In a world overloaded with new products and design, Sander Wassink is a Dutch artist who finds value in what has been discarded. His work tends to explore the memories and histories of objects, looking to “reimagine what can be done with the already partially-formed.” This is the spirit that drives Kiji Arita, his most recent collaboration with Japanese designer and curator Yoriko Ishizawa. Described as “a revival of ceramic objects lost in time,” the project began with the discovery of great quantities of forgotten porcelain in Arita, Japan. 

Unfinished but beautiful, these bisque-fired bowls, cups and plates had fallen out of fashion many years ago, and were found gathering dust in workshops and factories in the area. Many of the designs were created by local craftsmen working to meet the demands of evolving Japanese culinary culture. Through Kiji Arita, Sander and Yoriko offer new interpretations of these abandoned objects, and propel them into everyday use. Last month, the limited collection was launched at Shibaura House, a bustling cultural centre in Tokyo and partner of What Design Can Do in Japan. On the heels of the exhibition, we sent Sander and Yoriko a few questions about their collaboration, and their thoughtful approach to circular design. Keep reading for our full conversation.

Hi Sander & Yoriko! We understand that you are currently based in Kyoto. Can you tell us a little bit more about the city? What is the creative community like there?

First of all, we are pleased to participate in this interview. Kyoto is a relatively small city compared to Tokyo. It is a beautiful city. Our studio and home is surrounded by a mix of historical places like temples, lots of shrines, and art galleries, museums, and engaging small shops. At the same time, we can reach beautiful mountains and rivers within a half-hour by bike or walking. 

The creative community in Kyoto is very international. We feel Kyoto is a small cosmopolitan village. There are famous art universities and traditional crafts studios such as textile, ceramics, lacquered wares, etc. There are both design creatives and artists communities, and they are often working in the field of education or freelancers or a part of the residency programme. 

What is the story behind KIJI ARITA? How did the collaboration with Shibaura House first come about?

Yoriko: I have been working with potters in Arita for the past five years, to develop ceramic products with international designers. During this time I visited many potter’s workshops, and I discovered many leftover bisques (kiji) in their warehouses. The potters told me that these bisques would become industrial waste after decades should they not get enough orders. I wanted to give a second life to these dead stocks. 

In 2017, I met Sander in his studio during Dutch Design Week and asked him to join this project. When he came to visit Japan for the first time in 2019, we had an opportunity to talk about the project at Shibaura House. 

We were about ready to present the results earlier this year. While starting to look for a place to show it, Masaru Ito (the founder of Shibaura House) coincidentally asked us about this project. We both found the circumstance to present the project was perfect at Shibaura House. 

With this project, you make a point ‘not to produce anything new’. Why was it important to make this commitment? 

Yoriko: The start of the project was all about finding a way to circulate the dead stocks. For this project, we first saw a problem in the industry; nobody knew what to do with these objects except throw them away. However, we believed that with a different perspective; they could be valuable again. 

Arita porcelain is renowned for incorporating world-class handicrafts in its manufacturing process, resulting in exquisite detail and high quality. The value of these individual objects may have been lost with the changing times, yet their inherent quality remains undiminished. We were confident we could once again enhance the beauty and quality of these objects regardless of the circumstances around them.

How do you see the relationship between design and waste, in a broader sense? Has this changed through the years?

Sander: Design has for a long time been a tool for creating desire. Companies therefore used design and famous designers to boost the sales of their products. In that sense, design has been accelerating the creation of waste and is part of the problem. I think designers of my generation are sensitive people, and not only care for beauty and the new, but also for things and materials in general. They have rejected the traditional position of design and have developed a critical, yet rational view on the world. They feel the industry is wasteful, but at the same time acknowledge its importance and efficiency. Their ideas, which embody a more holistic view on production and society at large, seem to penetrate deeper into the collective consciousness every year. 

“I think designers of my generation are sensitive people, and not only care for beauty and the new, but also for things and materials in general.”

It seems that ideas like circularity have always had a presence in Japanese crafts and culture. What do you think we can learn from traditional design practices?

Sander: Ever since we invented the outsourcing of production and machines that can work nearly autonomously, we’ve been literally buried with stuff. At least this is how I feel when I walk in some shopping streets in Tokyo. The nice thing about traditional crafts is the speed that can’t be tempered with. They were proud people loving their trade. Their context embedded them into healthy ecosystems. The environment, the material, the tools, their methods and beliefs all had a connection to each other and their products were the physical manifestations of all this. These days crafts seem to have less of a central position within society. They have become a desirable, luxury product and less accessible to ordinary everyday people.

What advice would you give a young creative who wants to eliminate waste from their practice?

Sander: First of all, use whatever you have around you to create models, prototypes, etc. The beauty of creation is letting the context decide your direction. So don’t be too rigid in your ideas. Let it go naturally and create a symbiotic relationship between idea, material, tools and context, and I am sure you will surprise yourself. 

“The beauty of creation is letting the context decide your direction.”

Furthermore I always look for shapes of the same material that have gathered somewhere by accident. Cabinets full of secondhand glass for example, or baskets, or metal scraps. Then I try to design using the advantage of this diversity. Obviously when you design a product for a big company this is a different story. I would suggest studying this company very well. By this you will understand where there is space for small design choices that have a positive impact. 

Lastly, can you give us a sneak peek on what you’re working on next?

Sander: At this moment I am working on several projects, including an interior design for a hotel, some lights for a gallery, and a collaboration with a shoemaker.

Yoriko: For a while, I am focusing on the sales part of Kiji Arita. I think it is essential to generate sales as well. In the end, it should circulate from production – sales – user. Some products and projects are a good concept or good intention, but if they do not generate sales, it means makers, manufacturers, designers can not survive, and consumers would not have opportunities to learn and experience the products. I am also working to make our traditional townhouse office space into the smallest gallery space to introduce my / our projects to the Kyoto audience. 


Images by Shibaura House and photographer Ronald Smits. Follow Kiji Arita on Instagram.
To read more on the topic of design and waste, follow the What Design Can Do No Waste Challenge.