Marie Ebersolt

10th May, 2023

In the partitioning of interior spaces, sliding walls are used in Japan to delimit separate rooms. They can be made of paper panels, plain or painted. Some of these shoji are set with finely carved wood, forming a very sophisticated geometric design. This wood craft is called kumiko.

Dating back to the Asuka era from the 6th century to 710, the kumiko is said to have appeared during the great temple constructions contemporary with the integration of Buddhism. Prince Shotoku, political leader and regent of the imperial court, ordered a vast campaign of religious building foundations. He is still considered an important figure who contributed greatly to the development of national crafts. Since then, the techniques have been passed on, along with the artistic sensibilities of their craftsmen.

The wood is first cut very finely. It is then grooved, mortised and fitted with various carpentry tools, such as the plane, chisel and saw. The elements are worked in such a way that they form a lattice of geometric shapes when fitted together. Each of the several hundred elements is detailed one by one, to the nearest tenth of a millimetre, according to the size and angles required to form the initial sketch. The assembly is carried out with very little rice glue but without any nails, although this serves temporarily to hold the pieces together in the assembly stage. The structure is held together by the pressure exerted between the battens.

There are over two hundred traditional motifs representing nature or symbols of good fortune. They are carefully selected and positioned to optimise the distribution of light and air circulation or, on the contrary, to provide a more subdued glow. The work can also be appreciated for the scent of the wood used, cypress. This species has the characteristics of being dense and fragrant. Its resistance allows the panels to withstand the pressure and its scent to set the scene for the general atmosphere.

Nowadays, the designs adapt to modern aesthetic trends. Not only tea houses and traditional restaurants or inns decorate their interiors with kumiko shoji, but also bars, hotels and design-conscious individuals. Craftsmen are also expanding their range to include more affordable items such as pencil boxes, lamps, coasters and trays.

Marie Ebersolt