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Bringing the Tabletop into the Gallery

 for The Japan Times, June 26, 2002

On the cover of the catalog for an exhibition now at the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo is -- ready for this? -- a shoyusashi (soy-sauce bottle). I find that quite odd, as the museum houses the hallowed arts of painting, sculpture and the like. A shoyusashi? Come on now, it just doesn't seem to fit into the same fine-arts league as, say, the Taro Okamoto painting in an adjoining room. 

Work by Masahiro Mori

Work by Masahiro Mori

Work by Masahiro Mori

A tea set, soy sauce bottles, and bowl set (all 1958) by Mori Masahiro are masterpieces of industrial design. But even his touch faltered occasionally, as with the party-tray set  (1983) and "Cubic Cooling Sake Set" (1993) shown below.

Photos courtesy of

Work by Masahiro Mori

Work by Masahiro Mori

Yet as I delved deeper into the smooth elegant lines of the porcelain piece, and its history, I found myself nodding in approval at its refined, functional, industrial-art sensibilities. 

Though the name of its creator, Mori Masahiro, is unfamiliar to many, his designs are known the world over, the shoyusashi being a prime example. His industrial designs of everyday eating utensils added a lively touch to so many Showa Era bourgeois tables. Even more significant, he was one of the first in the world of Japanese ceramics to recognize that artistic form could be wedded to mass production. In other words, Mori brought the aesthetic sensibility of the artist into the ordinary Japanese home. 

To celebrate his career, the National Museum of Modern Art is  presenting his work in "Mori Masahiro: A Reformer of Ceramic Design," showing until Aug. 4, 2002. 

Mori was born in 1927 in Saga Prefecture, also the birthplace of porcelain in Japan. He studied ceramics and ceramic design at various institutions before taking a position with Hakusan Porcelain Company,  Nagasaki, in 1956. It was there that he redesigned how the Japanese  tabletop looks.  

He could have become a famous studio potter charging large amounts for his creations -- after all, a shoyusashi by the celebrated artist-potter Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883-1959) sells for thousands of dollars. Not Mori's,  though. You can probably find one in the museum gift store for a few thousand yen. When it first came on the market, in 1958, it was about 130 yen.  

Mori once expressed his working philosophy by saying, "My pleasure as a designer is to conceive of forms for daily use, and to create pieces for production in the factory so that many people can appreciate and enjoy them." And enjoying them is what the nation has been doing for decades.  

The exhibition highlights 83 example of his work that have graced the  tables of millions. Actually, the majority of the exhibition is presented  on tables in a large room on the second floor. There is a tea set from 1958, its white porcelain vessels complemented by green lids and saucers. The handles of the cups look like a down-turned forefinger. Rustic bamboo  handles arch over the pot and sugar bowl, giving the set a sense of space  and the illusion of size. For a young family back in those days, owning such a set must have been quite fashionable and a topic of conversation. Many would have bought such sets at the Matsuya department store in Ginza, which set up a Good Design Corner in 1955. 

The Good Design Selection System was established in 1957 by the  Ministry of International Trade and Industry. Its mission was to select outstanding examples of industrial design based on their form and  function. In 1960, the Good Design selection board established the Good Design Prize; Mori's work has been selected 111 times (the first was in 1960, none other than the shoyusashi) to bear the G-mark, making him the most celebrated designer in the organization's history. Many of those award-winning works were sold at Matsuya.  

Mori's work has won other awards as well, including the Gold Prize for Industrial Ceramics at the Faenza International Ceramic Art Exhibition,  1975; another gold at a similar exhibition in Valencia, Spain, 1977; and the Gold Prize of the Japan Ceramic Society in 1999. Many of the works that bagged these prizes -- and were a hit in many countries before the Japanese themselves took notice -- are on display. They include five nesting bowls with either blue or gold rims, a coffee service that won the Faenza award, and a set of shell bowls that won the Spanish award.  

Since Mori's work is mass-produced though, there is a lack of the warmth that characterizes individual pieces, like those made by studio potters. The touch of a hand adds something intangible -- spirit, perhaps  -- that is void in machine-produced wares.  

Also, since so many of the works were conceived on a drawing board, many come off as overly contrived and a bit too technical in their  functionality. This can be seen in Mori's party-tray sets of interlocking  shapes, and also in his "Cubic Cooling Sake Set," whose pourer looks more like an iron to me, while the square cups seem so, so lifeless. 

Luckily, this isn't the case for the majority of Mori's industrially designed masterpieces. At the end of my visit, I poured my preconceived notions of the lowly shoyusashi down the drain and replaced them with a great respect for the item, how it relates to our everyday presence of mind, and the man behind its creation. 

Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Thursday and Friday till 8 p.m.; closed Monday.) Admission: 420 yen, 130 yen, free for junior high school and elementary school students. The museum is a short walk from Exit 1b of Takebashi subway station on the Tozai Line; turn right, cross the street, go over the bridge and the museum is on the right. 

The Japan Times: June 26, 2002
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