The Way of Craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu, (March 21, 1889 – May 3, 1961)

I have been writing for a long time about crafts, digging into almost virgin soil, and what I say may seem strange to unaccustomed ears, dubious, and difficult to accept because it is contrary to prevalent thought. I have continuously received a flow of doubting enquires from friends and strangers alike, so I decided to gather my ideas together into the form of a series of questions and answers reviewing the bone structure of my arguments.

Q. What are crafts?

A. Things made to be used by people in daily life, such as clothes and furniture. Something different from fine arts, such as pictures made to be looked at.

Q. What is the particular kind of beauty in crafts?

A. Beauty that is identified with use. It is a beauty born of use. Apart from use, there is no beauty of craft. Therefore, things made that do not stand up to use or that ignore utility can barely be expected to contain this kind of beauty.

Q. What is the meaning you attach to the word “use”?

A. The word is not to be understood merely in its materialistic sense. The reason for this is that mind and matter must not be thought of as separate. Use therefore covers both. Such objects are to be looked at and touched with a responsive feeling of pleasure in use. If crafts are only designed from a utilitarian point of view, then pattern, for example, is uncalled for. But good pattern adds to the function of that utensil. It becomes an indispensable part of use. On the other hand, however useful an artifact may be, if it causes in the mind a feeling of ugliness, it detracts from total service. The issue becomes clear in the province of food. Satisfying the demand of hunger is not the sole province of good cooking. We need good presentation and good flavours—that helps our appetite. Again, use that fulfils the mind alone is meaningless, like a wax replica of food. By use, then, I intend the indivisibility of mind and matter.

Q. What is the special quality of beauty in crafts?

A.  The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. Such beauty establishes a world of grace and feeling. It is significant that in speaking of craft objects, people use terms such a savour and style. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge, or the lofty as a beauty of the warm and familiar. Here one may detect a striking difference between the crafts and the arts. People hang their pictures high up on walls, but they place their objects of use close to them and take them in their hands.

The Unknown Craftsman, 197-8

Additional material of interest can be found in “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory