“Urushi doesn’t usually work with deadlines. It takes the time it takes, and the customer or commissioner is called when it is finished. This is an unknown date, by which time it is quite possible one has forgotten that one ordered the object…”

Charlotte York, Max Lamb in Wajima
URUSHI IS NOT ALONE, Max Lamb, 2019, Dent-de-Leone

That’s a little how I felt when we were editing and proofing the text in Urushi Is Not Alone for Dent-de-Leone. When I sometimes work with my husband, also an editor, we’re usually quite an efficient machine. I do the broad-brush edits, Nick goes through my changes, I proof and he proofs again. We are delighted if we find something the other has missed. But for some reason, our process for the urushi book was like layering fine coats of varnish on a bowl. It would not be rushed. We must have gone through it more than twenty times, re-reading the Japanese translations, finding the smallest points. Checking and polishing.

The book tells the story of designer, Max Lamb’s collaboration with urushi craftspeople in Wajima, on the western coast of Honshu, Japan. He has been working with them since 2010, and in 2019, they made a collection of furniture and objects – benches, shelves, stools, cabinets and bowls – using the urushi lacquerware technique. This involves applying layers of resin from the toxicodendron vernicifluum tree by hand to create a highly polished, hard-wearing surface. As a designer used to creating things with his own hands, it must have been a challenge for Max to submit to the careful rituals of this gradual, step-by-step process. It was worth it – the urushi subtly reveals the texture of the wood, while strengthening the material and giving it a deep, otherworldly colour and sheen.

The pieces were shown in an exhibition at Gallery Fumi in Mayfair, London in September 2019, alongside artwork by Max’s Japanese collaborators, which he selected. The accompanying book was conceived by Max, Gemma Holt and Åbäke, and published by Dent-de-Leone. It’s a tribute to a craft in decline. Incorporating the lacquerware process in the book, its bright blue cloth-bound cover was painted in black urushi resin by the wife of one of the craftspeople. The photographs show details of life in Wajima and give an intimate look inside the workshops, often cluttered, piled with materials, tools and splattered in dye and resin – a contrast to the smooth, perfect forms that are being produced.  

Urushi ‘pillow bowl’, Max Lamb, 2019

A year later, when the printed book sat on our shelf and we had long since moved on to other projects, we received a handmade box containing a beautiful purple and green urushi pillow bowl.

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