Interview with Taku Shinomoto - Designer of Hasami Porcelain and Owner of Tortoise General Store

Posted by Emma Tsuchida on

ET: Can you tell us what led you to design the Hasami Porcelain collection?

TAKU: Before Hasami Porcelain, I was a furniture designer and shop owner living in Venice Beach with my wife, Keiko and dog, Fido.  We started the Tortoise General Store together in 2003 after moving to California from Tokyo. I was never formally educated in design, but I designed furniture for a Japanese company called Idee for many years, and my work at Tortoise here in the U.S. was teaching me daily about life in America. I suppose this positioned me perfectly to gain the confidence of a Japanese distributor exporting Hasami ceramics overseas, and they asked me to help them launch an original tableware series specifically for an American audience.  

I had never designed tableware before, but I instinctively understood that Japanese ceramicware catered to Japanese cuisine and eating habits, which were totally different to what I was observing in the U.S.  I wanted to design a line that suited all cuisine types and eating styles, a design that was neutral and universal. Japanese tableware is typically small, thin and lightweight as they’re held in the hand and brought to the mouth when eating.  Americans eat with a fork and knife, so plates and bowls need to be heavier, larger to avoid sliding on the table.  My personal and professional life seemed to have placed me both metaphorically and literally between Japan and the U.S., so my understanding of both sides helped me design a collection that appealed to everyone.  



ET: From the beginning, you set out to design tableware that was a big picture collection, where all the pieces worked together cooperatively.  What was your inspiration for Hasami Porcelain’s overall design?

I believe you won’t find a line of tableware with as many sizes and dimensions as Hasami Porcelain.  When I set out to design Hasami Porcelain, I wanted its modular, multi-functional character to be a central tenant, so people would be encouraged to build a personalized collection of tableware that worked for their specific needs.  Even when making furniture, I am drawn to modular, multi-functional design for this reason.  For form, I’m attracted to simple and minimal shapes–even though simple design is oftentimes the hardest to achieve.  In Japanese, we say ‘nigerbashoganai’, as in there’s no place to hide from our mistakes when a design is reduced to its simplest form.  It also goes without saying that some inspiration for Hasami came from my own heritage.  The Japanese ‘jubako’, which are stacking boxes used by food delivery services, and ‘oryoki’, the Japanese lacquer eating bowls used by monks, were an inspiration designing Hasami Porcelain.  Being Japanese is part of my DNA as a designer so even when it’s not intentional to infuse Japanese sensibilities into my design, those influences are always naturally there to guide me.

ET: The Hasami Porcelain collection straddles a lot of dualities.  On the one hand it contains an impressive range of pieces, but remains minimal by being modular.  In appearance, it feels organic with its rougher texture and natural finish, but precision in design allows you to literally stack them into neat columns.  With all these unique features to the line, were there any challenges when making the line initially?

TAKU: The part of design I enjoy most is finding a place where design can be in harmony with the limitations of production.  I don’t want to manipulate or complicate the production process to achieve a specific design.  Instead, I try to understand the production process, both its limitations and advantages, to create a product that compliments its parameters.  When I first visited the kilns and factories in Hasami, I found in their archive a tiny teacup in a beige, neutral tone that was very textured.  

I was told the teacup was a combination of white porcelain and sandstone.  Finding this teacup changed the trajectory of Hasami Porcelain because I knew instantly that Hasami Porcelain needed to be made from this material.  However, when you mix clay with porcelain, the reaction in the kiln is quite unpredictable, dramatic even, and since precision is the foundation of my design and clay is not a precise material, we ran into challenges right away. Applying intense heat to a natural material is always a challenge in and of itself - you’ll find it can warp, shrink or even break the material in the kiln, and the finish can come out too dark, too light, brown, red, all different shades. 

We tried many times to correct and control what we were seeing from the kiln, and originally there was some negative association with the variations we had on our hands.  But I came to see that the variations were  special in their own way– a reflection of the natural material and its manmade quality.  Pottery is not perfect, and by embracing these imperfections as an attractive feature of the line, I believe that it helped Hasami Porcelain resonate with so many.  In a time where almost everything is mass produced, including Hasami Porcelain, we appreciate what is still unique, what still reflects nature on our table, and what feels truly authentic. 

ET: How is Hasami Porcelain made today?

Hasami Porcelain is made in several different factories and kilns spread across the rural town of Hasami in Nagasaki prefecture.  Hasami is a historical pottery town with over 400 years of experience with the craft.  It's an accurate statement to say the entire town is involved in the making of ceramics, whether it’s the factory that builds the molds, or the workers who fill the molds, or those that empty the kilns or even packers who ship the ceramics overseas.  Hasami Porcelain touches every area of town, and is made through a collaborative, collective effort.  To achieve the precise and stackable shape of the line, we used stacked molds and machine throwing.  Despite the mechanics involved, there is a human touch at every step and you’ll see young men to older grandmothers at different stages of production.  Even with our embrace of Hasami Porcelain’s imperfections and natural variations, the line is incredibly challenging to make and our methods have been perfected over many trials and errors.  I believe this line could have only been made in Hasami.  Hence the namesake, Hasami Porcelain.  

ET: What do you hope for Hasami Porcelain in the future?  Where is it headed?

TAKU: I want to keep growing the line to include other materials and design new Hasami Porcelain products using the modular framework set in place.  I believe the success of Hasami Porcelain lies in its everyday versatility, so we want Hasami Porcelain to stay relevant for the people that use it.  I also hope that Hasami Porcelain can continue to support and revitalize the town of Hasami as a production center for ceramicware, within Japan and worldwide.  The reality is that people tend to move away from the countryside to the city, and as populations in rural towns like Hasami decline, we also see important crafts like ceramics start to dwindle. The preservation of important crafts, and towns like Hasami is crucial for the heritage of Japan, but also for humanity.  

With the support of Hasami Porcelain, I’d like to create a restaurant in the area using B-grade Hasami Porcelain products not sold on the market to promote zero waste, as well as a lodging facility in town where visitors can experience Hasami Porcelain during their stay.  It’s also my dream to someday hold an international design competition for Hasami Porcelain, and grow the line by broadening its inclusivity.

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