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Yu Watanabe, Watanabe Thoki ceramic homeware designer


When we select an item for NiMi Projects, it’s always a very personal choice. These are things we covet, if not already own, with aesthetics we adore, materials we admire, innovative ideas that surprise us and details that make us smile.

But it’s the makers and designers — mostly small producers or single artisans — who inspire us the most. When we learn of their passion and skilled techniques, it just makes us love their work even more.

We’d like you to get to know them better, too, through our Meet the Maker journal series, starting with Yu Watanabe, the ceramist behind the Watanabe Thoki Kakyu — a beautiful flat vase that support blooms horizontally for stunning ikebana-like displays.

Watanabe’s design background is perceptible in his pieces where minimalist forms are carefully offset with subtle details that are both decorative and functional. Based in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, he’s a young ceramist whose policy is to only make and perfect what he loves. 


Minimalist ceramic bud vases by Yu Watanabe, Japanese design.
Shop the  Watanabe Thoki Bud Vases here and here


Your works appear to personal labours of love — can you tell us a bit about your past and how you became interested in ceramics?

I am originally from Kumamoto, Kyushu Prefecture and I actually started out studying fashion. But all arts are related and I've also always been influenced by great architecture and furniture design. Among the product designers I admired back then, I was particularly inspired by Sori Yanagi, the son of the founder of the mingei (Japanese folk crafts) movement Yanagi Soetsu. Sori Yanagi is renowned in Japan as a pioneer of modern designs that respect the functionality and simplicity of traditional crafts, and I hoped to work with him.

When I got to meet Sori Yanagi, though, he told me, "You first must have basic plaster mould-making skills." That's when I decided to move to Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture. It's an area historically well-known for ceramics, so I knew it would be an ideal place to work and study mould making, casting and pottery.


Yu Watanabe of Watanabe Thoki's home studio and life in Tokoname
Watanabe's home studio and life in Tokoname


What is it like living in Tokoname?
It was in Tokoname that I truly began to feel an affinity with the virtues of pottery, which is so different from any other product design. It didn't take long before I began to create and experiment with my own forms there.

Aichi Prefecture's ceramic business is thriving, and it's right next to Gifu Prefecture, another prosperous pottery area. So I love being there, it's great for creatives — there is access to a rich variety of unique raw materials and it has a pottery community that provides a wealth of information and dialogue on the industry. It's also between the Kanto (eastern Japan) and Kansai (western Japan) regions, making it easy to travel to other major cities not just for trade but for a change of scenery.

What inspires your designs?
There's so much out there that can be inspiring. The shapes and colours of my pieces are influenced by folk crafts from all over Japan, but there are also nods to Scandinavian tableware. The functionality of the items, though, is drawn from my own observations of nature and daily life.


Watanabe Thoki ceramic Kakyu flat vases
Shop the Watanabe Thoki Kakyu Flat Vase here


Are there any special pottery techniques or materials that you use for your pieces?
At the moment, I make most items using plaster mould slip casting, and the process of creating the moulds is actually my favourite time of the day.

I'm very meticulous with my choices of clay. The white porcelain I use, for example, has an extra-special meaning for me — the soil base is brought in from Amakusa in Kumamoto Prefecture, my hometown area. For the pottery clay of the Kakyu vases, I also use a special blend of Tokoname clay soils.

Your Kakyu vase is one of our favourite products. The fact that it’s for arranging a flower horizontally is fascinating. How did you come up with such a unique idea?
The Kakyu vase came to me after reading a book by the Japanese ikebana artist Toshiro Kawase. Kawase's contemporary flower works are amazing — he can transform a single bloom into a stunning art piece. When I saw an image of a flower arranged lying down in Kawase's book, I knew I had to design a vase that could be used the same way.


Tools at Watanabe Thoki's ceramic studio in Tokoname, Japan
Tools of the trade in Tokoname


How do you keep your mind actively creative?
My house and workspace are in the same place to ensure creative fluidity. My studio is part of my home, so when I want to work, I can start immediately. It's an environment where creativity is a part of daily life and daily life is a part of creativity.

I love having the freedom to create when I’m inspired, rather than being constrained by a timetable. I can’t separate my work time, as I get ideas and inspirations from daily life and have to act on them as the moment takes me. If I sat around and waited for inspiration during a designated work time, I’d get nothing done!

Are you working on anything new that you can tell us about?
Right now, I'm focusing on new flower rests and vases. I have visions of specific flower arrangements, so I'm still devising new vessels for them. In the future, though, I plan to work with a wood-fired kiln, which can produce more rustic features in pottery, and is a technique I've always admired.

Read our other NiMi Projects journal articles here.