Light in Japan

by Carole Baijings and Stefan Scholten

Every time we fly to Japan, we notice how different the light is there. It seems brighter. Whiter. Crisper. As if a spotlight is shining on the country. It feels incredibly pleasant, natural, and serene—the light conveys a sense of tranquility and focus that fits so well with the culture of the country. 

From the moment we arrive at the airport, it’s evident how meticulously organized everything is. There is a hierarchical order that everyone seems to calmly accept. When we board a plane in Milan, we always see a few bored-looking, yawning Italians hanging aimlessly around the gate. Japanese passengers don’t do this. They neatly queue up. As a rule, great lengths are taken to avoid being a nuisance or offending anyone. This creates a certain formality in social interaction as nothing is said in a direct or blunt way. People are always courteous. We often say, “Just call us Stefan and Carole.” But we’re always Stefan-san and Carole-san. 

In 2011, Momota-san asked us to work for the 1616 / arita japan brand. It was a great honor. The Japanese porcelain industry in Arita had been doing poorly: our brief was to breathe new life into the sector with new designs. Momota-san is Japanese through and through, but in Japan he is a free spirit. And he is direct. “All my money is invested in this project, in your designs,” he casually mentioned to us. (Mass production of the porcelain tableware, involving many expensive molds, costs a small fortune.) We developed a strong personal bond with him and became acquainted with his whole family—“Oh yes, these are my children and my mother and my brother and all of his family.” We came to feel as if the future of his family had come to lie in our hands. It was all the more reason to hope that the collection would be a success.

Japan has been a trading partner of the Netherlands for many centuries, so a bond of mutual trust exists between the two countries. Trust may be primarily generated by the number of items sold, but our Colour Porcelain series for 1616 / arita japan was a success on multiple fronts. Over the course of many visits, we’d gotten to know Momota-san ever better. He recently accepted our invitation to join us at our holiday location in the South of France. (And that is how you suddenly find yourself in the middle of the sea stand-up paddleboarding with a Japanese businessman in swimming trunks!) Momota-san hardly speaks any English and we do not—or hardly—speak Japanese. Google Translate came to the rescue a few times, but the funny thing was that after a few days, communication happened more or less naturally. Even though it wasn’t easy to explain things, we nevertheless understood each other instinctively—if necessary, with the help of lively gestures. Communication is more than just language.  

As designers we have become carefully attuned to body language and any other cues we decipher. Before Japanese interpreters provide explanations to a group, they usually start with the word “Anno.” When they pronounce the word in a long-drawn-out way: “Annoooo . . ." we know that they have to dig deep to come up with an answer to a question or request. If the guide doesn’t make eye contact with the group, we know there’s trouble ahead. We have developed sensitive antennae for these things. We design, but someone else has to execute. The question we always have is, “Can they do it the way we want it?”

Sometimes we have to be more direct. If we want a bluish-green glaze, we cannot accept a chemical variety that is much bluer and cheaper to produce—we just won’t follow through with the design. For our recent porcelain series, we wanted a matte underglaze rather than high gloss. Often, the initial reaction was, “Hmmm, difficult, difficult.” We had the feeling that a Japanese person would never say they are capable of doing something unless they are absolutely sure they can deliver, otherwise they lose face. Thus it was not always easy for us to determine when a design is really impossible.  At first we thought, “Did we get it completely wrong?” But the Japanese are craftspeople through and through, and the research lab ultimately came up with a final result that was even more beautiful than we had hoped for. That made us very enthusiastic. And the craftspeople were, of course, extremely proud. 

We have become accustomed to the literal and figurative light Japan offers to our creative process. Thanks to the success of our designs, a sense of trust has developed. We understand each other. Interaction is becoming smoother all the time. Doing business across different cultures, based on friendship, pleasure, quality, and trust—what could be more beautiful? 

Carole Baijings and Stefan Scholten are the designers and founders of Amsterdam-based studio Scholten & Baijings. Their latest project, Scholten and Baijings for Maharam is a new collection of accessories developed in partnership with Karimoku New Standard, Porter Yoshida & Co., and 1616 / arita japan. Originally exclusive to Japan, the collection recently became available in North America.