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Akari lights on display in Ozeki’s Gifu showroom (Photo by Kohei Take)
Life

A glowing success

How a lantern maker and a sculptor created an icon with paper and bamboo

Lighting in Japan tends to veer between two opposing modes: dazzling convenience-store brightness and the dim, enveloping glow of a paper lantern. It was the second type that Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was chasing when he started creating his now-classic Akari series in 1951: light sculptures made with Japanese washi paper on a delicate bamboo frame.

To make his lights, Noguchi headed to Gifu in central Japan, a city known for its traditional chochin lanterns. He went to Ozeki, a company that has been making lights since 1891. Chochin, which make up the bulk of Ozeki’s business, are most associated with the summer festival of Obon, when they’re said to guide the spirits of the dead.

Noguchi worked with Ozeki’s craftsmen to create a new kind of chochin that borrowed the technique and materials of the traditional lanterns but turned them into sculptural table lights, pendants and standard lamps. He continued to visit Ozeki annually, adding new designs. By the time he died in 1988 there were about 200 different Akari; more than 170 are still in production.

 Pasting washi paper onto a bamboo frame, left; co-owner Toshihiko Ozeki (Photos by Kohei Take)

Today the company is run by fifth-generation President Morihiro Ozeki and his son Toshihiko. Akari lights are sold in design shops all over the world but each one is still made in Ozeki’s small Gifu workshop. They are made with Japan-made washi paper and bamboo, using the original wooden molds created for Noguchi. It is detailed work and none of it is done by machine.

“The bamboo frame is critical,” says Toshihiro Ishikawa, one of the Ozeki craftsmen. “It has to have just the right tension and you can’t go backwards if you make a mistake.” The paper is sprayed with water and pasted onto the bamboo skeleton, the joins sealed with rice glue. Excess paper is cut with a razor. “You have to be careful with the blade. Too soft and the edge is fluffy; too hard and it scores the paper.”

The final product is resilient and packs comfortably into a thin box. Others have tried to create similar lights but Tohihiko says it’s hard for them to match the quality of Ozeki’s materials and technique, skills that have been perfected through years of experience. The simpler Akari shapes are easy enough to mimic but the more complicated constructions are too much of a challenge for the copyists.

Master painter Takamitsu Inohara in the workshop (Photo by Kohei Take)

Inspired by Noguchi, other designers have teamed up with Ozeki to create their own lights. London’s Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby created a series called Hotaru (firefly in Japanese). This year they released a limited-edition version, hand-painted by Ozeki’s master painter Takamitsu Inohara, who also creates the exquisite flower designs on Ozeki’s traditional lanterns. Swiss studio Atelier Oï came up with its Fusion light, which uses a double layer of silk and washi paper.

"Akari lights are sold all over the world but each one is still made in Ozeki’s Gifu workshop"

In his 1933 text, "In Praise of Shadows," Junichiro Tanizaki bemoaned the prevalence of harsh electric lighting, saying that “the evils of excessive illumination” ran contrary to Japan’s traditional preference for “murky light.” An Akari light offers the antidote to the overlit interior, bringing an atmospheric warmth that Noguchi compared to sunlight filtered through shoji paper. As he once put it: “All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami [mat] and Akari.”

Akari means "light" in Japanese. (Photos by Kohei Take)

This report first appeared in Monocle magazine. To find out more about the magazine and to subscribe, visit monocle.com.

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