KarakamiA Conversation with Ko Kado of Kamisoe
“Finding beauty in imperfection – the sense of beauty being not in uniformity but in inconsistency, unevenness, blurriness, deviation, cracks, and distortions – has had a big influence on me."
In a former barbershop in the Nishijin district of Kyoto, among traditional textile workshops and tea houses, Ko Kado creates handmade karakami prints in his atelier, named Kamisoe (meaning ‘to add something onto paper’). Here, in his studio above the shop, Kado practices the centuries-old technique of woodblock printing on washi paper, creating screens, wallpaper, postcards, panels for fusuma sliding doors, and other commissions such as artwork for book covers, album sleeves and event invitations.
Having studied graphic design in San Francisco, Kado worked in art production in New York, before returning to his birthplace of Kyoto to learn karakami from a master studio for five years. “I see karakami not as a traditional craft, but as a classic printing technique,” says Kado. “When I was studying graphic design, the focus was firmly on solving a problem. I still find that way of thinking, of comprehending, and of seeing things, the most useful approach for my work.”
Ko Kado is drawn to the delicate, refined patterns of karakami. “The use of blank space is particularly beautiful,” he says. “When used for fusuma sliding doors or wallpaper, the pattern repeats. Therefore, the rhythm of this pattern, and the rhythm of the blank spaces, is an important aspect of the design.” He is quick to stress the supporting rather than leading role of karakami: “I feel it doesn’t come into its own until it comes together with another element. It should be something that doesn’t show off, but quietly becomes part of people’s lives.”
Kado is one of around ten masters in Japan currently practicing the craft. His work adorns Kyoto temples, tea houses, boutique hotels, and private households alike. The process involves dyeing the washi paper with a thin layer of pigment, before printing onto it with a woodblock. He creates the pigments himself, but commissions local woodworkers to produce the blocks according to his original designs. This approach is distinct from other karakami printers, who typically use inherited woodblocks from previous masters. “Because I opened my own atelier, I didn’t have any old print blocks, so all the designs I use are new for each project,” explains Kado. “The karakami printers of 400 years ago didn’t start out with print blocks either; they made them one by one after talking to their customers. Nowadays we think of them as traditional patterns, but what I do today is no different from what they did back then; I’m just doing it now.”
His designs are inspired by traditional Japanese aesthetics. “Finding beauty in imperfection – the sense of beauty being not in uniformity but in inconsistency, unevenness, blurriness, deviation, cracks, and distortions – has had a big influence on me,” he says. “When I was starting out as a craftsman, someone said to me out of the blue, ‘Don’t try to control the paper’. I took this to mean that I shouldn’t seek to always create the same beautiful paper, but rather to take the varying conditions into account, and not force the paper into anything. The washi, the paint, the water, my health, the humidity, the temperature; all these conditions under which I work can vary from day to day. I seek to embrace these inconsistencies in my designs.”