Tokyo-born Yuka O’Shannessy is dedicated to connecting people and craft. As one of the founders of An Astute Assembly, she shares work by local and international artisans and teaches traditional techniques that help preserve goods for life. Recently, Yuka led our Kintsugi workshop in Auckland. Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. We caught up with Yuka to learn more about wabi-sabi philosophy and discuss the importance of craftsmanship.
Story photographed by Neeve Woodward.
Japan is embedded in tradition, how did you find adapting to New Zealand culture?
I have always been fascinated with exchanging cultures and customs, where we can interact and create something interesting and new, like chemical reactions. I’m obsessed with witnessing the results. New Zealand is a young country, brimming with youth, freedom and potential - but there aren’t so many opportunities for designers and makers, so I hope to use my time to help support creative paths.
How did you get started with Kintsugi?
It was one of my long-term ambitions to learn the techniques and the philosophy behind Kintsugi. It always fascinated me and I thought it would be cathartic and also a very practical thing to learn. I also love the idea of repairing a broken part with gold - emphasising the flaw to make it more beautiful in appearance than originally. I was lucky enough to meet a lady in Auckland who had experience learning the skill in Japan, so we had some private lessons and did a lot of research, learning about modern techniques as well as traditional ones.
Kintsugi is a part of wabi-sabi philosophy. What does this mean?
Wabi-sabi essentially means embracing the flawed or imperfect, so to find the beauty in broken things, old things or unexpected compositions. For me, this extends to things that age well and still maintain their function and beauty, even with a few knocks.
What was your first experience of wabi-sabi?
As part of Japan’s aesthetic, I have always been immersed in it, even if I was unaware of its definition at the time. But I think I became really aware of it as an aesthetic decision when I did a short pottery course only a few years ago. I realised that it is hard to draw the line when to finish one of my creations - to think "this is it” or “let’s not it touch anymore, just leave it.” To let go of my temptation to work more and appreciate the outcome even more for the flaws which I was tempted to resolve. That practice gave me a different perspective on my work and in some ways my life.
Why is it important to embrace imperfections?
It gives you a lesson of what's important in life. It’s a touch of Buddhism - to have little and appreciate all aspects of what you have. It gives you freedom and releases an inherent desire to have only the latest and cleanest possessions. It’s a little self-acceptance and awareness.
Do you see technology and consumption complicating the desire for people to live simply or peaking interest to learn traditional techniques & practices?
I think in the case of consumption, it really comes down to the choices you make. Some amazing and beautiful things have been made possible by using new technologies. To me, it really just means choosing those that are well made and will last longer, to slow down consumption. I do think in many instances it has become harder for smaller and more traditional practices to compete with cheaper mass produced items, as people often make decisions on upfront costs. But in my experience the traditional techniques always outlive the mass produced ones.
Why is it important to celebrate traditional craftsmanship?
I think it’s really gratifying owning something you know the history of, and have an understanding of how it was made – similar to what you would consider when buying art. It makes it tangible and real, not just another moulded part off the production line.
I also think it’s important we preserve as much tradition as we can. Realistically the only way these skills and techniques are going to last is if there’s people out there that also appreciate them, and see the value in what others have dedicated their lives to. This is the reason I run workshops - to make sure we tell these stories as much as we can.
Is there an obvious difference between Japanese & New Zealand design?
The histories of the two countries are so different. There are some aesthetics which are intrinsically New Zealand, or intrinsically Japanese. I love seeing products from New Zealand’s emerging designers and makers, as they are often refreshing and have a young energy to them, and New Zealand design often has a great consideration for the environment too. Whereas in Japan, you get a lot of amazing cast iron work, which is something that seems to be quite limited in New Zealand.
What is your favourite object and what makes it special?
My husband Tristan and I gifted ourselves a Damascus knife made by craftsman in Japan after we wed. The technique of making the knife dates back to 600 BC in India. It has a very thin blade but not too brittle, so it's super nice to use and easy to handle. I also like honing the blade, the process of sharpening the knife is very ceremonial and cathartic. It’s one example of a product that has aged well and gives us sentimental memories as we grow together.
How do you consider pieces for your wardrobe?
While I shop new and secondhand, I also make a lot of my own clothes. I love mixing everything together and often get some unexpected results. I do have a lot of garments with clean, minimal lines, but I enjoy balancing these elements with the rest of my wardrobe.
How do you maintain balance in your life?
Following wabi-sabi philosophy remembering when to let go of yourself when you need to.