Ateliers d'art de France presents

Meeting with Kuniko Maeda

Her work has been selected to embody the visual of the signature piece for this 6th edition of Revelations. Kuniko Maeda, a Japanese designer based in London, sculpts paper through a sustainable approach. Between digital technology and Japanese fine crafts, meet the designer.
Can you tell us about your background?

I have always had an interest and admiration for Japanese craftsmanship since I was a child. Initially, I decided to study Japanese traditional wood carving in Kyoto. I was very keen to hone my skills but at the same time, I started looking for a different way to express my work and develop new, creative insights. After completing my studies, I decided to move to London in 2011 to explore the cultural diversity, values and to forge a new creative path. I enrolled at the Chelsea College of Arts where I gained BA and MA degrees in Textile Design.

Can you tell us more about the piece selected by Révélations?

Columbidae was created before the pandemic, and I did not have the opportunity to exhibit the piece at a public event. It is an incredible feeling to realise that my work will be placed at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, one of the most iconic buildings not only in France but the world.

The work was inspired by pigeons, which reflect our peaceful and ordinary life. The beauty of these birds is often overlooked and they tend to be regarded as a nuisance. However, if you observe them closely, you will see their beautiful colours, as well as the movement and smooth texture of their feathers which have the lightness, fluidity, flexibility and delicacy like paper. I try to express their elegant shapes and depth of their colours from a sheet of paper by incorporating acrylic painting, Kakishibu (lacquer made from the Japanese fruit, persimmons) and laser cutting as well as invisible stitching. The patterns and forms of the laser cutting are based on my drawings and photographs from my research. I also use a double-sided glass frame to catch light more effectively. When the light goes through the object, the sculpture gets some interesting effects as if it’s weightless, see-through and floating in the frame.
How do you stand out with your technique?

It was whilst I was investigating potential approaches to long lasting paper through the examination of Japanese traditional craft technique that I discovered the use of Kakishibu . This natural coating which is applied to the paper is waterproof, repels insects, and has a brown sheen finish which is durable. In particular, I focused on Katagami, which are traditional paper stencils for Japanese textile prints. Katagami are made from Japanese paper (Minowashi) and Kakishibu and is cut by hand to create patterns for printing. I then drew inspiration from the quality of materials and the potential for development and experimented by applying Kakashibu to waste paper to produce original Kakishibu paper. I followed this up by utilising technology in the form of laser cutting to add a new element to the paper and created a 3D structure by making slits to minimise production waste.

How would you describe your artistic process?

Whilst all my works are based on my drawings, the final outcomes are always decided after experimentation. I often start with some material research that I am interested in and play with the materials to develop my ideas. I explore each character of the materials and associate them with natural and organic form which I am always fascinated by. I tried to visualise small details, texture and shape from my sketches into 3D shapes.

I found Japanese art education typically focuses on developing skills, whilst in the UK more emphasis is placed on research and developing ideas. I managed to incorporate both aspects, which enables me to experiment with traditional Japanese craft techniques combining with new technology in the form of laser cutting. I am able to push the boundaries between tradition and technology, but still retain the aesthetics of Japanese fine craft.
"Columbidae was created before the pandemic, and I didn't have the opportunity to exhibit the work. So I am very happy that it finally has a chance to be unveiled to the public."
Can you tell us about the importance of technology and digital aspects of your work?

I have a strong fascination of repetitive patterns, digitally controlled orders and preciseness, which enables me to recreate organic forms, such as the Fibonacci sequence. The incorporation of intricate technical patterns and sequences is integral to my creative process.

I also believe that the merger of new technology with traditional craftsmanship has presented designers and makers such as myself with a wider choice of tools, materials and processes which we can utilise to realise unconventional ideas and concepts. Whilst craft makers may have to adapt to new working methods, the new technology does not mean that traditional skills are replaced. The key factor is to make appropriate use of the technology in harmony with traditional craft techniques to fuel innovation and to add value to newly created works. I am convinced that the fusion of traditional craft skills and modern technology will make a positive difference in how we perceive material values and sustainable approaches.

How do you imagine, design and create your paper sculptures?

My practice is rooted in material processes, with a strong influence in design aesthetics informed by my subject specialism, sustainability. I focus on the idea of life cycles in Japanese culture and religion with further influences from western models of explorations of materiality, and consumerism.

I review the everyday materials, which are overlooked and undervalued in our lives. Especially I am interested in working with paper because it is accessible to anyone, affordable, and versatile. However, it tends to be regarded as an almost worthless material with a very short life span due to its eco-friendly composition and inexpensiveness.
Durability appears to be a central aspect of your research and work, can you tell us more about it?

Durability became the central aspect of my work through my research for sustainable ideas and the roots of my own Japanese culture, crafts and ethos. During my study in MA, I researched Sashiko stitch on Awaji Island, which is situated close to my hometown. Sashiko Stitch is a traditional mending technique to patch a small piece of fabric when clothes are worn out. People in this community traditionally repaired fishermens' jackets, rather than discard them if they deteriorated, due to the fact that cotton fabric was a very valuable material at that time. Furthermore extremely cold weather in the northern region of Tohoku resulted in the development of the Sashiko technique whereby farmers stitched on hemp fabric with cotton thread to help make the clothes warm and durable. I realised that some Japanese craft techniques originated out of pure necessity and that they also strongly related to the philosophy of our culture and appreciation for nature. Thus those craft techniques which increase the durability and the longevity of materials have become the main focus of my work.

Kuniko Maeda previously participated in Milan Design Week in 2017, a finalist in the Lexus Design Awards. In the same year, she participated in 'Tendence' trade show held at Messe Frankfurt in Germany. She collaborated in 'Material Xperience' in Rotterdam in 2018 to present her sculptures in paper as a material, then 'Collect' in London from 2018 to 2021 and the Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery in London in 2021, during the London Craft week.