In the popular imagination, Japonisme is all shoji screens, tatami mats and a single bonsai tree placed just so on an ornately carved, black-lacquered console. Certainly, when I conjure up visions of Japanese style, I picture only Zen simplicity, exquisite ceramics, artful calligraphy and a sophisticated design sensibility that doesn’t come naturally to many of us in the West. No doubt this is a sweeping generalisation that brushes over the richness and breadth of the country’s history, politics and culture, and there are Japanese people with terrible hoarding habits. Yet arguably, despite the past 100 years of intense change and the rise of the digital age, Japan has retained a tremendous sense of stylistic self – a way of marrying modernity with tradition that offers a lot for us to learn from today.
Then again, a love affair with the East is nothing new: the term Japonisme was coined by French aesthetes to describe an emerging craze for all things Japanese in the 19th century. And the concept of 'East meets West' has long been popular in interior design. However, that Japonisme resonates particularly today as a beacon of good taste is because it is so much more than just a superficial style. In our complicated times, one-dimensional trends lack sufficient substance. Japonisme, by contrast, is more of an ethos than a mere look, consistently founded, to my mind, upon four timeless core principles: harnessing the power of nature; revelling in finish and texture; paying attention to the smallest details; and approaching design not only with a respect built upon centuries of ritual and tradition, but also with a healthy irreverence that enables constant evolution. And it is this latter point – that sense of questing for progression and questioning the norm, while sitting firmly upon the shoulders of history – that produces such considered innovation. It’s also a stance of extreme self-confidence. Rather than needing to denigrate or overturn what’s come before, what I’ll now dub 'Modern Japonisme' (to distinguish it from its predecessor) respectfully challenges aspects of the past while gratefully encompassing others. It feels elegant and intelligent – refreshing in an era of easy trolling, when even presidents think it’s OK to tweet put-downs.
Modern Japonisme also chimes with a growing mainstream appreciation for the benefits of slowing down, meditating and being mindful. It is within this context that the following tenets have also found enormous traction: kakebo, a philosophical approach to managing your money, invented by the 20th-century Japanese journalist Hani Motoko; ikigai, the Japanese notion of things that make one’s life worthwhile; and the ethos embodied in Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Consider too shou-sugi-ban, the ancient art of charring wood in order to seal and preserve it, which is enjoying a moment. It was even the finish of choice for a remote lochside home in Scotland, which the Royal Institute of British Architects voted the 2018 House of the Year, an accolade that acknowledges the best new architect-built home in the UK.
"The point is that nothing is by accident, everything is considered; nothing is excessive, everything is beautiful."
In tandem with this appreciation of all things Japanese comes a renewed respect for things made by hand. For when you can see and feel the touch of a maker, or recognise the hours of labour that have gone into an exquisitely crafted object, it adds emotional value, and this transcends cost. Knowing that something didn’t just roll off an automated production line but was instead made by a living, breathing human being, the consumer purchases a piece that is intrinsically imbued with love and care – it is a sense of consideration, for both the object and the prospective owner, that recalls Japanese traditions of maki-e lacquer work or origami.
And yet, for the home, there can be no preordained menu of moves that instantly add up to a look of Modern Japonisme. However, I believe it can be loosely defined as the intention to create spaces and surround yourself with things that have inherent authenticity – something that references Japanese notions of wabi-sabi, the idea of the beauty in imperfection. Materials such as wood are popular, suggesting honesty and truth in natural forms. And then there’s that top note of filigree detail and exoticism. It could be the evocation of a painterly orientalism in a screen-printed Fornasetti wooden tray, hand-finished with silver leaf; or a single flowering stem in an earthenware pot, perhaps riven with gold seams in an ode to kintsugi, the Japanese art of reverent mending. Maybe it’s a cluster of shapely porcelain vases on a dining table, or a key fob artfully adorned with colourful leather tassels. The point is that nothing is by accident, everything is considered; nothing is excessive, everything is beautiful. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." And today, nowhere is this more visible than in Modern Japonisme.
By Michelle Ogundehin