Nakagawa Mokkougei Makes the World’s Most Exquisite Buckets
In a year so necessarily and intensely domestic, it’s especially easy to appreciate the beauty and singularity of something designed and built with care. Nakagawa Mokkougei, a father-son shop with studios in Kyoto and Shiga, is a world-class maker of ki-oke, wooden buckets traditionally used in Japanese onsen that have found alternative uses throughout the world, such as storing rice, holding champagne bottles, and elevating vessels for everyday use. (The outfit’s immaculate wares are available in the U.S. through the New York design gallery Les Atelier Courbet.) A seventh-generation master woodworker and artist, the elder Nakagawa, Kiyotsugu, and his son, Shuji, have collaborated with the likes of Nendo and Hiroshi Sugimoto and, like many craftspeople, practice their art as a way of life, working at a personal scale and using natural materials and time-honored processes. Even the scents of their works are highly considered. “Sawara cypress has a soft smell and the property of absorbing water well, so I usually use it for rice keepers,” Shuji says. “Hinoki cypress has a strong scent, so it’s not suitable for food and drink directly, but it’s good for bath goods.”
With more than 400 planes in his tool kit alone, the Nakagawas employ tagamono, the process of fastening wooden slats in a circle using a hoop (a taga) and then shaving down the slats until they become a single, unified object. But for Mokkougei, their craft begins with finding the perfect tree. “A good tree for ki-oke is one with few knots and a fine, straight grain,” Shuji says. “I go directly to the production area [in Kiso, Nara] and look for good trees in the log market.” Steeped in a long tradition but adopting a contemporary perspective, the artist has recently begun making handcrafted wood products that “take advantage of the unique beauty of bentwood and knots,” he says, including bowls, vases, and furniture. His masterful works embody an elegant simplicity that in form and function offer the perfect antidote to today’s stresses. They smell great, too.