Japanese Block printed paper is called ‘Karakami’ in Japanese, which literally means paper from China. The techniques were first introduced to Japan in the 8th century and remain essentially unchanged to this day. The method is universal. For example, Watts of Westminster use a very similar method for their hand blocked wallpaper, though their blocks are much larger than Japanese ones. The technique looks simple (click here to watch), however, is labour intensive and requires extraordinary craftsmanship to achieve a flawless finish. Each block only measures 30cm x 45cm and is applied to the paper ten times at least in order to create one sheet. The ink is mixed each time like a magical potion using the traditional methods of combining powder from baked oyster shells with gelatine. The shimmer is from finely ground quartz crystals in the ink.
Japanese houses are often mistaken for tea ceremony houses whose decoration is minimised to follow zen principles. These beautiful Karakami block printed paper are made to mount on ‘fusuma’ sliding doors and decorate rooms. Fusuma sliding doors are the dominant feature in Japanese rooms for one room can have them on up to two entire walls. Hence Karakmi works exactly like wallpaper, while some grand residences and temples, especially in reception rooms, would have murals on fusuma sliding doors.
A collection of Japanese traditional patterns which are used for Karakami is a treasure trove for fabric and wallpaper designers in the West as an inspirational source. Thousands of years of history accumulated so many. Because there are no copyrights, Japanese traditional patterns have hugely influenced wallpaper and textile designers and are used in many products. You may be surprised how familiar these patterns are as they are adopted by major brands such as Osborne & Little, Romo and Colony, to name just a few. They are normally categorised into four groups: plants such as cherry blossoms and acers, animals such as dragons and birds, elements such as clouds and waves and geometrical patterns.
Historians say some of the geometrical patterns must have travelled all the way to Japan from Egypt, Greece and the Eastern Roman Empire as well as India and China as early as the 7th century through the Silk Road. These patterns are shared in kimono, wooden panels and accessories. Some were spread by famous tea ceremony masters while the others by celebrity actors in popular plays. Therefore, many motifs were further developed and tweaked to cater for: favourites of temples and shrines, aristocrats, tea ceremony masters, and finally masses. Japanese traditional patterns is a vast and interesting topic, so I will talk about them another time.