“Similar to poison ivy, contact with lacquer can induce a painful rash in some people, while others are immune.”

Suzi Shaw is a is a conservator of furniture and Asian lacquer. In ‘Layers of identity’ from Materiality: PRECIOUS she documents her obsession with Japanese lacquer, or urushi.

Urushi is a time-honoured, painstaking art. Those that master it may also suffer — the sap from the lacquer tree can cause horrible rashes, even from vapours. (There’s a clue in the tree’s Latin name: Toxicodendron vernicifluum). Such is lacquer’s importance to Japanese culture and heritage, the Japanese government has for many years bestowed on those who work with lacquer the title of Ningen Kokuhō (National Living Treasures).

“Once processed, the lacquer is applied to a prepared surface such as metal, wood or hardened leather in extremely thin layers. Each layer must harden for at least 24 hours before the next can be applied. If applied too thickly, the lacquer won’t harden. It needs both high humidity and oxygen to harden, a quirk of chemistry that is still not fully understood and continues to be studied by scientists. A basic miso soup bowl would have lacquer rubbed in to seal the wooden core, a lacquer-soaked strip of fabric applied to the rim and foot to make it more robust, a few coats of foundation (clay powder mixed with lacquer and sometimes rice paste), followed by three to six layers of pigmented lacquer polished between each application. If decoration is applied, such as gold powders sprinkled into the wet lacquer surface, then several more layers would be applied. At the other end of the scale, there are pieces built up by painstakingly applying hundreds of coats of lacquer that can then be carved, making them both heavy and valuable. High-end pieces can several years or more for a craftsman to complete.”

Read the full article in the hard copy of Materiality: PRECIOUS ($15) or download the digital version ($4.99).

Pigmented lacquer being filtered through paper to remove dust prior to use. Image by Suzi Shaw.

Pigmented lacquer being filtered through paper to remove dust prior to use. Image by Suzi Shaw.