Lacquer, mother-of-pearl, abalone shell, ivory, paper-thin pieces of shellfish, eggshell, powdered gold, silver or iron… The exquisite works created by Yamamura Shinya are small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand yet contain microcosms of precious materials. 

 

Born in 1960, Yamamura originally wanted to study design. But when he was 19 years old in his native Tokyo he saw a craft exhibition that changed everything. What particularly caught his eye was a box decorated with a delicate white egret made of eggshell by the hand of Matsuda Gonroku (1896-1986), a towering figure in the world of modern Japanese lacquer. Yamamura decided to leave for Kanazawa and study lacquer at the College of Art, a prestigious university where he is now a professor. The city of Kanazawa has been for centuries one of the main centres for lacquer production in Japan.  

 

Lacquer is made from the sap that gathers between the bark and the trunk of the urushi tree. The resinous liquid has unique qualities: its viscosity makes it an ideal binding agent and its long hardening time results in a tough, hard-wearing waterproof surface that is resistant to heat and corrosion (the only thing it really fears is sunlight). Lacquer is almost transparent and can be mixed with pigments or powdered metals to heighten its deep gloss. Laborious and careful steps are necessary to create a flat, regular and fine surface. Each layer must be left to dry in a humid environment for at least a day before being smoothed by burnishing with a succession of stones of varying hardness.

 

A wealth of refined and subtle decoration techniques has been devised by Japanese lacquerers, from shell inlays to the imitation of wood grain or even rust. One of the most emblematic of these techniques is called makie and consists of sprinkling gold dust into the soft lacquer before it hardens. Another decorative method, urazaishiki, involves the application of a thin coat of gold, silver or coloured lacquer to the back of paper-thin pieces of shellfish in order to heighten their appearance. Yamamura employs both techniques, often using makie on the inside of his boxes.

 

In contrast with the traditional production of lacquerware that involves separate groups of specialist craftsmen including wood-turners, lacquerers in charge of the foundation layers and further lacquerers in charge of the decoration, Yamamura undertakes every aspect of the design and execution of his work. He begins by planning the shape, sometimes a box that will be made of cypress wood. Characteristic of his work is the use of lacquer in combination with other materials. 

 

Yamamura strives to highlight their natural features and colours and focuses his attention on contrasts. Shiny and slick or powdery and matte, the decoration is always different and can drive him to obsession. In his neat and spacious workshop divided into two zones, one for the shape-carving and the other for the lacquer work, he makes test pieces and devises various decorative methods that he tries to push to their limits. Cutting mother-of-pearl or thin pieces of shell with knives affixed with a diamond point, he achieves an arresting precision. When the motifs are particularly complex and cover the whole piece, he must apply the decoration uniformly on the entire box, which becomes sealed as a result. In order to release the lid from the body of the box, he devised his own machine that includes a diamond dusted wire allowing him to incise the lacquered surface with the greatest precision. The thin wire will help him cut through layers of lacquer, metal, eggshell or mother-of-pearl without harming them. Having done so, he can then detach the lid from the rest of the box. It will slide back into position smoothly, the motifs seamlessly and perfectly matching once again. Thanks to this remarkable workmanship Yamamura has created inventive designs of striking geometrical precision, such as narrow concentric circles of different colours that run uninterrupted. Between thirty and forty layers of lacquer, each carefully polished after drying, are necessary to create a box. This time-consuming process lasts for about three months and means that he only creates a small number of pieces each year, examples of which are in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa.