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Casting a New Light with Tradition

Design Furniture Interior Japan Lighting

How three Japanese makers are using tradition to innovate in Lighting.

Lighting is often the unsung hero of a room, illuminating the things that we wish to highlight without standing out itself. Other times, the lighting itself can be the highlight of the room. No matter how it is used, it is clear that despite the relatively short history of electrical lighting, the field has seen profound innovation and experimentation over the years. In the 20th century, lamps and lanterns developed not only as functional pieces, but as art, with notable contributions like the ARCO floor lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo, and Louis Poulsen’s pendant lights. Today, many Japanese lighting makers are continuing to expand their works into the future, but they are doing so by revisiting the past. Craftsmen like Toshiyuki Tani, Hiyoshiya, and Suzumo are using traditional Japanese techniques, structures, and materials not typically associated with lighting to create new and beautiful pieces that are modern in appearance, yet draw from a rich history.


Traditional Techniques – Magewappa and Suruga Sensuji

(Left) Tani’s magewappa lamp shades, such as the Hanabi shade, create beautiful contrasts of light and shadow. (Right) Tani uses the suruga sensuji technique to create intricate and beautiful lamp shades that depict flowers in full bloom.


When Toshiyuki Tani first approached wood bending craftsmen with the hope of learning their techniques, his requests were not taken seriously. This is because potential apprentices are often scared off once they discover the amount of time it takes to master and practice these crafts. In many of these vocations, each step is still done by hand, and requires a high amount of care and concentration. In Tani's case, his dedication won over the master craftsmen, and he was able to start his journey learning the beautiful art of wood bending. After years of apprenticeship, Tani started to use his accumulated expertise to create his own pieces, incorporating traditional techniques called magewappa and suruga sensuji into his work. The magewappa technique involves boiling carefully selected strips of Akita cedar wood before bending and setting them into the desired shape. This technique is commonly used to create wood containers and bento meal boxes, but Tani through his mastery of magewappa was able to use it to create lighting with innovative forms that maintain the traditionally desired straight grain and aroma of Akita cedar wood.

 (Left) Traditional magewappa containers, which show the Akita cedar’s smoothness and straight grain. Credit: Sumika Crafts. (Right) Tani’s Wappa collection which uses magewappa to create new and beautiful shapes while maintaining the craft’s traditional beauty.


Among Tani's masterpieces is the Kazaguruma (or “Windmill”) lamp shade. It possesses the traditional elegance of magewappa, but uses the gently twisted cedar grain to accentuate the curves of the shade, creating a new and beautiful experience. Light gets filtered and bounced off the thin wood, creating a warm glow that seeps through the strips. This lamp shade creates a stunning contrast between light and shadow, which can also be seen in its variations the Hanabi and Shuriken shades. 

Tani’s Hokore lamp shade recreates the image of a flower in full bloom using expertly bent thin strips of bamboo.


Another of Tani's masterpieces is his Hokore (“In Full Bloom”) shade, which also plays with light using a different technique. This piece is made using the delicate and painstaking suruga sensuji technique, which involves a large number of thin bamboo strips being bent to form light-filtering segments. Traditionally, suruga sensuji was used to create pieces such as bird cages and wind chimes. Tani saw in this technique its potential to be used in filtering light. He created the shape of the Hokore shade by layering "petals" of bent bamboo strips over each other to give the appearance of a flower in full bloom. Light is filtered through the fine slits between the bamboo strips and beautiful shadows are cast on the surrounding surfaces, conveying the power of flowers. But perhaps the most attractive aspect of this lamp shade is how it manages to look perfectly modern and traditional at the same time- allowing a technique with over 400 years of history to shine in contemporary settings.


Traditional Structure –  Japanese Parasols

A collection of Hiyoshiya’s playful yet elegant pendant lights which incorporate the mechanism of a Japanese parasol into the design. Credit: Eclectikmix


It might be surprising to learn that a Japanese parasol company could turn into a fine lighting maker, but that is exactly what Hiyoshiya did. Hiyoshiya is a family run company based out of Kyoto that has been selling kyo wagasa (a Kyoto style Japanese parasol) for over 150 years. With the goal of breathing new life into their craft, Hiyoshiya began to produce lighting that incorporates their parasols. Their Kotori line of pendant and standing lamps utilizes the mechanism of a parasol with washi paper, allowing for a frame that is highly configurable. The changing shape of the shade alters the lantern’s expression of light and shadow, giving the piece versatility in the type of ambience it can create.


Hiyoshiya’s kyo wagasa are crafted by hand with care. This same attention to detail is applied to their lighting.


Traditional Material – Washi Paper

Suzumo’s contemporary washi paper lanterns come in a wide variety of shapes and styles, including wine and sake bottle shaped lanterns that can be customized for merchandising purposes.


Suzumo, based out of Ibaraki Prefecture, is another company with a long and respected history in the world of traditional Japanese crafts. Since its founding in 1865, Suzumo has been producing Suifu chochin, a type of paper lantern made with materials and techniques unique to the area. Unlike the typical lanterns produced in areas such as Gifu and Yame which have a structure made of wound bamboo strips, Suifu chochin are made with individual bamboo rings tied together with string. This leads to a sturdier construction, and easier storing since it folds more neatly. In addition, the nishinouchi paper they use is a particularly strong type of washi (Japanese paper) that is made with fibers from the kozo (paper mulberry) plant, which is imbued with qualities desirable for making lighting. Kozo has good fiber strength, is sustainable as it regenerates annually, has low acidity for a longer product life, and possesses a silk-like texture that is naturally translucent. The translucency amplifies the softness of the light transmitted, creating a soothing and comforting atmosphere. Suifu chochin are not only durable and functional, but bring an art-like beauty to any space.


Suzumo utilize the traditional materials and construction of Suifu chochin to create fun and innovative lighting.


In order to make chochin suitable for modern life, Suzumo have added a number of features to their already innovative design. One new feature is orange LED lights that mimic the warmth of candlelight while providing a safe and efficient light. They also added aluminum supports to the chochin's traditional structure to give the lantern extra durability while keeping it light and flexible. To truly solidify their chochin as contemporary lighting, Suzumo also included sensors that allow the lantern to be turned on and off with a sound for added convenience.


There is no limit to the shapes and designs that Suzumo can create with their contemporary chochin.


Humor is another element that Suzumo has introduced to their chochin products. From a crescent moon, to a bird, to a lady’s head, they have created a variety of lanterns with light-hearted shapes that can bring a contemporary touch to any room, expanding the application of chochin. The highly customizable nature of Suzumo's lanterns, with their new forms and ability to print and paint directly on the lantern's surface, also make them a fun form of advertisement.


Suzumo’s chochin can be used by businesses and individuals to create either a contemporary or traditional atmosphere, and are highly customizable in terms of size and design.


For Japanese designers like Toshiyuki Tani, Hiyoshiya, and Suzumo, a knowledge of traditional techniques, with their time-proven quality and beauty, is illuminating the path to innovation. As Hiyoshiya themselves have said, “Tradition is a product of successive and endless innovation.” The products that are innovative today will in time be seen as part of a tradition, becoming another stepping stone towards the future.

 For more information, please check out the lighting section of our website at OOKKUU Lighting.


By Danielle Johnson, OOKKUU

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