When walking into a coffee shop or a store at a mall or a lifestyle center, some of these places might have a floor decorated with a pattern entirely made up of tiles. Sure, it's not the first thing we think about when walking in, but we might be aware that the color of the tiles are purposefully set up to match the store's brand color scheme, but could something as simple as floor tiles tell a story we often overlook? In an episode of NHK World Japan's The Mark of Beauty, hidden stories are not only told, but there is a level of craftsmanship that makes tiles into a true work of art.
The Mark of Beauty is an NHK World Japan original documentary series that centers around the arts and crafts unique to Japanese culture. It features the art of everyday life arts and crafts that go unnoticed at a first glance, but upon close examination, there is a greater depth and meaning which creates the beauty of such techniques. The episodes center around topics such as the craftsmanship behind embroidery, jade, kiriko cut glass and lacquer-ware. The episode delving into the art of tiles stood out the most to me because whenever one steps into a store or shop decorated with tiles, the last thing that comes to mind is how can it be seen as an art form. Within the three main categories, Style, Versatility and Art, the viewer receives new insights into how something so simple as the way tiles are set up can contain a greater story and craft than they realize.
As Part One of the episode starts with Style, we are introduced to writer, Eri Nishimura and photographer, Junichi Okugawa, who are traveling around Japan taking snapshots of the various tiles they come across. Impressed with the tile work, Okugawa takes pictures of the floor at a shopping arcade clothing store. The narrator then delves into his and Nishimura's fascination on the subject.
"Their love for tiles has culminated into a photo book. They put their feet in the photos for size comparison and also to show that the tiles are indeed on the floor! They say an old shopping arcade is a treasure trove of tiles. Nishimura takes us to a shop that has one of her favorite tiles."
Thus, she leads the viewer to a meat shop, which opened in 1936. It contains such vibrant tiles, shining with reds and oranges with white outlines, laid out in front of the display case. At that point, we hear a bit of backstory behind how such tiles were chosen. "The owner's mother laid these tiles around 1975. She chose this design in hopes of giving the shop a modern makeover" says the narrator. Shop owner, Masayuki Arai tells Nishimura and Okugawa that after plumbing work was being done on the shop, a few of the tiles were cracked, that they had to be replaced. His mother had hoped to find the same colored tiles as the original, but they were so rare, they are practically irreplaceable. Arai goes on to say that "they've been [t]here for so long, so [he's] attached to them". Okugawa "pays homage to the shop's history and snaps a pic", which features Arai's feet standing on the floor as well as another photo with Nishimura's beside his. "It's been taken care of, so the color is still there, not faded. And the cracks in them actually make them tasteful. I feel attached to it and I really adore it" says Nishimura. The narrator then states how much the tiles had supported Arai's shop over the course of four decades, which brings us to the first mark of beauty: "Aging Together". Aside from how long the tiles had been around for, the reason for their selection and what they had endured over the years, even within all their simplicity, they carry a meaningful story altogether. Upon hearing the story behind the tiles, it's no wonder Arai has such a personal attachment to them.
The narrator even goes as far back in history as the 6th century when tiles were transferred over to Japan from China with the example of the Todaiji Temple in Nara. Although tiles were ultimately used in temples to design the floors, it was after the earthquake of 1923 that prompted a more common use of tiles. Since the buildings were wooden structures, making them a fire hazard, this evoked a shift in the type of materials used to build buildings. From wooden structures to concrete ones, tiles became the norm. In the intervening years, they eventually became more and more artistic and stylish as seen in the Tokyo National Museum with a work created by Taishin Ikeda. The wall designed by Ikeda features a pattern of an imaginary flower, which is plastered before the tiles are applied. According to the narrator, "drawing a motif with small pieces of tiles was a revolutionary method at the time" the piece was made. Even in modern times, artisans are always developing new methods to designing with tiles. Contemporary artisan, Amane Shiraishi demonstrates his craft, process and the art behind them by demonstrating the making of a living room wall. The project was made for a client who wanted a 'happy and colorful wall', so Shiraishi explains that he made it colorful, but the important thing was to make it stylish. Citing the works he had been exposed to while being trained in Morocco, he highlighted his observations of tile work done on a mosaic. Along with the array colors used in the design, white tiles were always present between colors. As we often hear the phrase, 'less is more', the end results are a prime example of such. With the large curvy white tiles in the center of each triangular shaped color tile, the ambiance the of wall texture sets a different mood each time of the day. As the sun sets, the bumps in the white tiles change the feel of the setting in the living room than that of how it looks during the day. "And it will watch over this family from here [where it stands] always" says the narrator to conclude Part One of the episode. The tiles will all age together with their own story to tell for years to come.
Part Two, Versatility, as the title implies, delves into the various functions tiles are adapted to. In Kasahara, Gifu, the highest amount of tiles are produced as seen in their shops and cafés. The café featured in this documentary, for example contains colorful tables, decorated with tiles that immediately catches the eyes of visitors. What's even more fascinating is how the tiles are used to create various sections of the shop as if they were separate rooms. This is achieved by decorating the floor with a flower pattern on one section of the shop and using the same pattern, but with opposite colors on the other. The vibe of the pattern feels like a 'charming flower garden' as the narrator describes it. These small sized tiles are used to create a big picture. Café owner, Kumiko Tamesawa offers her insight by indicating that "[t]iles can be used to create designs in infinite ways" and that she "discovered that by just changing the colors you use, you can give a totally different impression". After the narrator highlights how the various combinations of tiles can display an array of expressions, the second mark of beauty is "Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities". Small sized tiles open a window of possibilities for artisans to create an assortment of new patterns as seen in the Mosaic Tile Museum, which is located in the town of Kasahara. The museum itself is a major staple of the town with its historic origins as a town known for its pottery making until the 1950's when manufactures shifted their focus to tiles. Since then, the tile factories produced creative new pattern designs, even drawing inspiration from fashion magazines. "I think most factories then did not have their own designers, so the President or the salesperson of each company were the ones who designed the tiles." recalls chairman of tile trading company and former tile designer, Kazuyuki Nakane "We used to always be thinking of tiles, looking at everything, thinking how they could be motifs for tiles. We were always looking to create new designs". In addition to finding innovative design methods, the traditional means of craftsmanship is still active even in the age of machines. The viewer is then introduced to a tile manufacturing company, founded in 1957, where traditional, hands-on tools are still in use. The viewer then meets a fifty-year veteran tiler named Masako Matsuyama, who demonstrates her process and showcases her craft as well as the reasoning behind her design choices. So, why is such a task still carried out to this day if with all the technology given at our disposal is an option open to designers? "When this is done by humans, you get a soft impression. It's more beautiful!" Matsuyama pinpoints. "When done by machine, it feels calculated". Indeed, there is an organic quality that goes into the craft of tile making that machines simply cannot capture or replicate. This goes to show that tiling is more than just applying a pretty pattern on a wall or floor to simply look nice, but it truly is an art form. This brings us to the final segment of the documentary where Style: Aging Together and Versatility: Tiny Tiles, Infinite Possibilities start to come into full circle.
Art is the third and final segment the episode explores. At this point, we know that style is how tiles age gracefully and versatility is how tiny pieces can paint an even greater picture, but did you know that there are public bathhouses in Japan that contain murals made entirely up of tiles, forming a complete image? A public bathhouse located in Kamigyo, Kyoto has a scenery image on the wall, depicting a lake surrounded by grassy hills, snowy mountains, sail boats and a castle. The lake being placed in front of the bath gives an illusion of flowing water as if the water in the image is flowing into the tub. Because tiles are resistant to water, the mural is still in perfect condition even four decades later from the time it was created, once again highlighting how they age together as well as how such tiny pieces are formed to create endless possibilities. At another bathhouse, located in Itabashi, Tokyo, is decorated with an image of sea fairies, which was completed in 1953. In fact, a Japanese painting piece from that same year also served as an inspiration for its motif. A combination of the light reflecting on the image as well as the steam depicted in the image and coming from the bath give visitors a mystical type of aura. According to bathhouse owner, Shinichi Zenimoto, people post positive comments in their blogs about how relaxed they feel when they see this piece, much to his delight. People even come to the bathhouse because they really want to see the mural. That said, the third and final mark of beauty is "Art, Savored from the Tub". The viewer then receives a glimpse into the creative process behind one of the murals made by architect, Kentaro Imai. The piece he made for a bathhouse in Machida, Tokyo is based on a piece by Yokoyama Taikan. To differentiate his piece from that of the one made by the iconic painter, Imai limits his palette to twelve colors to keep it from being too over saturated in gold. He utilizes a select few yellows and variate with other colors to give visitors the feeling as though they are bathing in the clouds. With a simple color palette, there is a great deal of depth that creates a three dimensional feel. As Imai goes over his process and the reasoning for his design choices, the viewer can see how and why his efforts paid off in the end with comments from guests saying that the mural belongs in an art museum as bathhouse owner, Taichi Tsuchida mentions.
It's interesting and amazing how some of the most everyday structures can be easily taken for granted at a first glance. When taking into account how something seen in everyday life like tiles can be used to create so much more than a commodity, the possibilities start to seem endless. With an array of art styles, to creative techniques, to craftsmanship that can go into tile work, one can garner a new found appreciation of it, be it from the simplest of patterns to more complex variations, to those that form an image. So, the next time you come across a wall or floor with tile work that sticks out to you, don't be afraid to ponder its backstory and ask about it. You might be surprised by what you learn.
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