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Posts Tagged ‘japanese antiques’

Walnut with boxwood, rosewood and bone inlay, the trestle support with iron chains made 1500-1550 Italy V&A

prov-e-nance \ˈpräv-nən(t)s, ˈprä-və-ˌnän(t)s\
noun. the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

In my first Provenance column since my move, I am turning my attention to the art of inlay, which seems extremely apropos as it is one of the high arts of the Islamic world. I was also lucky enough to spend some serious time this past summer with the extraordinary collection of inlaid furniture and objects found at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Even the best photos can only do this kind of detail so much justice and I will confirm for you that the 16th century Italian trestle table made of walnut with boxwood, rosewood and bone inlay shown above in the banner, was even more spectacular in person. That said, this is the kind of post in which all the photos are meant to be clicked on so that the detail can truly be appreciated.

The desire for ornamentation is universal and in the case of inlaid furniture, has transcended both time and geography. From the earliest known Mesopotamian example to those from ancient China, Egypt and the Roman Empire, artisans employed the technique of hollowing out cavities on the surface of an object and filling it with a different material – the inlay – to create contrast and pattern. Wood is most often the base material used for furniture, with other woods, ebony, ivory, bone, horn, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and other shells being used for the inlay. Over the centuries the basic techniques have stayed the same, although the tools used have progressed hand in hand with technology, from early simple carving sticks to modern-day computerized cutting. More recently inlay materials have expanded to include the man-made, such as resin and other composites.

Inlaid furniture also tells the story of cross cultural influences and trade across borders. Inlay techniques were already perfected in North Africa before they were introduced by the Moors into Europe through southern Italy and Spain. Italian Renaissance artists carried the techniques further with their incredible detail and precision as the technique spread from northern Italy into Germany and then on to London via Flemish craftsmen in the later 16th century. It’s fascinating to compare the detail on this early 14th century Mamluk door from Cairo, inlaid with ivory, ebony and other woods, with this Venetian coffer made around 1520, also inlaid with the same materials. While the style of the inlay on the Italian piece is Islamic, the overall shape of the chest is most definitely Western European. This is not so surprising as strong trading links between Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East were already in place.

mamluk door detail inlaid coffer ebony ivory venice italy 1520

For the purposes of this post, I am going to neglect the development of similar indigenous European techniques such as marquetry and parquetry, in which pieces of wood veneer are applied to furniture (not inlaid) for decoration and pietre dure/pietra dura, in which semi precious and other colored stones are inlaid into marble. Equally compelling, they perhaps deserve a post of their very own.

french-marquetry-desk-via-1st-dibs annotated italian_pietra_dura_2_annotated

As European exploration and colonization of India, the Middle East and Asia expanded, the Portuguese, Dutch and later English traders and then settlers arrived with a need for furniture and other objects such as sewing boxes and lap desks as there was little domestic furniture available. They had their European furniture and other imported pieces copied in native woods and then ornamented with traditional inlay techniques. Over time bustling export trade markets developed. Nowhere was the fusing of practical European pieces with local design more successful than in India and the Anglo-Indian furniture style – often referred to as British Colonial – was born. Bone inlay, as an alternative to the rarer and more valuable ivory and ebony, became the inlay material of choice because it was plentiful and readily available. Examples include this late nineteenth century colonial teak dresser inlaid with bone after it was made and what became an almost ubiquitous piece of colonial life, the planter’s chair. Both are highly collectible, extremely decorative and would look very at home in any global eclectic interior.

Victorian teak dresser with bone inlayBone Inlay anglo-Indian 19thc planters chairs

In North Africa and the Middle East local pieces such as dowry trunks and small tables were purchased and added to western style interiors, this being particularly popular in the latter half of the 19th century when exoticism became the rage during the Aesthetic movement.

northa african mother of pearl inlaid tables and dowry chest

late 19thc inlaid Syrian table

They have cycled around to being incredibly popular again in today’s interiors and it is rare to find an interior photo spread these days that doesn’t include at least one octagonal Syrian or Egyptian table in this style. I could choose from hundreds of photos, but I love the unexpected combination and color play in this Tom Scheerer interior. The table is tucked in the corner and it demonstrates its versatility well in this unusual mix.

Interiors of Tom Scheerer for Book

And let us be sure not to neglect Eastern Asia, where the art of inlay had been flourishing since before the 8th century. In Japan, mother-of-pearl was the most popular material, in addition to mixed metals and other techniques on lacquer pieces. While Japan’s production was domestically focused, the Portuguese began commissioning local workers to produce objects designed to appeal to the European market, like this tankard, in the latter half of the 16th century. Again we see a traditional western shape decorated in the local style. By 1635 the Portuguese were expelled and Japan remained closed to foreign influence for 250 years. Once reopened, design ideas from Europe were rapidly absorbed (as were design ideas from Japan in Europe). This elaborately inlaid curio cabinet or shodana, in the high Victorian/Aesthetic taste, was made for export in the late 1880s.

17th-century-mother-of-pearl-on-wood-lacquer-japan-tankard japanese-meji-period-shibiyama-shodona-cabinet

Elaborate inlaid cabinets were not limited to Japan and I cannot resist including these two absolute tour-de-force pieces that I was lucky enough to see at the V & A. The late 19th century Korean chest on chest used for storing clothes and bedding is decorated with phoenixes, cranes, peach trees and fish and utilizes stylized butterfly shaped metal fittings. The fully inlaid South American bureau is more of a mystery. It has been dated to around 1820, but little is known of it. It’s fascinating to see the European shape and techniques imported to the new world. More on each of these extraordinary pieces can be found here and here.

korean-1890-1910-inlaid-wood-lacquer-mother-of-pearl-and-brass-with detail

mother-of-pearl-inlay-bureau-mexico-c1820-with detail V & A

Inlay continued as a popular technique in the 20th century being perfectly suited to stylized designs appearing on Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces. The modernist movement found a use for it as well, often simplifying from elaborate obvious pattern to accent and texture, best epitomized in these contemporary 1970s bone inlaid pieces by Karl Springer.

art-deco-ivory-inlaid-dressing-table annotated karl-springer-bone-inset-ottomans annotated

Interiors that feature inlaid pieces are irresistible – adding vibrancy with their mix of materials. Here are just a few examples from designers who are masters at using such pieces, including in clockwise order Anna Spiro, Katie Ridder, Amber Lewis, Schuyler Samperton and Ashley Whittaker.

anna-spiro- katie ridder pink-curtain-inlaid-chest ashley-whittaker-schuyler samperton amber lewis inlay

Pieces from every era are pricy out in the marketplace. Well made new items are also expensive as even with advances in technology they continue to require a high level of craftsmanship. Bone and mother-of pearl are most commonly used on new inlaid furniture in the light of 20th century bans on the use or import of ivory and other precious commodities.

So where to find it? Antique pieces can be sourced from 1stdibs and auction houses, always a great place to look price wise if you know what you want. I’ve been quite lucky at flea markets and local shops, finding a small inlaid Indian table at a Japanese shrine sale, a colonial era set of tables at a run-down New Jersey antiques mall and most recently, an antique Syrian piece at a small shop here in Doha. Pretty global distribution if I do say so myself. Major online retailers like WisteriaSerena & Lily and even Pottery Barn, as well as the drool-worthy UK-based Graham & Green carry the very figural mother-of-pearl and bone pieces we see a lot of these days, both in furniture and lovely accessories. Numerous online importers ship straight from India as well, although I don’t have any personal experience ordering from them.

retail inlay pieces collage

The appeal of inlay is timeless as it adds a luminous and luxurious layer to any space and a whiff of exoticism and far off lands. On that note, the next few weeks will be devoted to the art of inlay here on Tokyo Jinja. From my own personal collection to contemporary interpretations of the craft, watch for numerous upcoming posts on the subject over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, if you would like to catch up on my previous Provenance posts you can find them over at Cloth & Kind as well as my related Provenance pieces here on Tokyo Jinja.

Victoria & Albert Museum, 2. My photo, Mamluk doors part of the The Museum of Islamic Arts collection, 3. Italian coffer from Victoria & Albert Museum, 4. Marquetry desk via 1stdibs, 5. Pietra dura via 1stdibs, 6. Chest photo via Wisteria, 7. Planters chairs via 1stdibs, 8.Table pair Christies, 9. Trunk Christies, 10. Syrian table close-up my own photo, 11. From Tom Scheerer Decorates by Mimi Reed, photographed by Francesco Lagnese, 12. Tankard Victoria & Albert Museum, 12. Shodana cabinet Bonhams, 13-14. Korean chest Victoria & Albert Museum, 15. Mother of Pearl chest Victoria & Albert, 16. Mother of Pearl detail close-up my photo, 17. Art deco desk 1stdib, 18. Karl Springer ottomans 1stdibs, 19. Anna Spiro in Absolutely Beautiful Things, 20. Katie Ridder in Elle Decor March 2008, photo credit: William Waldron, 21. Amber Interiors, 22. Schuyler Samperton, 23. Ashley Whittaker, 24-27. Tray and mirror via Wisteria, Commode and nightstand via Graham & Green, Bone inlay bathroom set via Pottery Barn,

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My long weekend in Tokyo was simply sublime. Days of friends and food and lots of shopping were just the restorative I needed. The weather didn’t cooperate, but it didn’t really matter. Kawagoe was a bit thin on the ground because of the threat of rain and unfortunately the next two days delivered the promised precipitation, although it didn’t keep us from the markets. It did however keep me from taking lots of photos, so most of the finds recorded are from the first day out. I also broke my own rule of “buy it when you see it” a few times, mulling over the weight and difficulty of transport, which meant I lost out on a few things, although as usual, there is a funny story attached to one of them.

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There were some things that didn’t get away – like these swirling blue and white dishes – and others that did – like these kutani lidded teacups – so beautifully painted they looked like brocade.

kutani lidded teacups

This very fine takamakura, complete with original buckwheat filled pillow went home with a friend.

takamakura

A search for a tansu was successful, yielding this lacquer beauty for a fraction of its retail price. Tansu at shrine sales are often in poor condition which is why they are a bargain, but this dealer had lovingly restored this piece.

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Brought home and placed in the entry it will be a workhorse, holding gloves and scarves and general entry clutter.

lacquer tansu

Speaking of tansu in poor condition, I also popped in to the The National Art Center to view the Joint Graduation Exhibition of Art Universities. Not sure what the meaning of this installation of destroyed tansu by Shunsuke Nouchi is meant to represent, but I couldn’t resist including it. Student exhibits in Japan, as elsewhere, can be really fun, ranging from discoveries of major talent to down right awful. I can’t help but feel bad for these chests!

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Another friend and client scored really big, bringing home all kinds of treasures. The giant wooden gears – very Vincente Wolf - will be hung as a focal point on a bare wall. We got very lucky, finding three with just the right amount of variety in size, shape, color and detail. A vintage onbuhimo, better known as a baby carrier, has lovely indigo cloth woven into its straps. And a large lacquer carrying chest, billed as Edo period by its dealer, but not, is extremely decorative with its etched brass hardware.

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As for my haul, I had to keep reminding myself that I had to carry anything and everything I bought home. So I left behind an entire basket of small fishing floats and even some charming porcelain. I had to have the gray and white bowls – which were likely the more expected blue originally but now faded – because I knew they would look great with the dining table and they are that perfect not too big, not too small size. I picked up a few wooden pieces, a tray and some itomaki, including this unusual long one. A small hibachi with the great geometric asa-no-ha or hemp pattern was also a keeper. But as always, my eye and my wallet are equally lured by non-Japanese discoveries and I fell in love with these bright Turkish glasses and a cut glass jam pot. I’ve been having a bit of a glass fetish lately – wait, aren’t I always having some kind of glass fetish?

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The promised funny story is about the glasses, made for serving arabic tea, but I can imagine them holding dessert or even wine. I saw five of them, 3 pink and 2 purple, on a table at one of my favorite dealers at Kawagoe and passed them only because I decided there weren’t really enough to be useful and their fragility made them hard to transport. My mind kept returning to them over and over (those silver mounts!) as I wandered so I went back only to discover they were gone – massive bummer!

arabic turkish tea glasses

Imagine my surprise when later that evening I walked into the kitchen of the dear friend I was staying with for the week. Long my partner in crime and shrine sales, SHE had bought the glasses and they were now sitting on her kitchen counter. It was one of those moments of fierce purchase jealousy, but the truth was if I couldn’t have them, better she did than some stranger. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself while contemplating going to the mat for them.

Turkish glasses

The surprise continued when we saw the same dealer the next day and once again he had 5 of the glasses out on his table. It was a confusing moment of déjà vu, but we at least had the good sense to ask if he had more and it ended up he had an entire box! So all’s well that ends well and one day we have to have a massive party together and use them all!

Related Posts:
Shrine Sale Stories…Recent Treasures
Shrine Sale Scorcher…Vintage Mirrors on an Extremely Hot Day
Shrine Sale Stories…Vintage Matchboxes, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel and The 1948 London Olympics
Shrine Sale Stories…Yamamoto’s Steamer Trunk
Shrine Sale Stories…My French Moderne Bar Cart

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My advice to new expats includes the caveat for a small escape clause, often timed to that six month-or-so point (dip?) in the experience. After mulling over the mysteries of the cosmos in my last post, I am taking my own counsel, spurred on by a little February calendar magic. I’m headed out tonight for the lovely land of Nippon and will be in Tokyo over the weekend. As luck would have it, the 28th this month – better known in some Tokyo circles as Kawagoe shrine sale day – falls on a Friday, nicely followed by an entire weekend of other shrine sales around the Tokyo area. Three days of uninterrupted antiquing, plus lots of eating and best of all, seeing friends.

I’m not the only one thinking about things Japanese these days. The March issues of the major shelter magazines brought a rush of antiques, mostly in the form of tansu, which while always unusual to spy, was made more so because there were so many of them! House Beautiful featured a new construction Sonoma property that had a zen-like feel even before I learned the owners had formerly lived in Japan. Designed by Rela Gleason, who brings a multicultural viewpoint and proficiency in mixing in Asian antiques, it has a few standout pieces like this iron strapped tansu…

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…and the real yowsa piece, this massive mizuya tansu in the bedroom. I’m always preaching these large pieces in lieu of built-in cabinetry, whether it be in the kitchen (where they were designed for) or better yet, in the bedroom, where they can hold massive amounts of clothing and extra bedding. The contemporary bed in indigo plays off the other vintage pieces from the trunk to the herbiers. All things close to my heart as you well know.

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Elle Decor featured a Joe D’Urso designed double NYC brownstone, the kind that has had its facades restored but the interior completely blown out. A skylit living room laden with well stocked book shelves has a lovely tansu tucked in the corner…

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…but the yowsa piece here has to be the 17th century byobu of pines on a golden background in the master bedroom. Again, the Japanese antiques look so fresh when paired with the modern spaces and furniture.

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So I’ll leave you salivating over these lovely pieces as I go off to pack my suitcase – very lightly so as to leave plenty of space! I have a few client requests that I am searching for, so let me know if there is anything you need or want (aren’t they the same thing?) I’ll be posting live from Instagram as I find things too. Details on the shrine sale schedule this weekend can be found here, as always. And as for my Japan based readers, I am hoping to see you all out at Kawagoe on the 28th. Please be sure to say hello!

Related Posts:
Where Do You Tansu?
Where Do You Tansu? Part II
What’s Cooking? Tansu in the Kitchen
Provenance…Byobu and the Race to Acquisition
Beautiful Byobu…Japanese Screens at The Nezu Museum and at Home
Michael Smith Has One Too!

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