Japanese design: Bill Amberg

The leather designer discusses how the spirit of The Unknown Craftsman is reflected in his own approach to making

Watches & Jewellery 29 May 2019

I remember I went to a show by Sori Yanagi in Tokyo in the early 1990s which was really interesting – he had this whole mountain of products there which had no known designer as such, but they had been perfected through making. And that’s what really got me thinking. And I always tend to go to the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo when I’m there too, which Sori used to run and was set up by his dad, Soetsu. It’s a beautiful museum and it helps you to understand the background philosophy behind it all.

Since we moved down to Somerset 15 years ago, the connection with Bernard Leach in the South West has become more evident too – Leach and Soetsu Yanagi were great friends of course – as well and the Scandinavian connection: Yanagi was inspired by Danish and Finnish design and my mother is half Finnish. She worked for Alvar Aalto, who was in turn very influenced by Japanese design. So there are these continual touchpoints for me.

Yanagi had a great belief in the power of making and in the hand – there’s a Finnish book called The Seeing Hand, which explores the cultural relevance of making. It’s a very modest approach to design, where the individual makers aren’t important in themselves. So this exhibition showed you baseball bats, taps, gloves, manhole covers – all these things that he was really interested in that had been handled numerous times and so over time progressed towards something that was almost flawless. But it’s fascinating that you’ll see pieces of pottery and carved wooden birds that are almost identical to famous Finnish and Scandinavian designs – and how those developed independently.

This idea of shared values in craftsmanship and internationalism was actually quite political for Yanagi – he very overtly saw it as a process for encouraging peace, having a very global aesthetic. I like going to Japan as well – I must have been 30 times now – and I always add on extra days to my trips so that I can go and visit places and witness things, I find it so visually stimulating. There are many contradictions at one level, but there is an approach and feeling for beauty that is consistent.

I did consciously apply a lot of the ideas that Yanagi introduced when I set up my studio – in terms of how the workshop functions and the idea that an appreciation of making needs to be at the heart of your business. Certainly that’s ingrained in everybody here. And within the design department, we try to get ideas into 3D as early as possible, so that process of remaking something progresses the idea as well as the product. It’s research through making – although obviously you draw as well in order to minimise the timewasting. We’re working on a ceramics project with 1882 Ltd at the moment, and with that we very quickly started making models and started to play with the idea through them. And the plan is that the final designs we create in ceramics will then become the models for what we make in leather, which could be quite interesting.

Bill Amberg’s belief in the power of making echoes the aesthetic principles of Japanese design found at the heart of Seiko; seikowatches.combillamberg.com