Japanese Washi paper is a cultural tradition that is more than 500 years old. Eriko Horiki preserves the crafts making but adds a modern touch to create a cultural tradition that generations 100 years from now will embrace.
By Betty Armstrong
According to historians, the Chinese introduced papermaking in Japan more than 1,300 years ago, but it was very fragile paper. In the year 610, the process was adapted to make a stronger paper out of materials natural to Japan. Washi papermaking evolved over time, becoming an integral part of Japanese culture as the skill set was passed from generation to generation. With only three communities still making Washi paper in the traditional manner, the question became: How will this cultural element be preserved for future generations?
The answer for Eriko Horiki was found in preserving the process but innovating to create fascinating, versatile, beautiful architectural items that capture the ancient cultural essence while creating an enhanced tradition for modern generations to come.
Reflecting the Soul
Washi paper has been continually made over the centuries, but the number of people making it has shrunk considerably. Traditionally, the paper is made out of kozo (mulberry), gampi, or mitsumata bark. The bark is removed, softened, stripped of outer layers, blanched, cooked, cleansed, beaten with a wooden mallet, formed into sheets using a bamboo screen set in a wood frame, and dried.
This is an oversimplified description, but the end product is a delicate looking product that has surprising strength. Its beauty is found in the way light plays on its surface and is said to reflect the spirit and soul of the papermaker.
"My mission became preserving the skill set to make Washi paper, pass the skills on to the next generation, and find ways to make Washi paper products useful in modern society," says Horiki.
She is now recognized for her successful preservation of an ancient tradition and her innovative use of Washi paper to make architectural elements. Each item is a dance of light because the appearance changes as the amount and strength of light changes.
"Modern buildings are very close to each other today, meaning light changes very little," explains Horiki. A Washi surface will change its appearance even in the most subtle light changes.
The beautiful nature of Japanese culture is bound in Washi paper. The paper surface changes to create a drifting image of daytime into evening light. "It is the essence of the Japanese culture," says Horiki.
She has been an entrepreneur since 1987 when she founded Shimus, a name that originates from the word “washi” for Japanese paper and “musubu” which means to connect. In 2000, Horiki established Eriko Horiki and Associates Co. LTD. She is an accomplished designer, artistic exhibitor, and writer. Horiki has also earned numerous awards around the world, like the Art & Culture prize at the 2011 Kyoto Souzousya Taisho Awards ceremony and the Trebbia European Award for Creative Activities for 2012 in the Czech Republic.
Linking the Past, Present and Future
Horiki’s works are made with four goals in mind, which are listed on her website. One is "to contribute to society through Washi paper production and fulfill the requirements of the time." The second is "to maintain the inherent tradition of Washi paper and develop it further." Third is "to create innovative materials by introducing newly developed technology while still retaining essential traditional elements." Fourth is "to expand cultural networks from people to people, place to place, and time to time, based on potential and fascination of innovative Washi paper."
Notice the use of action words in the purpose of Horiki's works. She is not simply preserving a tradition. She is adapting to the time, developing the tradition further, using newly developed technology, and expanding networks.
The production process itself is a fusion of traditional practices with new technology. As water flows over the fiber pulp, the act of managing the ever-changing water flow finds a balance of human activity and natural forces. This is what sets Horiki apart from others making Washi paper. Horiki is innovating with the intent of making an ancient tradition relevant to modern society and creating processes that will continue to evolve into the future. This is how she envisions the best path of cultural preservation for a high tech society.
Horiki produces original Washi paper and Washi paper made using new techniques and methods in order to produce durable products, including shoji (door, window or room divider) that continue to convey the same qualities as Washi paper made with traditional techniques. She is also adapting the papermaking process to produce larger sizes needed for use in architectural spaces.
Many of her lighting walls and tapestries are already found in public and commercial spaces, including pavilions, government offices, museums, department stores and hotels. The beautiful lighting walls, tapestries and shoji are also installed in residences.
Tradition Based on Innovation
Interestingly, Horiki depends on word-of-mouth and not marketing to sell her products.
"Every year I challenge the ways my products are experienced, and that keeps people interested," Horiki explained.
Besides lighting walls and tapestries, she has also made unique tables and designer lamps, all of which are sold out on the eriko-horiki.com website. A process to produce 3D items has enabled her to create stunning items that do not have a framework made out of bamboo or wire. It is nearly impossible to describe the beauty of the Washi paper light reflections, and readers are encouraged to visit the website to see pictures of the spectacular products Horiki has created.
Blending old and new techniques has led to far greater uses of Washi paper. Adding lighting to architectural items makes the drifting images possible in any space, whether or not natural light is available.
"I believe tradition is based on innovation," says Horiki.
She wants her works to be shared with the world so all may gain a better understanding of Japanese culture. In the volatile world that exists today, the sense of harmony with nature that her products convey are welcomed with enormous gratitude.