Posted by Dave Bull at 8:05 AM, November 12, 2010 [Permalink]
November 201?. A busy street in Tokyo, on the sidewalk outside Mokuhankan (moku han kan), the woodblock printmaking shop/studio run by long-time Tokyo resident David Bull. Dave will be giving an interview today to a reporter from a media organization, and this person has just called on their cell phone to say that they are on the way from the nearby subway station. Dave has stepped outside to wait, and the guest now arrives. They exchange name cards, as tradition dictates, and today's conversation then begins ...
Dave: Thank you for coming along today; I'm glad that you could find time to visit us. Shall we go inside?
Guest: Just a minute please. Before we do I'd like to ask you about the sign!
Dave: (laughs) Yes, everybody seems to be interested in that. Here in Japan, everybody knows what a baren is for, so what better symbol could there possibly be for Mokuhankan?
Guest: Well yes, but not many of us have ever seen a three-meter wide one before! It looks a bit dangerous, hanging up there on the front of the building!
Dave: Oh, there's no danger; we made it from fiberglass, and it's quite light. Our major concern was making sure it was fastened securely enough that it would survive major storms. So far, so good ... And it certainly does its job - every person who passes down this street knows we are here, and what we do!
Anyway, please come in ... It's still early, so the shop hasn't become too busy yet. We should be able to have a good interview.
Guest: May I take photographs inside?
Dave: Sure. No problem at all. Nothing 'secret' here!
They go into the building. As they come in from the street, they enter the main 'shop'. Along one side is the counter area, and the cheery clerk busy there calls out the traditional 'Irasshaimase' greeting as they come in.
At first glance, this seems something a bit like a record shop (back when there were such things!) - browser bins made of light-coloured wood are along some of the walls, and a few customers are flipping through the items in them, now and then pulling one of the flat packages up for inspection.
On the wall above each section are some prints illustrating that category, to help people find what they might be looking for.
Dave: Well, here is the most public part of our business, the retail shop. As you can see, we have a very wide selection of prints here for viewing. They are basically organized into groups, as you can see by those signs and samples: ukiyo-e classics are of course a mainstay - landscapes, actors, beauties, etc.; next to them we have the kacho-e - the nature prints. But it's not just reproductions of old designs here; a large section over there is devoted to original work from contemporary designers who work together with our craftsmen.
Guest: It's a very attractive space, very light and airy, and so many planters! I must confess that when I heard I would be coming to visit a 'print shop' today, I had expected a kind of old and dusty used book shop!
Dave: No, nothing 'dusty' here. We might be working with a very old-fashioned technology, but we try to keep things clean and contemporary!
They walk further into the shop. Dave directs them to an area where a wide horizontal band of shoji screens takes up part of the wall at chest height. In front of this is a sloped 'shelf', and in front of this are more browser bins. A customer is pulling items from the bins one-by-one, placing them on the shelf where they are illuminated by the soft light passing through the screen.
Dave: Please take a look at this - once you understand what this is for, you will understand one of the main concepts about our business. Go ahead, pull out a print - at random if you wish - and put it on the shelf.
The guest flips through some prints, and takes out an image of a dragon bursting through the clouds, first looking at it in the package, then placing it on the angled shelf, as instructed.
Guest: Oh! Look at that! It becomes completely different once you put it down. I can see the embossing, the texture of the paper ... it's beautiful! What's happening!
Dave: It's all about the light. As I mentioned, we consider this to be the most important thing that we can show people - woodblock prints made in the traditional Japanese way are not simply 'pictures'. Of course the image content is important, but it is the whole 'object' itself that is what you really want to be looking at and drinking in.
The purpose of this shelf - with the lighting arranged behind it - is to let the print be seen in the same way that it would have been viewed back in 'the old days' - under gentle, horizontal light. Seen that way, these prints become such beautiful objects; nobody can forget this once they have seen it!
Guest: Well, if I learn nothing else today, this alone will have been worth the 'price of admission' here! (smiles)
Dave: Now you're getting it! And you know how to begin your story, don't you!
Guest: It's kind of an interesting point, but it leads me to another question - when people hang these prints up on the wall at home, surely that beauty would be lost, wouldn't it?
Dave: Yes! That's why you won't find any frames for sale here at all. We know of course that some people do purchase prints from us and have them framed. They are looking for a kind of decoration for their home, and we shouldn't complain that they have chosen one of our works. But look over here, this is how we are trying to encourage people to keep their prints.
Dave moves over to a display area against one wall. It is backed by bookshelves, and on the counter in front of the shelves are a number of small wooden boxes. Some of these have an angled stand on top, on which are placed woodblock prints.
Dave: Here are some of the ways that we recommend for print storage and display. We have albums, portfolios, and storage cases. The basic idea behind them all is that the prints should mostly be kept out of sight.
Guest: Out of sight! But what's the point in having them, then?
Dave: Well of course I don't mean permanently hidden. What we intend is that the prints not be on display all the time; any object that is in permanent view just becomes part of the 'background' - kind of like wallpaper actually - and loses its attractiveness. But if the prints are usually kept in storage, and then brought out for display and inspection on an occasional basis, either at the appropriate season, or to show a visitor, etc., they will remain fresh and interesting forever!
Guest: Ah, like in the old days, when people kept artworks in the kura storage building!
Dave: The same basic idea, but you don't need to be a wealthy landowner with a old kura; a normal bookshelf will do! Look up here on the shelf. Do you see that little wooden box among the books? Please take it down and have a look.
The guest puts down his notebook, reaches up to the shelf and pulls down the box. He's not quite sure what to do with it.
Dave: Don't worry; it's not all that fragile. Open it up ...
The guest pulls open a wooden drawer, and begins to try to figure out what this is all about. Looking at one of the other displays on the table, he understands what this must be, and over the next minute or so, succeeds in setting up the display stand, and putting one of the prints onto it.
Guest: What a clever little item! There are many prints inside, each one with some kind of explanation pamphlet, and the box converts into a display stand!
Dave: Yes. This particular set is one of our Treasure Chest series. This one has 18 prints inside, a mix of themes and images from different seasons. I see you've put a spring scene up there, but we're now in November. (they laugh) But you get the idea. This would go on a desk, a coffee table, or perhaps in a Japanese home it would be placed in the entranceway, where guests would see the print as they came in. But any particular print would not be on display all that long, and certainly not long enough to become 'stale'. You can either change for another one, or just put the whole box back onto the bookshelf, to await another occasion.
In addition to the Treasure Chests, we have many other sets of prints available. Here is one of our Surimono Albums, here is a set of classical ukiyo-e prints, the one over here is from our 'Famous Calligraphers' series, this is a set based on the haiku poetry of Matsuo Basho, and down there on that low shelf in that row of dark blue cases is our most expensive item, the complete set of 100 prints of the Hyakunin Isshu poets.
Guest: Ah yes, that's the series that you yourself made all those years ago. It took you, what, ten years, is that right?
Dave: Yes, that's correct. But my own edition was sold out a long time ago. The prints here are printed from my blocks by some of the Mokuhankan craftsmen. Instead of my original studio seal, these have our Mokuhankan embossments.
These print sets can all be purchased on a 'subscription' basis. People place an order for the set, and get the storage box along with the first print, and they then receive the rest of the prints in the set one by one at intervals after that, usually one per month. So the pleasure is extended over a year or more ... It's also common for people to buy subscriptions for friends or associates as gifts. Our many subscription series provide our main 'bread and butter'; we could never survive by selling prints one by one to random customers off the street, or on the website, but the stable income from subscriptions provides a base on which everything else can hang.
But anyway, I think you now get the point behind these cases and portfolios - our beautiful prints are for a quiet and 'slow' enjoyment.
As they turn away from the display counter they move to an 'island' in the center of the room. At one end is a modern wide screen computer, showing images of - we assume - woodblock prints.
Dave: Here's another way that you can shop for our prints - online. This computer is showing our website, where all of the prints you see in this shop can be viewed at large scale and ordered. We ship all over the world. Luckily, woodblock prints aren't so heavy, even with secure packaging, so the prices remain reasonable.
They move around the island behind the computer station, to another group of browser bins. These contain smaller prints than those we have seen so far.
Dave: This section accounts for a great deal of our business. Right from the beginning we've made it a policy to have beautiful work available at a very wide range of prices, and these smaller prints are very popular. And please note that these postcard prints are not offset printing - everything you see here is an actual woodblock print. A lot of the prints in this section are pre-packaged as Gift Prints too, with special wrapping.
At this point they are interrupted by the young clerk from behind the counter. She is carrying some kind of printed out list, and is pulling prints from the bins and putting them in trays on a rolling cart she is pushing. She apologizes to them for getting in their way ...
Dave: (speaking to her) How are this morning's orders? Was there much activity in the online shop last night?
Clerk: Pretty much an average day, I think. It's the usual mix: a lot of these small Gift Prints, a scattering of medium prints, and a few of the larger ones.
Dave: How about the 'Trainee Premium'? What percent of the orders included that?
Clerk: About half, just as usual.
Dave: (turns back to the guest as the clerk resumes her work) I guess this is as good a time as any to suggest that you take a look at the price label for one of these prints. Not your typical price tag, I think!
The guest pulls a print from the browser bin in front of them, and turns it over to inspect the price label on the back. It is indeed 'different', being quite long. One's first impression is that it looks like one of those price 'labels' you see in the window of a new car in the showroom.
At the top is the price, in large type so that it is clearly visible to the shop customers. Below that, in list form, are figures showing the amount (and percentage) that will be paid to the various craftsmen who worked on this print, along with their names. This particular print has an entry for a carver, who is being paid 15% of the retail price, and a printer, who in this case is receiving 20%.
Another entry on the list shows the actual cost of the handmade paper, with the name of the craftsman family who supplied it. But it is a special section at the bottom of the label that catches the attention of Dave's guest - the 'Trainee Premium' that had come up in the previous conversation with the clerk.
Guest: (reading from the label) "Trainee Premium: If you agree, an amount of 150 yen (5%) will be added to the purchase price of this print at the register. Revenue from this (completely optional) surcharge will be added to the fund that Mokuhankan uses to support trainees in their earliest stages, before they become apprentices, and before they are capable of producing work that can be sold." OK, I think you are going to have to explain this a bit more ...
Dave: Sure. Way back in the old days, the woodblock printmaking technique was used all over society for all kinds of work, not just 'art' stuff. So in addition to the complex printing jobs done by the experienced men, there was always a lot of very simple work to do as well: decorative wrapping papers, fancy envelopes, etc.. Jobs like that were perfect for the beginners, and provided them both with training, and with income. But these days all that kind of work is done by mechanical means (printing presses), so the whole structure of the master/apprentice system has had the underpinnings kicked out. With no work available for beginners, how on earth can they be supported during the years that it takes to get good enough to do most of the work that you see around here? We 'solve' that problem in two ways: one, we ask our clients to help out by means of this surcharge, which - as you heard - about half of them are willing to pay, and two, we actually do put some of the trainees' work out on the market. Take a look at these items over here.
Dave moves over to a nearby browser bin, and pulls out some of the prints for inspection. They are all quite simple, with relatively few colours, but quite attractive. He also shows a package of paper with a pattern printed on it - woodblock printed letter paper. The section is full of varied items: place mats, book covers, block printed wall calendars, and other similar decorative items.
Dave: Look at the prices.
Guest: (doing so) These are incredibly cheap! Just 100 yen for that calendar? Surely the paper alone must have cost that much!
Dave: Yes, I'm sure it did, perhaps more. But this is the only way to get those people trained; keep them busy at the printing benches! They certainly aren't earning much money from these simple jobs - because the prices are so low - but they are learning, and at the same time getting satisfaction from producing something useful. The income from this work, combined with the revenue from the Trainee Premium surcharges, which we put toward their base salary, keeps them afloat. As time goes by, and they get more skilled, we start to assign them printing jobs for our normal products - working in tandem with experienced printers - and they then become Apprentices.
Guest: I don't quite understand the difference between a Trainee and an Apprentice.
Dave: Best way to explain that is to go and meet some of them. Let's head upstairs to the workroom!
(Part one of five. The series continues in part two.)