Most of our designs have historical roots, and many have European origins. This pattern is different; it is from Japan. The Japanese have long been known for unique and intricate art styles. Their ukiyo-e, or “pictures of the floating world” style of printmaking, lives on as a classic and distinctive approach to printmaking.
Ryogokubashi yusuzumi kokei
(View of an evening cool at Ryogoku Bridge), triptych.
c.1844 Toyokuni III.
However, though this pattern was created during an era when ukiyo-e printing was dominant, this design is more primitive. It was found on the back cover of a book called Shaka Hassō Yamato Bunko, one in a series of a small comic books about the life of the Buddha, printed around 1860. Most of the book—the interiors and front cover—include ukiyo-e prints, but the back cover has this geometric, less pictorial design.
Shaka Hassō Yamato Bunko, rear cover. C. 1860. Unknown Artist
Through a lot of digging, we discovered that there were several artists involved in the making of this book, one of them being Utagawa Kunisada, a prominent artist from Edo (now Tokyo) and an apprentice of Toyokuni Utagawa. Toyokuni I was the pupil of Toyoharu, who started the Utagawa school of printmaking. Apprentices of the Utagawa school, including the well-known Hiroshige, are responsible for somewhere around 20,000 prints of the ukiyo-e style. After Toyokuni I’s death, and one other leader in-between, Kunisada took charge of the school and is now referred to as Toyokuni III. One of his pupils during his time at the Utagawa school was named Kunimaro Utagawa, and we believe that he is largely responsible for much of the artwork in this particular book, due to a portion of the colophon that reads “painted by Toyokuni's pupil Kunimaro”. The history of all this is a bit hard to decipher, however, as it was customary for artists to adopt parts of their teacher’s names, and some artists even had identical art-names, or gō.
Though we know a fair bit about the group of people who designed and made the front cover and interiors, it is hard to know who is responsible for the geometric pattern on the back of this book. So I started to investigate other aspects of the design. Patterns and motifs hold significant meaning in Japanese art and textile design, with certain ones occurring very frequently, such as the tortoiseshell pattern, which you can see on the walls in the image above, or the “sakura”, the cherry blossom seen below.
Bird and Cherry Blossoms, Utagawa Hiroshige III. C. 1860.
I thought at first that the flowers in the pattern must be cherry blossoms, as they are common in Japanese imagery and important to their culture. There was one main problem though: the flowers didn’t look right. Almost all illustrations of cherry blossoms show them with 5 to 10 petals, usually with 2 layers of 5. The flowers in our design had 6 petals and were much rounder. So I did some more investigating. After a lot of reading about flowers in Japan, I stumbled on the Camellia, or as they are known in Japanese, “tsubaki”. Tsubaki flowers can vary in shape and color , but most of them are depicted as having a more rounded, bulbous shape and having between 5 and 9 petals. In Japanese culture, they carry a range of meanings and even connote a bit of bad luck. Since camellias drop their whole flower instead of single petals, they were a symbol of beheading, making them unpopular with samurais. Though samurais didn’t like these flowers, they were a favorite of the shoguns (feudal military leaders) of the time and later became popular during the Meiji period in fabrics and patterns. Camellias were also frequently found in Buddhist temple gardens, which may be why they’re featured on this book about the life of the Buddha.
Camellia and Cherry - Rimpa School Series.
Sakai Hoitsu Original painting in Edo period.
This woodblock print series was made in 1931.
In our recreation of this design, we wanted to stay as close to the original as possible. To ensure we kept the rustic nature of the pattern, we decided to carve it by hand, rather than have a magnesium die made. To achieve this, we first digitized the design. To digitize, we photograph/scan the design and then trace it or redraw it in InDesign, a layout and design program by Adobe. That enables us to make, repeat, or resize it as needed.
Portion of digitized version of the pattern. 2019. Papillon Press.
After digitizing it, we print the design on a sheet of Mylar. Then we coat our cherry block with a thin layer of washable glue. While the glue is still tacky, we place the printed Mylar sheet on the block and let it dry, which in turn allows the design to transfer to the wood. When the glue is dry, we remove the Mylar and the design is ready to carve. Carving a design like this takes a lot of time, and I wanted to make sure I had the hang of it, so I did a small sample first.
We printed the full design on our Potter Proof Press. It’s a cylinder press, which ensures that equal pressure is applied to all parts of the block.
Japanese Camellia hand-carved woodblock coming off the press.
This block is being used to print full sheets, as well as notebooks and potentially textiles.
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Many of our projects start from nature. Both of us are big nature lovers, and nature is incredibly inspiring. Our linen napkins are no exception.