I passionately believe the beauty of Karakami block printed paper must be widely recognised outside Japan. I could not continue a business relationship with the original supplier whose panels were exhibited in my first Decorex because they were not willing to collaborate with designers. I, however, did not want to give up and consulted Mr Imai, my supplier for kimono screens. He is like a father figure in the crafts industry in Kyoto and knows everybody. He could introduce me to an excellent alternative supplier who is more flexible.
We introduced two collections: one in 2010 and the other in 2015. I just loved textures of the block-prints and beautiful patterns. The new supplier had seventy wooden blocks back in 2010. I started creating the first collection by choosing colours of base paper as well as colours of ink. I quickly realised there were in fact countless options and was completely lost at one point. Base paper as well as ink look different depending on the combinations. The supplier was incredibly patient and made numerous samples for me. I was absolutely delighted when Fern and Morning Dew were featured in World of Interiors in the October issue. Looking back, the collection might have been too Japanese and did not fuse enough with Western decor. I was still learning and making my way towards a midway point for East meets West.
I achieved, however, a crucial aspect to cater for the market here: size specs. When I was developing the collection, I realised that the product cannot be used as wallpaper; the length was only 180cm long, or 6 feet at most to fit fusuma sliding doors. It is too short even with very high skirting boards and picture rails. Then, I had a helping hand. There was a change of management at the supplier. A younger brother (again, it is a family business!) took over the business and he brought in his highly talented and enthusiastic friend from an art school. He made it to 240cm to start, then to 270cm, and eventually 330cm over the years.
Sadly, a number of block printers have started closing down in the last twenty years because some newly built Japanese homes don’t have Japanese rooms with sliding doors and tatami mats. Even when they do, machine-made papers are normally used, which is obviously much less expensive. People who want to replace fusuma papers can buy them through Amazon and Rakuten. Many block printers simply could not survive. Our supplier on the other hand had foresight and started to collect unwanted old printing blocks from their former competitors who are no longer in business. Their collection was rapidly growing. They reconditioned blocks whenever they could and reproduced ones beyond repair. Now they boast over 200 patterns, nearly threefold what they had since I started working with them in 2010.
Mr Hikosaka, the new addition to the family team, is an artist rather than a craftsman. Having quickly learnt the block printing technique, he started exploring further with the ancient technique, especially with one called “gubiki”; base paper is coated with pigment which includes a powdered oyster shell before it is block printed. The pigment is normally in white, but he likes to mix in colours which is called “iro-gubiki”. The new base colour is, therefore, much more intense regardless of whether he uses bold rich colours or subtle colours with “kira”, ground quartz crystal. “Gubiki” works are even more labour intensive, however they have such gorgeous and luxurious effects. The colour of base paper is often completely different from the new base colour, though it somehow affects the end result. I believe his “karakami” should find a place outside of sliding doors. Interior designs in Japan are not yet as developed as in the Western world. I feel a sense of mission to introduce his works outside the country.