As with Japanese architecture, “design” has very much the potential – or should I say the danger – of you ending up with a coffee table book, full of beautiful pictures but with very little content. There is also the risk of ending up with a book where the content is all hand-wavey, Orientalist (or bordering on Orientalist) talk about the simple elegance of Japanese design, one where the author is just so captivated, so stunned, by his/her admiration for the simplicity and refinement of the style that they are unable to say anything meaningful. Thankfully, and as I expected, Graham, a former professor and curator at the University of Kansas, is not that author.
She organizes the book in an interesting fashion, with a series of sections on individual aesthetics such as iki, miyabi & fûryû, wabi & sabi, and kabuku & basara, followed by, in Chapter Two, a few pages on religious influence in design, and then a lengthy section on “Ten Key Characteristics” of “design in Japanese culture.” These ten feel like they border on an Orientalist approach, I’m afraid to say – perhaps it is because they are presented in a list as they are, as though these were the definitive, categorical aspects to understanding the fundamental notions underlying all of Japanese culture. And yet, at the same time, even as you run the risk of reifying all the old stereotypes, it’s not as if these things aren’t at least partially true. Japanese design does show great attention to detail, appreciation of changing seasons, and so forth.
In the third chapter, Graham provides brief biographies (roughly half a page to a full page) of a series of prominent 19th-20th century Westerners who “introduced” Japanese art & design to the West, and played key roles in promoting it. This is kind of nice, for me in particular as I’m always looking for info I can adapt directly into the Samurai-Archives Wiki, and its a fine way to learn a little more about the likes of Denman Waldo Ross, Arthur Wesley Dow, Laurence Binyon, and Theodore Duret.
Overall, there’s a lot of good information in this book, introducing readers to proper Japanese terms for a variety of aesthetic categories, for example, and there are tons of gorgeous pictures. Still, overall, it feels a bit scattered. I wonder if the book might have been better, stronger, if it focused on just one of these three chapters, and expanded on those themes into the full length of the book. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to read more about these prominent Western “promoters of Japanese art,” for example, a book which devotes more than a few pages to each of a number of aesthetic categories – iki, wabi & sabi, etc. as mentioned above – might feel meatier.
One thing Graham’s book certainly is not, which I sort of expected it might be, is a detailed description of individual creators – Yanagi Sôri, Tange Kenzô, George Nakashima, Rosanjin – and their works. For better or for worse, it is instead a broader-ranging discussion of aesthetics and style throughout many aspects of Japanese arts & design, touching upon architecture, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and numerous other arts but each only briefly or tangentially. There is great value to this book, for sure, but when I think of all the things it leaves out – it is neither an in-depth discussion of individual creators, nor a systematic treatment of styles of architecture, pottery, or woodworking, nor does it delve into the aesthetics and style of objects normally outside the realms of art history – things just a little too everyday – – well, I guess I’m just a bit undecided about the book. It’s definitely very beautifully put together, though, and the information it provides is undoubtedly high quality and reliable. For under $20 (it’s $24.95 cover price, but even on Tuttle’s own page it’s showing $17.47 right now), you could do a lot worse.