Kintsugi, also known as kintsukuroi, is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. Directly translating to “golden joinery,” as a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to conceal. The thinking behind kintsugi is often likened to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, an embracing of the flawed or imperfect.
Japanese aesthetics value marks of wear, which signify the use of an object. This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an item around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, treating the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its breakage. The process also relates to the Japanese philosophy of mushin, translating to “no mind,” which encompasses the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change and fate as aspects of human life.
A specialist in the art and culture of early modern Japan, Timon Screech, Professor of History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told Something Curated: “Possibly through Buddhist beliefs, Japanese people have tended to endow routine objects (precisely not high-value ones) with Spiritual presence. Some household items are ritually disposed of, while others stay in the family like old friends, repaired, and all the more loved for it. Actually there’s a lot in common with the patching of clothes, as happens in many cultures: the patch enhances it.”
The kintsugi technique may have been invented around the fifteenth century, when Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, after breaking his favourite tea bowl, sent it to China to get it repaired. Unfortunately, at that time the objects were repaired with unsightly and impractical metal ligatures. It seemed that the cup was unrepairable but its owner decided to try to have Japanese craftsmen work on it. They were surprised at the shogun’s steadfastness, so they decided to transform the cup into an artwork by filling its cracks with lacquered resin and powdered gold. The legend seems conceivable, since the invention of kintsugi is set in a very fruitful era for art in Japan. Under Yoshimasa’s rule the city saw the development of the Higashiyama bunka cultural movement that was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and started the tea ceremony, ikebana traditions, and the Noh theatre.
The traditional Japanese art form has had far-reaching influence, inspiring diverse artists and designers internationally. In London, Rose Murray, director of interior design practice TheseWhiteWalls, worked extensively with the kintsugi process to create The Broken Room, a private dining space in Mayfair restaurant HIDE. Murray told Something Curated:
“I was really attracted to the kintsugi practice because more than merely preserving damaged objects which would otherwise be discarded, the process actively celebrates their extant beauty by bonding the breaks with a golden glue, therefore elevating the broken fragments from unusable parts into newly cherished pieces. We visited the ceramicists from Turning Earth studios who were handmaking serveware for the restaurant upstairs, and asked if we could rescue any warped, flawed or misshapen pieces from their yields that would normally be rejected. We then had them lovingly repaired and gilded into glory to form the room’s own private crockery collection, now displayed in an uplit distressed oak cabinet that covers the entire rear wall.”
She expands, “I became very interested in the related Japanese ethos of wabi-sabi, where the character of things impermanent, handmade and humble becomes treasured, and decided to explore this ethos throughout the whole room, designing the finishes, fixtures and furniture accordingly. The result is that guests now dine within walls lined with handmade cracked gesso papers, and the table is lit by fractured wooden pendants from Ochre hanging overhead. The bespoke table is our centrepiece, made by Craig Narramore from a 400-year old polished chestnut burr with its diseased veins and wells made into features by filling them with golden resin, akin to the golden glue of the kintsugi ceramics beyond.”
To learn more about kintsugi, running regular workshops in Oxfordshire, as well as on occasion in London during Craft Week, British-based ceramics artist Iku Nishikawa offers specialist repair services and classes in the art form, bookable online.
Feature image via Pinterest