People

Ko Kado

The Japanese Designer on the New Age of Woodblock Printing

Ko Kado’s unassuming studio and shop sit peacefully in a quiet Kyoto neighborhood. Situated inside a traditional Japanese town house, his shop, Kamisoe, is immaculate but not sterile, with natural light filling the small space. Worn but well-kept wooden surfaces are interspersed with sliding doors affixed with thick paper. The upstairs studio is smaller and narrower yet still comfortable. Lighting is dim, with no electric light when Kado prints. This soft light brings out beautiful shadows and reflections in the pearlescent ink patterns. As Kado explains his delicate printing process, a kind of meditation starts.

After five years of training, as well as graduating from art school in the United States, Kado started his Kyoto studio with a focus on karakami, a centuries-old form of decorative paper created with woodblock printing. The woodblock prints, or hanga, are designed by Kado and hand-carved by a specialist, while the pigments are created from scratch using ingredients like mica and crushed oyster shells, along with a gluelike binding agent made from seaweed. Clients choose the type of paper—for instance, whether it is made by hand or machine—which subtly changes Kado’s dyeing technique as well as the careful balance of pigment and water when printing.

As an apprentice, Kado studied at Karacho, the oldest karakami studio in Kyoto, where he learned what little is known about karakami’s early Japanese history after the technique came to the archipelago from China.

Aside from stationery, such as paper, envelopes, and postcards, Kado now prints fusuma, the thick paper used to cover interior sliding doors. Next to the hum of stainless steel refrigerators and assorted always-on technologies, these quiet sliding doors could seem like an antiquated notion in a modern home. But Kado enjoys the difference. “Fusuma is not only a product, but it also has a sense of art.” Besides, he says, “people like contrast.”

Living Form recently visited Kado’s studio to hear more about the modern allure of this ancient technique.

People

Ko Kado

The Japanese Designer on the New Age of Woodblock Printing

Ko Kado’s unassuming studio and shop sit peacefully in a quiet Kyoto neighborhood. Situated inside a traditional Japanese town house, his shop, Kamisoe, is immaculate but not sterile, with natural light filling the small space. Worn but well-kept wooden surfaces are interspersed with sliding doors affixed with thick paper. The upstairs studio is smaller and narrower yet still comfortable. Lighting is dim, with no electric light when Kado prints. This soft light brings out beautiful shadows and reflections in the pearlescent ink patterns. As Kado explains his delicate printing process, a kind of meditation starts.

After five years of training, as well as graduating from art school in the United States, Kado started his Kyoto studio with a focus on karakami, a centuries-old form of decorative paper created with woodblock printing. The woodblock prints, or hanga, are designed by Kado and hand-carved by a specialist, while the pigments are created from scratch using ingredients like mica and crushed oyster shells, along with a gluelike binding agent made from seaweed. Clients choose the type of paper—for instance, whether it is made by hand or machine—which subtly changes Kado’s dyeing technique as well as the careful balance of pigment and water when printing.

As an apprentice, Kado studied at Karacho, the oldest karakami studio in Kyoto, where he learned what little is known about karakami’s early Japanese history after the technique came to the archipelago from China.

Aside from stationery, such as paper, envelopes, and postcards, Kado now prints fusuma, the thick paper used to cover interior sliding doors. Next to the hum of stainless steel refrigerators and assorted always-on technologies, these quiet sliding doors could seem like an antiquated notion in a modern home. But Kado enjoys the difference. “Fusuma is not only a product, but it also has a sense of art.” Besides, he says, “people like contrast.”

Living Form recently visited Kado’s studio to hear more about the modern allure of this ancient technique.

“When we get an e-mail, that’s the only information. But when I get letters, I can feel the time, like how long they took to find and write on the paper. I think that kind of information is more important to communicating with other people.”
  • Ukiyo-e: A traditional woodblock printing technique distinct from karakami. Ukiyo-e prints tend to be figurative and representational, with frequent depictions of beautiful women, flowers, and crashing waves.
  • Kuge: A class above the samurai in the Japanese caste system. The kuge were wealthy—not in money, because they were relatively poor, but in material, like fabric, imported Chinese utensils, and large complexes with beautiful gardens. They also indulged in poetry, music, fine garments, and the arts, including karakami.
  • Yūgen: An enigmatic concept in Japanese aesthetics, favored by the kuge. The malleable definition implies a deep feeling of mystery or a wondrous sense of floating.

LF What drew you to karakami as opposed to other woodblock printing techniques, such as ukiyo-e? Is it in the specifics of the production or the finished product?

KK

First of all, I like the patterns. I like the finished product. I used to be a graphic designer, and when I was, what I focused on was patterns, how to lay out the patterns. That’s the most interesting thing for me. Then I realized that the karakami printing technique is very unique. It’s very traditional, it’s related to the body, and everything is analog. So, first, patterns, then the technique of it.

LF And what about the physical aspect?

KK

Touching the papers, the textures, and also the smells. As a graphic designer, there’s no smell, just typing on the computer, then sending the data to a printing company. This kind of stuff is totally different. I have to think about my condition, the humidity, and more.

LF Though you were born in Japan, you studied graphic design in San Francisco, then worked in New York before returning to Japan. How did your time in America influence your artistic outlook?

KK

When I was in Japan, the teachers taught us Western art and architecture. But at art school in San Francisco, they showed me Japanese temples and ukiyo-e printing. It was like the opposite. Then I realized that Western designers and artists tend to be influenced by Japanese art. So I started to study Japanese design, art, and architecture. Western art tends to be strong, stable, and horizontal. But Japanese art is always sensitive, thin, especially architecture. It’s very balanced. That was the biggest point for me: They taught me that Japanese art is really good, not just Western art.

And not only that: The method of graphic design they taught me is very helpful to me now—how to think in making the concept. It’s very American. It’s very concept-driven. Using the computer doesn’t matter for a graphic designer. You first have to think of a concept. And the layout and the typography—here in Japan, our schools don’t teach us the typographic kind of stuff. But I love typography, and I like print, all the text and negative space.

In those fundamentals of graphic design, I first saw karakami. I was surprised by the negative space and always having a unique sense of space. That’s the most interesting part of karakami compared with ukiyo-e. Of course, ukiyo-e can have really good layouts, but if you compare with the other decorative papers, karakami has the most unique layout and patterns.

“In my opinion, the more technology is improved, the more people want analog. So I don’t really care about technology.”

LF Visions of the future are usually full of bright lights, a metallic sheen, and a digital buzz. But paper, be it in books, stationery, or fine art, seems to be more resilient than futurists might like to imagine. How do you see papermaking and woodblock printing in the next 50 years, or 500?

KK

In the future, maybe technology will be even closer to human life. But a human cannot live only in technology; it’s the same with nature. And in my opinion, the more technology is improved, the more people want analog. So I don’t really care about technology.

Then there’s the brightness of electronics. Electronics are always bright in Japan, especially in Tokyo, but after March 11 [Japan’s cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami of 2011] we had to save electric power, so there were calls to limit the use of lighting at night. In a sense, it seemed very gloomy, negative, that we were in an emergency situation. But actually, I think some people found out that you don’t need so much light to enjoy the night. Especially if you start using candles, it’s great for karakami, because you can see the reflections and shadows, which disappear with strong artificial light. In a bright city, it’s really hard to find the contrast. But we found we could have fun in the darkness, which karakami encourages—in the habitat of karakami.

I think that’s one of the different aspects of this kind of thing versus technology. It’s the same for paper. When we get an e-mail, that’s the only information. But when I get letters, I can feel the time, like how long they took to find and write on the paper. I think that kind of information is more important to communicating with other people.

My laptop, maybe every five years I have to change it. When we age and, pretty soon, when we are close to our deathbeds, what would you want to have by your side? Of course, there are people who love these high-tech gadgets. But this laptop, this is just a tool. It’s difficult to explain with the intellect, but senses and material from the earth—like soil or paper—all these things have always been close to us, and 50 years from now, 500 years from now, they might be even more praised, even more elevated.