March 10th, 2017

Art of gold: Japanese ceramics and the circular economy

6 minute read

by Steve Watson

 

It’s a fundamental circular economy principle that we need to rethink how products are made so that they last longer and can be repaired or more easily recycled when their time is up. While the challenges this poses are significant enough, they are at least more tangible – in terms of design, engineering and policy – than the cultural task of, as consumers, reimaging what we want from our products.

The linear economic model’s grounding assumption that nothing can be better, and more desirable, than ‘the new’ seems to have attained a privileged ideological position within recent cultural memory. While darning clothes was commonplace a few generations back, the number of H&M outfits mended by the hearthside must be low. Goods come cheap, and are outmoded faster than they wear out – which can be fast.

Therefore, transitioning to a model on which the lifetimes of products are extended through repair and remanufacture requires something of a cultural shift. This requires challenging the links between newness, perfection and value, and it is on this point that I think Japanese pottery can be instructive.

 

What’s the crack?

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics by joining the sundered pieces with seams of lacquer and precious metals. The word translates to something like ‘joining with gold’, but silver, platinum, copper and bronze are also used. Repair work is emphasised rather than hidden, and in fact adds to the value of the object. A kintsugi pot displays its history: the seams of gold mark a new chapter in its life, the pot more beautiful than ever, and we appreciate it because it has lived. Kintsugi appreciates that value can be added in a re-working of materials. Rather than try and return an object to its virgin state, it makes it ‘better than new’.

The story goes that kintsugi was born in 15th century Japan when a shogun by the name of Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke a favourite Chinese tea bowl. The fragmented vessel was sent all the way to China for repair, but Yoshimasa was not best pleased with the results, which involved some rather unrefined stapling. So, he called upon Japanese craftsmen to come up with an aesthetically superior means of repair. Their solution subsequently became so popular throughout Japan that collectors took to purposefully smashing their ceramics just so they could have them repaired in the kintsugi style.

 

Kintsugi

The Japanese art of kintsugi sets the gold standard in product repair. Photograph by Haragayato (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In the west, one finds an ostensibly similar aesthetic in the recent phenomenon of ‘shabby chic’. However, here objects are often purposefully distressed to add value through damage, imparting them with a readymade fake history. This appears more to be a reaction against the transitory nature of modern goods, which we often don’t live with long enough, or feel strongly enough about, to impart with any meaning of their own.  While such perverse trends clearly speak of a desire for products that look as if they have lived, on the whole the west has little space for the notion that value can be created as a response to damage.

 

Gold blend

It’s easy to bemoan the spiritual vacuum at the heart of throwaway culture and long for a bit of eastern philosophy in the home, but you might wonder about the wider applications of the lessons of kintsugi in the modern era. Or, to put it another way, this is all very good for pots and furniture but what about for products like computers and washing machines?

Well, in a way, the essential notion needn’t be limited to aesthetics but can also apply to functionality. Through remanufacture, repair and refurbishment all manner of faulty goods can be made to work better than they did in the first place. In fact, remanufactured products can in many cases perform better than new products because they receive higher levels of attention and have to go through especially stringent testing procedures. The fact that new products are sometimes faulty obviously shows that being new does not in itself guarantee functional value.

There are already many examples of businesses (including Sony and Caterpillar) adding value to their products by making repair and remanufacture an integral part of their business strategy. Such approaches make particular sense with goods purchased on a leasing model rather than through traditional ownership, like specialised industrial machinery for example. Here, the customer does not buy a product as much as service, with the manufacturer supplying ongoing care and remanufacture as part of the contract.

Just as with the kintsugi pot, a remanufactured item accrues value through its history: as a result of breakage and subsequent mending, or because of some original flaw which renders it faulty, it effectively undergoes a ‘double-making’. Of course, products will have finite lifetimes, but as these can be extended and products can become stronger before they start their inevitable decline. If consumers could come to recognise that a remanufactured computer could work as well or better than a new one, this would help undermine the tyranny of the new.

 

Moving in philosophical circles

The aesthetic of kintsugi relates to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. This seemingly untranslatable term has its roots in Buddhist thought, and expresses a temperament which, acknowledging that nothing is perfect or lasts forever, finds beauty in imperfection and transience. A wabi-sabi attitude is one of acceptance of the natural cycles of life, although this may be coupled with a sweet melancholy and longing for the passing world. The evocativeness of the kintsugi pot lies in the fact that its transience is emphasised and made beautiful.

There is a contradiction in linear economic consumerism: it generates supremely transient objects that are at the same time denied a history. When products cease to be new, they are not permitted to grow old, picking up memories of lives lived alongside them, but are instead discarded. This appears to be an acceleration of natural processes of birth and decay, a process which parodies transience out of a desire to live in a world where objects are forever new. Decay is placed out of sight and out of mind in literal scrap heaps of history.

Of course, who wants a broken toaster lying around because it evokes memories of happy breakfast times? I’m not suggesting an approach akin to hoarding, but rather that a little wabi-sabi perspective could make us all more receptive to circular economy principles and help to prevent waste in the first place. Simply being more comfortable with worn items would ease the demand for new products; exorcising the power of fetishised ‘new’ goods could open up new markets for remanufacture.

Maybe part of the problem is that modern products are not designed to age well, and this brings us back to the task of rethinking how products are made. As well as designing products to be more easily repairable and recoverable, perhaps we need to rethink the aesthetics of design in a way that allows transience to be beautiful, so that people want to hang on to goods like computers and phones for longer. If circular economy visionaries and eco-designers can begin to think about the emotions that aging products elicit, maybe this could play some part in achieving the cultural shift the circular economy badly needs.

 

Steve Watson

 

 

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