October 23, 2021

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Reinventing Japan’s traditional color wheel

Bubbles on the surface of fermenting wine. Fog hanging above blue seas. Lichen on the wind-worn lines of a gray tree. The blackish-brown depths of textured soil.

These are among countless scenes that designer Teruhiro Yanagihara drew upon to create a palette of 28 colors for Danish design company Kvadrat’s new textile project, Haku. Inspired by the natural gradations of primitive textiles, ancient trees, rare plants and sacred stones, Haku offers a modern riff on the traditional colors of Japan, which have been immortalized in kimono textiles, nihonga pigment paints, lacquerware motifs, ceramic glazes and the cadences of early poetry for centuries.

The end result? A spectrum of shades, from light neutrals to deeper notes, that defy objective categorization — among them, the milky off-white Nyuhaku, slate-inspired Sekiban-iro and Haizakura’s grayish tinge of cherry blossoms.

The names for Haku’s 28 shades, which riff on Japan’s traditional colors, have roots in nature, poetry and other art forms. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT The names for Haku’s 28 shades, which riff on Japan’s traditional colors, have roots in nature, poetry and other art forms. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT
The names for Haku’s 28 shades, which riff on Japan’s traditional colors, have roots in nature, poetry and other art forms. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT

“I really like in-between colors and that place between perfection and imperfection,” explains Yanagihara, who runs studios in Osaka and Arles, France, with projects ranging from ceramics and furniture to hotel interiors. He also highlights a sense of aimai, a quintessentially Japanese word for vague that’s often used to describe the blurred edges of daily life, from indirect conversational interactions to architectural layouts.

“The Haku collection has a lot of these in-between shades — blues, grays, off-whites — with their names taken from nature, old color books or poetry. It’s very aimai, very ambiguous, a concept that perhaps all Japanese people can feel and understand,” he says.

Designer Teruhiro Yanagihara | PHOTOGRAPHER: ANNEKE HYMMEN Designer Teruhiro Yanagihara | PHOTOGRAPHER: ANNEKE HYMMEN
Designer Teruhiro Yanagihara | ANNEKE HYMMEN

Steeped in symbolism and often rigidly codified, Japan’s 500-plus traditional colors have long been foundational to the nation’s cultural and aesthetic identity. The roots of Japan’s color heritage go back to the seventh century, when Prince Shotoku established the virtues-based, 12-level cap and rank system, which matched specific colors to different levels of court hierarchy. A flowering of courtly literature and arts during the Heian Period (794-1185) fueled a further codification of Japan’s shades, as reflected by kasane — the art of layering specific colors of kimono textiles, or sometimes paper sheets of poetry or love letters, to subtly denote a sense of the seasons, refined taste or social standing.

Add to the aesthetic a sprinkling of essential Zen Buddhist philosophies — the humble simplicity of wabi-sabi, the ephemeral beauty of mono no aware and the subtle profundity of yūgen — plus an animistic Shinto belief system hinged on an intimate harmony between man and nature, and the unique DNA of Japan’s color spectrum is clear.

For Yanagihara, the Kvadrat project was an opportunity to delve deeper into Japan’s traditional color heritage, exploring a world of early textiles, natural dyeing techniques and the nature-inspired imagery of the “Manyoshu,” Japan’s earliest poetry anthology.

The new Haku textile, launched by Kvadrat last month at the annual design event 3daysofdesign in Copenhagen, is accompanied by a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each of the 28 shades.

The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Sabishu and Haizakura. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Sabishu and Haizakura. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO
The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Sabishu and Haizakura. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO

The images, shot across Japan by Yanagihara, indicate the starting point for each color. Many are macro shots reflecting the graphic textures of nature, from aging trees and the surface of seas to clays, stones and textiles.

One depicts bubbles frothing on the surface of an amphora of white wine, shot at a natural winery in Miyagi Prefecture, resulting in Aku-iro, a light shade lingering between yellow, brown and gray.

Another shows calligraphic stone etchings at a sacred ancient shrine on Awajishima — an island in Hyogo Prefecture with a rich mythological Shinto heritage, where Yanagihara shot many of the images — evoking a gray-tinged shade called Asaginezu.

Meanwhile, an image of a rare South African textile found in an antiques gallery in Fukuoka accompanies the nuanced light brown shade of Kourozen, obtained using dye from a Japanese wax tree known as haze.

The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Kourozen and Kuri-iro. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Kourozen and Kuri-iro. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO
The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Kourozen and Kuri-iro. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO

“I felt very inspired by this color,” says Yanagihara, who is also creative director and designer at celebrated ceramics brand 1616 / arita japan. “It was used for men’s fundoshi underwear in South Africa, yet it’s also similar to the shade of the emperor’s gown, a color which was officially forbidden for anyone else in Japan to wear about 1,000 years ago. I find it interesting how the meaning of color varies in different cultures and countries.”

The name of the collection is no less aimai than its palette: The word haku refers to the act of clapping before prayers at a shrine. It’s the transitioning moment when “a story or scene is changed with a clap,” as Yanagihara puts it, with the same concept echoed in the breaks in a haiku poem or the change in seasons.

Adding additional nuance, the Japanese kanji character for the word white can also be read as haku. “I chose this name as it imagines an atmosphere of kansei, the Japanese sensibility,” he adds.

Haku is Kvadrat’s first artificial leather, with silicone-coated polyurethane layered onto a thin fabric. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT Haku is Kvadrat’s first artificial leather, with silicone-coated polyurethane layered onto a thin fabric. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT
Haku is Kvadrat’s first artificial leather, with silicone-coated polyurethane layered onto a thin fabric. | COURTESY OF KVADRAT

Meanwhile, the lyricism of Haku’s concept and colors perfectly balances the ultra-modern qualities of the material itself. Kvadrat’s first artificial leather, the tactile textile is super soft and sustainable, with silicone-coated polyurethane layered onto a thin fabric.

“It’s such a new material, I didn’t want to use modern colors,” Yanagihara says. “That would make it feel too contemporary. Instead, I wanted to create a textile that would find harmony in the space around it. The whole project is very conceptual. It’s a color dialogue between the textile and its surroundings, nature and design, Japan and Denmark. ”

For Kvadrat, a textile company widely respected in the international design world for its balance of creativity, technology and sustainability, the art of matching colors to a material is as precise as it is elemental to the end result.

“A color is nothing without a material and vice versa, a material is nothing without a color,” explains Stine Find Osther, vice president of design at Kvadrat. “One color can look totally different if you apply it to two different materials. And a material can look very different in two different colors. This material needed a designer who understands how to work with surfaces in different contexts.

“(Yanagihara) has an amazing way with honest materials. His sensibility to materials, colors and light is also a fantastic tool when it comes to working with textiles. It was the perfect match for Haku.”

For more information, visit kvadrat.dk/en.

The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Asahanada and Rikyunezu. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Asahanada and Rikyunezu. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO
The Haku textile lineup comes with a photographic storyboard capturing the inspiration behind each shade. From left: Asahanada and Rikyunezu. | COPYRIGHT TERUHIRO YANAGIHARA STUDIO

Some of Haku’s more poetic shades:

Asahanada Hanada is an old color name referring to indigo blue dye. This new shade is inspired by the blues perceived through fog hanging above deep waters in the Naruto region of the Seto Inland Sea.

Kuri-iro — A brownish-black color, which lies outside traditional color classifications, inspired by the deep shades of soil. The name refers to strong natural dyeing with high-tannin-content plants, such as kuri (chestnuts) and tsurubami (hazelnuts).

Rikyunezu — A greenish-gray shade, as reflected in an aged Ibuki tree. Its lichen-covered contours are faded by wind and rain, as photographed on the grounds of a sacred ancient shrine on Awajishima island. Rikyū hints at the green shade of tea leaves.

Sabishu — A dull vermillion, inspired by a traditional Japanese textile. Its name is made up of sabi (referring to rust) and shu (meaning red), together evoking a sense of the beauty of aging.

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