The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.

1 Interior view of Ryuji Iwasaki House, 2013.

In May 2023, I attended Home/Making held at Concordia University in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Instead of a single event, the organizers created a week-long project, comprising workshops, maker residencies, symposium, showcase, archive, and edited volume to address the issues surrounding home (unsettlement, inequality, precarity) and craft (gender, race, tradition, economics, sustainability). While symposium speakers talked about the influence of the home context, none addressed how an artist’s dwelling and workspace can be integral to their craft. 

The architecture that surrounds ceramic artist Ryuji Iwasaki is just that. Iwasaki lives and works near Osaka, Japan, in a house designed by his architect friend, Norio Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga’s practice, Office for Environment Architecture (OFEA), has won a considerable number of awards during its twenty years, and he was included in JA102 (The Japan Architect, Summer 2016) as one of Japan’s young architects. Many of OFEA’s projects are constructed of timber and Yoshinaga has several wood design prizes to his credit. 

The use of natural timber for Iwasaki’s house, while being appropriate for the client, was also chosen out of necessity. The design brief had constraints: a small plot of land and an equally small budget. The outcome incorporates the workshop and kilns on the ground floor, and kitchen/dining and bedrooms on the second and third floors. The living room is at the top with a steel staircase as the conduit through the space. The entire interior features an exposed wood structure with shelves for pottery running from the concrete floor upward to the topmost level. Light and air flow in from the east and west windows, which also provide vistas of Mount Nijo and exterior gardens. 

2 Ryuji Iwasaki House, 2013. 3 Interior view of Ryuji Iwasaki House, 2013. 1–3 Architect: Norio Yoshinaga, Office for Environment Architecture. Photos: Yuko Tada.

Iwasaki describes his home: “When I think of a house as a container for people to enter, I feel comfortable creating in this house. The works in the atrium connect daily life and production activities.” His ceramics are known for their glazes and it could be argued that the luminosity emanating from his vessels is due, in some measure, to the environment in which they’re made. But the influence of the house on his craft is literal as well as physical. Iwasaki says, “Many people come to know about my work after seeing this house, and I think this house has given rise to many new encounters.” A unique and splendid dwelling complements an extraordinary craftsman of form and color. 

Housewarming 

Ryuji Iwasaki is a solo practitioner whose business, Studio Depth, is assisted by his wife, Mayuko, acting as accountant, packer, and shipper. He creates ceramics for four to six exhibitions per year and, as time permits, addresses commissions and orders. Unlike the stereotypical image of the Japanese potter who makes thousands of the same form to attain perfection, he strives for individuality. He notes, “As a creator myself, even if I create each item in the same way, I cannot make them exactly the same. Rather than making them look like each other, I consider each as a single piece. I think you can create better things by paying attention to your feelings at the time and creating freely, rather than having a fixed shape in mind.” 

From the outset of his career, Iwasaki was attracted to the wheel and “the constantly changing shape of clay” that it produced. In addition, “I loved clay as a material and often played with it since I was little. I was fascinated by the fact that clay, a material that could be transformed into any shape, was not something that could be seen as a fixed product, such as a plastic model kit.” An immense range of clay shapes is evident on his website (iwasakiryuji.com), with every one being different regardless of the glaze. Equally noteworthy is the fact that all are functional and intended for use. Like an eclectic mix of chairs around a dining table, one can imagine using individual plates, cups, and bowls that inspire endless pleasure and conversation. Iwasaki verbalizes this notion: “The way the food looks changes depending on the utensils, and using utensils that you like will make you feel richer.” 

Nigel Slater, a renowned British chef, food writer, journalist, and broadcaster, concurs with Iwasaki’s view about the juxtaposition of food and ceramics: “I now eat from a clutter of mismatched pieces. At home, and indeed for the photographs to accompany my recipes, I enjoy choosing plates or bowls that are appropriate for the food. Pieces that will flatter the food rather than detract from it. My only rule being that the china must never outshine the food. Being a cook, I would say that I want the ceramics to go almost unnoticed. By which I mean they are both unassuming and flattering to the food rather than just white plates, which are more redolent of restaurant dining than home cooking.”1 

4 Kohkaku (Sparkle) + Ash Glaze Pot, 8¼ in. (21 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown semi-porcelain.

As an example from Iwasaki’s portfolio, Purple Flower Pot, filled with persimmons, or containing fluffy white rice, or cradling juicy grilled pink prawns would be a visual as well as a taste delight. Ice Green and Purple Coffee Cup can be envisaged with steam rising from a hot beverage as hands encircle the warm celadon-like surface. Even the juxtaposition of human skin with Iwasaki’s glazes is an aesthetic pleasure. 

Iwasaki’s work has been featured in a number of Japanese lifestyle magazines such as Ginger, Vogue Japan, Elle Gourmet Japan, and Discover Japan. In each publication, the emphasis is on color and pictures of food being served on the ceramics, either domestically or in a restaurant. Whereas natural tones predominate in the Japanese ceramics palette, the younger citizenry prefers color. Keita Maruyama, fashion designer and owner of the brand Casa Keita, chose Iwasaki to be part of the “Beautiful Work Exhibition” in 2022. Maruyama commended him for the application of glazes that melt into flower petal patterns and the addition of crystallized particles that shimmer on a surface. 

Man of the House 

Although Iwasaki did not study art in primary or secondary school, he completed a two-year program at Osaka College of Art in Association with Osaka University of Arts (2000). His department, comic and art, included craft, defined as painting, printmaking, accessories (jewelry), and ceramics. Being surrounded by teachers whose art was avant-garde, he speculates that these liberal attitudes prompted his exploration of diverse materials and configurations. After graduation, he worked in a pottery studio and taught classes between 2000 and 2012. “When I started working at a pottery class after graduating from school, my teacher used to make large pieces on a potter’s wheel, so I was obsessed with making large pieces on the wheel and learning wheel skills. I practiced and created. Some work was exhibited at Japanese traditional crafts exhibitions.” Iwasaki has not continued making large-scale work. 

5 Ice green + Shikoh (Purple Gradation) Bottle, 11 in. (28 cm) in height, wheel-thrown semi-porcelain.

In 2012, Iwasaki set out on his own. Growing facility with the potter’s wheel was combined with color: “I also wanted to add beautiful colors to beautiful shapes. I think the glaze expression applied to the clay body is very important.” Using semi-porcelain which is bisque fired, he sprays and layers various glazes that he mixes himself. The glazes are sprayed separately, paying attention to their thickness; experience has familiarized him with what will come out of the kiln: “The glaze flows during firing, creating gradations and expressions. I layer the glaze, imagining how it will look when fired.” He knows that small changes in color, luster, texture, flow, and other factors can create intended, and unexpected, results. 

Iwasaki describes the excitement of opening his Tsukasa Denkiro electric kiln: “The most delightful moment is opening the kiln’s aperture. No matter how clearly the finish of the pottery is imagined, it is unknown until actually fired. Either they come out of the fire exactly as I had expected, or they don’t. Occasionally they surpass my wildest expectations. They are my creation, but I fall in love with them instantly.”2 

For the “Kikuchi Biennale V” in 2013, which took place at Musée Tomo in Tokyo, Iwasaki submitted Vase with Yellow Glaze. A total of almost 300 entries from across Japan and Korea competed to appear in an exhibition of 48 ceramic pieces. Iwasaki’s entry received honorable mention and was described as follows: “After bisque-firing, Ryuji Iwasaki first sprayed a red iron oxide solution and then applied white glaze mixed with titanium to yield the warm cork color and matte finish of his exquisitely shaped Vase with Yellow Glaze.”3 The photograph, published in artscape Japan, shows a vessel lit from above that appears to derive its base color from the cast shadow around it. Pale green tones rise into a semblance of pale golden light with the top opening reiterating the darker hue. Achievement of such a man-made glow seems like an impossibility. 

6 Camellia Ash Glaze Pot, 9½ in. (24 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown semi-porcelain.

Of course, Iwasaki is ten years on from this vase, yet still experimenting with gradations of color as seen in Ice Green + Plum Bottle. Like its predecessor, the tone changes from dark to light as it travels up. The base is mottled and encapsulates the sense of a solid and stable foundation. Then, as navy blue morphs into teal, color striations surround the bottle, culminating in a robin’s egg blue crown and white lip. The delicacy, elegance, and mastery of shading attest to Iwasaki’s stature in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. 

Iwasaki’s website offers the opportunity to sort his product by glaze and color4: e.g. ice green, ice green + momo (peach), kannagashi (circulation, swirl), kokaku (sparkle), tsubaki (camellia), and ohbaku (yellow oak). Ice green and peach is a luscious combination with each hue blending seamlessly into the other. Ohbaku is, perhaps, inspired by the wood tones seen in natural light in the interior of his home. Iwasaki states, “My ideal is to exist like a fruit in the natural world. Each one is unique and each one is beautiful.” His choice of a fruit analogy is appropriate not only as a reflection of color, but since fruits have seeds, he is germinating new ideas personally as well as for the ceramics of Japan. 

From House and Home 

As mentioned previously, this joyously decorated ceramic ware is not solely for the enjoyment of the eye. Iwasaki says, “In recent years, I have been creating a lot of pottery, which is not part of the fine art of Japan’s traditional crafts, but rather objects that can be held and used in daily life. As an artist, I would be very happy if people could not only see it with their eyes, but also hold it in their hands and feel the texture of the vessel while using it.” Iwasaki owns tableware made by his peers and each piece recalls a memory of its makers, or when and where it was previously used. Regular touching also leads to new discoveries in the object through its close perusal; in addition, daily contact with treasured items provides inspiration for his own work. Objects emanate power—power of the material, its maker, and even a former user, as well as the power of the tradition of ceramics worldwide. 

When asked about his current interests, Iwasaki replied, “Among the works I am creating, there is a series that uses camellia tree ash. It produces a natural, pale color with a different atmosphere than the color produced by metal oxides [copper and chromium] that we usually use.” Camellia Ash Basin is indicative of burning camellia: a subtle application of pale sepia-like tones across the surface of the plate. The feathery marks conjure a bird’s or butterfly’s wings as the creature takes off from the off-white surface. The central purple focus draws the eye on a perfectly produced disk, symmetry denied by exuberant diagonals. As well as camellia ash, Iwasaki has been “receiving various types of ash from local farmers and trying them out. I would like to use local ingredients and have local chefs serve their dishes in bowls made from local wood ash.” 

7 Ice Green + Shikoh (Purple Gradation) Flower Pot, 11¾ in. (30 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown semi-porcelain. 8 Wall shelving (detail), Ryuji Iwasaki House, 2013. Architect: Norio Yoshinaga, Office for Environment Architecture. Photo: Yuko Tada.

Iwasaki has another goal too: “While continuing to make pottery, I’ve been fascinated by its richness and that of traditional crafts of Japan. I feel strongly that people around the world should be introduced to the simplicity and serenity of Japanese crafts that are far beyond what words can express. If it is conveyed through my work, that would be my pleasure.” 

Homework is assigned to a student to drill in and build on the lessons of a school day. Much of the time homework, as the word is usually understood, is done begrudgingly or not at all. However, for Ryuji Iwasaki, homework has several positive connotations. Each day’s work in his home studio is a lesson for the next day’s, or week’s, or month’s practice: the house is a constant milieu for learning. In addition, homework done in a place that one calls home brings a sense of comfort, security, and family to what one does. It is also work inspired by home whereby creative minds—Iwasaki’s and Yoshinaga’s—came together to build an environment conducive to envisioning beauty. And finally, Iwasaki’s homework is ceramics for the home, to enhance one’s pleasure in the preparation and eating of food. One could say that, indeed, there’s no place like home. 

the author D Wood has a PhD in design studies and is an independent craft scholar whose artist profiles and exhibition reviews have appeared in an international roster of art and design publications. She is the editor of and contributor to Craft is Political (Bloomsbury, 2021). 

The author thanks Ritsuko Kerfoot for translation. 

1 Nigel Slater, “Art has a place in my kitchen”: Nigel Slater on his favorite ceramics, “ The Guardian, 24 September 2023 https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2023/sep/24/all-fired-up-nigel-slater-on-the-pottery-stars-changing-the-world-of-ceramics
2 iwasakiryuji.com 
3 Susan Rogers Chikuba, “Contemporary Ceramics in Japan: Kikuchi Biennale V at Musée Tomo,” artscape Japan, August 2013. 
4 iwasakiryuji.com