The mak­ing of

One of most iconic lamps of the 20th cen­tury, the akari light sculp­tures have been hand­crafted by lan­tern ar­ti­sans in Ja­pan since 1951. We travel into the heart of the coun­try to find out what goes into the mak­ing of this light gem.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SPACES - By LEONG SIOK HUI Pho­tos by SHIGEKI WATANABE

IF knock­offs are proof of an ob­ject’s iconic sta­tus, the Akari light sculp­tures have def­i­nitely earned their stature. Crafted from bam­boo ribs and washi (mul­berry bark pa­per) and lighted with elec­tric bulbs, th­ese del­i­cate “lanterns” have spawned many im­i­ta­tors since their de­but in 1951.

A cult favourite among de­sign buffs, the Akari comes in a mélange of shapes - from geo­met­ric and biomor­phic forms to clas­sic spheres, and sizes. To­day, they are com­mon fixtures in mod­ern home decor styles. You would have spot­ted the Akari in Tony Star’s bed­room in Iron Man 3 movie or the of­fice of Dr Gre­gory House in TV se­ries House.

Mar­ry­ing form and func­tion, the Akari was con­cep­tu­alised by Ja­panese-Amer­i­can sculp­tor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). In the art world, Noguchi is a mas­ter sculp­tor and one of the most im­por­tant artists of the 20th cen­tury. Aside from the vast num­bers of his sculp­tures in pri­vate and mu­seum col­lec­tions world­wide and in New York’s Noguchi Mu­seum, the ver­sa­tile artist’s no­table works in­clude his sculp­ture gar­dens at Unesco (United Na­tions Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion) head­quar­ters in Paris and the Mo­erenuma Park in Sap­poro, Ja­pan. In the in­dus­trial de­sign sphere, his Akari lamps, cof­fee ta­ble (1944) and rock­ing stools (1954) for de­sign gi­ants like Vi­tra and Her­man Miller are epochal mid-cen­tury pieces.

In­evitably, Noguchi ap­plied his sculp­tural sen­si­bil­ity to ev­ery­thing he de­signed, whether it was light­ing, fur­ni­ture, play­grounds or even stage sets.

The home of Akari

The story of Akari be­gan when Noguchi vis­ited Gifu City, about 270km west of Tokyo, to see cor­morant fish­ing on the Na­gara River. Hemmed in by moun­tains, Gifu Pre­fec­ture is known for its tra­di­tional crafts: the mak­ing of chôchin (lanterns), wa­gasa (tra­di­tional um­brel­las), uchiwa (bam­boo fans) and wood­craft.

“The mayor of Gifu City at that time asked him for ad­vice on how to re­vive the tra­di­tional lantern­mak­ing in­dus­try,” says Chikahiro Shin­oda, the di­rec­tor of Ozeki & Co Ltd, the Gifu-based lan­tern man­u­fac­turer that has been pro­duc­ing Akari lamps for 62 years now.

Founded in 1891, Ozeki pro­duces hand­crafted lanterns and light­ing de­vices. The Akari se­ries makes up only 15% of its pro­duc­tion while the com­pany’s main rev­enue comes from Obon (Fes­ti­val of the Dead) and dec­o­ra­tive lanterns. Ozeki is also pur­veyor of lanterns for the Ja­panese im­pe­rial house­hold.

Hako chôchin or the first pro­to­type of the por­ta­ble lan­tern – made of nar­row strips of bam­boo cov­ered with pa­per – was in­tro­duced in Ja­pan at the end of the 16th cen­tury. Dur­ing the peace­ful Edo pe­riod (1600-1868), lower-rank­ing samurai made lanterns and wa­gasa to make ends meet. But with the ad­vent of elec­tric­ity and gas in the late 19th cen­tury in Ja­pan, de­mand for lanterns dwin­dled. (In­for­ma­tion

a pro­to­type of the wooden frame and poly­styrene foam used to make an akari light sculp­ture.

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