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Habit is your greatest treasure

Reiko Kaneko

The British-Japanese designer Reiko Kaneko is new to SCP. Her first product for the company, the Adderley Works pendant light, was launched in 2013. Now, for the 2014 Collection, she has been working on some very special terracotta tableware. Our Editor, Duncan Riches, called in to find out more.

On rare occasions, an interview will leave you with a feeling a little like you get after watching a decent film. Not in a good beginning, middle and end kind of way, but rather that sensory feeling that makes you want to do something active afterwards. You recall some minor plot detail the next day, or something about how a character behaves is pure inspiration and it resides with you for the rest of the week. It was thus after my telephone interview with Reiko Kaneko about her new design work for SCP. On a relaxed Friday, one which preceded the first bright sunlit spring weekend in London, her thoughts on place, structure, form, habit, technique and finish reflected an almost existential approach to life, one which was hard not to be impressed by.

We begin by talking about place. Reiko was born, for want of a better term, in transit, to an English mother and Japanese father. “Not the usual way round,” she explains, but then nothing is particularly usual in her life. The early part of her childhood, until she was about seven years old, was lived in rural northern Japan. Her father had built his own house there, before she was born. She remembers the house, and in fact all the houses in the area, being a bit “ramshackle”. This was in part due to the price of land, which wouldn’t change regardless of what was built on it, so buildings were often erected for twenty to thirty years of use only. Yet, any sense of the temporary didn’t curtail her father’s love of modern objects. The house was filled with various items of Bauhaus furniture, things he really treasured. Aside from the house, she recalls the nearby lakes, the mountains, a rural setting in which she had the sense of being a bit of an outsider; her brown hair being a feature to be marvelled at by other kids. However, most vividly she recalls the light. It was brighter there, somehow clearer, somehow more pure.

After her father died, she returned with her mother to the UK, and they settled in London. Again, she was initially cast as an outsider at school, with her English lagging behind her contemporaries when she first arrived from Japan. However, the open and tolerant attitude of London soon got under her skin. It’s where “no-one bothers to ask where you are from,” and this clearly appeals to her, as does the sheer vibrancy and of the place. Her accent is brilliantly varied. When she speaks about serious things, she sounds rather posh, but in a flash she can fall into a noticeable North London slang, which is exactly what she does when she asserts, “It’s like a drug, isn’t it, London. I still do need it.” That may be so, but she gets a little less of it these days, since she moved her studio to Stoke-on-Trent in 2012, maybe a few days every two weeks.

After studying design at Central Saint Martins she first set up her studio in the East End in 2007, but as ceramics is her chosen discipline, working predominantly in fine bone china, she soon found herself feeling slightly too removed from the intimacy of process. As she gradually developed her products, her clients and a network of producers in the Potteries, she began to want more control over details. Inspired by the perfection of a takeaway bento box on a trip to Japan, she realised that if she wanted to take control of the whole service she was providing, not just the design itself, she would likely have to move to Stoke-on-Trent. This real respect for the minor details, the unglamorous things like delivery times and packaging, is one of her very Japanese traits. When she described this, it brought to mind the level of interconnectedness I experienced when visiting Tokyo ten years ago. I was struck by the sight of a team of Japanese workers patrolling the road entrance to a large building site with industrial sized hoses. They washed down every truck that left the site so that no dirt would be taken onto the road. This level of joined up thought is something one comes to expect in Japan.

Making the decision to move her studio was not an easy one, but she is now quite settled into a working rhythm. “I have my morning room and my afternoon room. We’ve got loads of windows in the workshop and the office, so there are two rooms, well three with the warehouse bit, the workshop and the studio. You get a lot of light in the morning in the workshop, so I tend to work on creative things in the morning, then the sun comes round to the office and I tend to work there in the afternoon.” Of her new set of working colleagues, she says “they are amazed that anyone from London would move up here, but they do want the area to get better, and I do want to help out a little bit.” Making the move would not have been possible without the good set of relationships that she had already developed with the industry there. Reiko is still amazed at the generosity with which she has been received, “you forget that people are kind sometimes.” She then goes on to whisper quite charmingly (in case any of the studio assistants might hear). “You wouldn’t believe how helpful people are here.” It’s certainly a change from the competitive environment of London, where kindness and generosity are more thin on the ground.
Perhaps even more important than the kindness of her colleagues, is their great knowledge and the level of exchange that she can now have with them. Initially, when she took certain products to the model makers, like The Boat or the Fold plate, they expressed total shock and told her, “No, that’s not really going to work.” Reiko thinks this was more to do with the newness of the objects to the model makers, their obvious difference to the traditional shapes people tend to make and buy in England, “the spherical, the round, and the curved.” However, many of her more challenging shapes, like The Boat, faired quite well in the kiln, the angles actually helping with structural rigidity. It’s a case of the more different shapes you experiment with, the better you get at it, the more feel for it you have. Now she is revelling in being more connected to process. “It’s like having a problem solving team. I’ve been to the mould maker to talk about the moulds, and then to the model maker, and then to the people who are going to be making it. It is a conversation that is essential when you are doing a new shape, and it takes a lot of time. I love that part of it, I think the most.”

Considering the non-conformist shapes she creates, I ask about where she looks for inspiration. She acknowledges that the Japanese side of her bears some responsibility for her use of angles, but she also looks at other fields like architecture for ideas. On a visit to Valencia, she was greatly inspired by the riverside work of Santiago Calatrava. How different details would catch your eye and then completely change depending on your perspective. “It’s just a shame he is getting sued now” she says. “When you see something that is difficult and new, there is always that possibility that people just won’t like it.” I get the impression that these kinds of barriers in taste are something she would happily tear down, but there is a patience to her approach. A quiet acknowledgement that to make progress with new ideas, you have to somehow bring people round to your way of thinking, rather than imposing something unfamiliar and unwanted onto them.

For the latest project with SCP, a range of terracotta tableware designs, a jug, platter and bowl. Reiko has had to work in a new way, from the ground up. “With ceramics, you have to think about how it is going to be cast. I am always trying to hide the foot. That’s the bit that gives me the most trouble to be honest, the ground. Getting that right in a lot of the bowls and the plates is hard.” Working in terracotta, everything begins there. “It’s literally from the bottom up because it is hand thrown from a lump of clay.” This departure from working with bone china offered up new possibilities. “I design on 3D programmes, but with a thrown piece I really wanted to work with the slight finger marks and the rings you get when you are throwing it, and also how the body pulls when pulling out the spout, or all the different things that are evidence of it being made by hand. I was looking forward to that.” The Suffolk based terracotta maker is Steve Harold. Reiko found him to be very flexible and generous in his approach, but she acknowledged that doing something new is always a challenge to skilled makers. To a certain extent you are asking them to break their habits, and Reiko has a great respect for habit. “Habit is your greatest treasure,” she says, O’Brian Sensei told her so. I later find out that O’Brien Sensei is Reiko’s Kyudo trainer. Kyudo is the Japanese archery based martial art known as “the way of the bow”. He taught her that we should respect habit, but we may also need to break it, in order to both learn and to progress. Another area of study in her life comes as no surprise. It’s clear that learning is one of the key tenets of her life. “I have totally geeky conversations with Steve who throws the terracotta pieces, so I am trying to learn about firing temperatures and what he puts in the glazes and things like that, and he’s finding out about fine bone china from me. It’s good to work with different knowledge bases, I really enjoy that, it’s fun.” She has brought a lightness of touch from her bone china work to the terracotta pieces, making them lighter in structure than normal. “Terracotta can be quite chunky, and tends to be a bit utilitarian looking, so we wanted to bring in that height and the curve, so it looks lighter.” As we speak, the final decisions are being made on the glazes. All she will tell me is that they have a quite modern looking “milky glaze” as a possibility, but we will have to wait to see when the first pieces launch next month.

Her approach to glaze and colour is to try “to bring a little of that Japanese sensitivity into it, adding a natural feel to things.” She explains further, “The glaze side of things I have found so liberating. It’s like I have found my guitar, my instrument that I can just mess about with. I quite like working with the contrast of the perfect and tight form of bone china against the unpredictable and reactive glazes.” The ability to experiment and to make private mistakes in the studio is important to her. She believes it will help her push the boundaries of her commercial work, while also satisfying the basic need to create and to play. I get the strong impression from Reiko that her working life is really increasing in complexity and richness at the moment. It’s enjoyable to hear such a positive perspective from a designer. She is very much in for the long-haul, understanding that if you want to make people familiar with new and different forms you will need plenty patience. It’s refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t want everything yesterday, someone willing to treat life as the marathon it is, rather than a mad sprint. Reiko Kaneko is an outsider who understands that to affect real change, you must do it from within.

This article was originally published in SCP Issue Number Five.

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Terracotta Collection by Reiko Kaneko for SCP

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