our hands and it is possible to use it because we usually make green tea with 60c hot water. Every time I use it I remember my grandmother’s wrinkly hands holding it. It is imbued with a lot of love and happy memories.